Mapping linguistic communication across colour divides: Black Afrikaans in Central South Africa

Project Details


Despite having been constitutionally scaled down since 1994, Afrikaans still functions as a lingua franca in diverse parts of rural and urban South Africa. It is the natural lingua franca in those rural regions of the Western and Northern Cape where it is the dominant native language. It is also the dominant lingua franca of the central part of South Africa, comprising the Free State and Northwest provinces, where the dominant native languages are respectively seSotho and seTswana, both genetically closely related and intercomprehensible Bantu languages spoken by Blacks. As a native language, Afrikaans is in those provinces mainly carried by White and Coloured minorities, which are mainly concentrated in urban centres. As a lingua franca, it is spoken by mainly L1 seSotho and seTswana-speakers, and is as such commonly referred to as 'Black Afrikaans/Swart Afrikaans'. The ethnic diversity of these populations that use Afrikaans for daily interaction induces a diversity of Afrikaans varieties which so far has not been subject to thorough research. Research projects have yielded some insight into the L2 Black Afrikaans varieties with a Sotho background, as well as the varieties of Afrikaans used by native White Afrikaans speakers in interaction with Blacks in general. Strikingly, those respective varieties have been researched in isolation from one another, and it is therefore not clear in how far pragmatic contexts impact on linguistic norms of multiethnic conversation between L1 and L2-speakers of Afrikaans. The research I carried out from late 2004 to this day revolves around the in-group dimension of native Afrikaans ethnic varieties. In other words, it focussed on Afrikaans as a mother tongue as spoken in in-group communication contexts. With such restrictions, my research could not claim to chart that vast non-native Afrikaans language reality in which native speakers of Bantu languages use their L2 Afrikaans varieties in their contact with other ethnic groups. Nowadays, most of the interethnic communication via L2 Afrikaans varieties takes place between Black South Africans, or between Black South Africans and Whites or Coloureds. In the current South African context where interethnic power relations are being redefined, it is necessary to obtain a representation of how ethnic groups, in particular the Black group, linguistically interact in accordance with the pragmatic context of the exchange. Interethnic communication processes typically involve accomodation, i. e. concurrent dynamics of upward convergence and downward divergence by which the native target is tentatively approximated or deviated from in the interest of maximal intercomprehensibility in contexts where the prestige norm is obviously not equally accessible across the ehnic divide. In concurrence with accomodation, interetnic communication may also involve a measure of exclusion, by which ethnic solidarity finds expression through creating linguistic barriers, signalling the idea of ethnic distance to the outgroup, or isolating the ingroup from outgroup interference. This research project aims to describe the process of interethnic communication as it takes place in the urban settings of Bloemfontein, capital of the Free State and main urban centre of central South Africa, by examining the linguistic behaviour of Black residents (mainly seSotho speakers) in interaction with themselves, or local Coloureds and Whites (the latter two groups forming more than one third of the population). This project builds on the model of Labov's experiments with Black American English in interaction with White American English and partly following the methodology experimented with by Bell and Johnson (1997) in New Zealand: By informally confronting groups of speakers from three generational groups on like and unlike ethnicity (namely Black-to-Black, Black-to-Coloured and Black-to-White), it is hoped to obtain a representative insight into linguistic accomodation and exclusion between respectively L2 Afrikaans-speaking Blacks and L1 Afrikaansspeaking Whites, and L2 Afrikaans-speaking Black and L1 Afrikaans-speaking Coloureds. The information that could be yielded by that study can be broken down into several theoretical dimensions. From the viewpoint of historical linguistics, a cross-generational study of Black Afrikaans amounts to a study of evolutionary trends at work in the most underdocumenetd variety of Afrikaans, which, quite ironically, forms in terms of numbers the largest variety of Afrikaans, spoken with different degrees of fluency by an estimated 15 million. Afrikaans being an artificial label applied to Dutch varieties which started to spread throughout central South Africa as early as the early 19th century, what is called 'Black Afrikaans' can be rightfully considered the most widespread Dutch creole or Dutch-based lingua franca in the world, and there is little doubt that its study deserves to be placed on an equal footing with that of the Surinamese varieties of Dutch as nowadays actively promoted by the Nederlandse Taalunie, and, more generally, that of Creole and contact languages. From the viewpoint of pragmatic studies, a study of Black Afrikaans as a context-determined linguistic variable could provide a representation of the functionality of not only Afrikaans, but also inevitably seSotho and English in ingroup and outgroup contexts among the main ethnic groups of central South Africa, for which these languages, too, form part of the daily language reality. Particularly interesting is the question in how far these languages emerge in the Afrikaans spoken by Blacks, in other words whether a form of Afrikaans with strong Sotho/English influence is characteristic of exchanges between Blacks and Coloureds, while a more 'conservative' form of Afrikaans prevails in exchanges between Blacks and Whites. Where does Afrikaans stop and Sotho or English begin in the interaction within and between groups, is thus one of the questions that could be answered, offering a radically new perspective on Afrikaans as a multiethnic contact language, on which so far only pragmatically underdocumented unidimensional representations exist. From an ethnographic point of view, a study of the strategies of linguistic accomodation and exclusion can serve to map communication across the colour divide. Is linguistic variation in interethnic conversation accompanied by a variation in topics, discourse-marking and attitudes? In this respect, a representation of Black to White/Coloured communication via Black Afrikaans can provide a case in point, stimulating further research on interethnic communication in colour-sensitive areas of the Third World such as South America and the Caribbean. A study of Black Afrikaans in Bloemfontein's interethnic context has been found politically correct by those local agencies dealing with the promotion of seSotho, in so far as mapping the use of Afrikaans by Black residents in both outgroup and ingroup contexts can offer insights into the limitations of the functionality of seSotho, and thus suggest guidelines in seSotho corpus planning in the interest of the Free State's official trilingual seSotho/Afrikaans/English language policy. The University of Antwerp has also found a study of Black Afrikaans as a pragmatically variable linguistic entity directly relevant to the MIDP project ('Multilingualism from Below) which it has been carrying out. Finally, it has been found of critical economic interest by South Africa's leading Afrikaans publishing company, Naspers, currently seeking to reach larger numbers of Black readers via multilingual products. This research project can rely on the technical assistance at various levels of the University of the Free State's Department of African Languages, the Department of Afrikaans of the University of Stellenbosch as well as of the Pan South African Language Board.
Effective start/end date1/10/0830/09/14

Flemish discipline codes

  • Languages and literary studies