Getting to grips with our languages

| September 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

Ask people what language is spoken in France – the answer: French.

Germany? German. Now let’s go to South Africa: how do we answer this question? South African? Hmmm. Like some of our civil servants, it just doesn’t work. We know we have 11 official languages… but what are they exactly and where are they spoken? Is the Zulu spoken in KwaZulu-Natal the same as that of Joburg? If I hear a word in Sotho and look it up in a Sotho dictionary, will be I sure to find it there? Is Venda being vandalised? What is the predicament of Pedi? Can you swot Swati? Is Xhosa becoming so mixed with English we can really only refer to it as ‘Xhosa-Lite’? And what about the influence of SMS texting on African languages – 8ta cc! (Heyta sisi! Hello sister!)

Digging signage in Diepsloot This language lark in South Africa is hugely attractive to linguists, but I don’t think any of them (or us) have yet dug deep (or diep) in one of South Africa’s most linguistically diverse townships – Diepsloot.

In case you have never been there, Diepsloot is a township in the north of Johannesburg with a population of nearly 50 000 people, according to the 2001 census (it has probably tripled by now). The same census shows that North Sotho (Pedi) is the dominant language (30% of the population), followed by Zulu (20.1%), then Tswana (11.9%), Tsonga (10.1%) and interestingly a large percentage of ‘other’ languages (27.9%). In an article entitled ‘Making do in Diepsloot’, journalist Mbhazima Lesego waka’Ngobeni says:

Welcome to Diepsloot, a sprouting settlement populated by resilient migrants and immigrants, making up a cosmopolitan community. Conditions are appalling and most locals live in abject poverty. The colloquial language is a concoction of Sepedi, Zulu and Sotho.1 (My emphasis.)

Fascinated by Diepsloot’s linguistic diversity and Anton Harber’s excellent book on the place2, I decided to visit this ‘tower of Babel’ township and take photographs of the signs displayed there. I love signage because it gives you an insight into people’s conceptions of language. It’s a little voyeuristic too, because even though they are on public display, township signs are the result of private musings, personal struggles, individual aspirations and particular, unmediated language capabilities.

Acoustic English Talking of aspiration, it is clear that, although not listed as a language of Diepsloot, English is the language favoured to sell the concept of a better, more sophisticated life. It is sometimes perfect, sometimes shaky, and sometimes downright cryptic.

Take these examples of acoustic spelling (spelling something the way you hear or pronounce it) and see if you can work out what services are being offered and for whom.

Of course the sawing by the taller man is sewing by a tailor and creach is not referring to Papa John, the blues violinist, but a day care centre. While wats to some are Cambodian monasteries or West African time, the wats here is read with ‘up’ and refers to ages upwards of three months.

Jan Blommaert refers to this kind of literacy as a “‘hetero-graphy’, the deployment of literacy techniques and instruments in ways that do not respond to institutional orthographic norms but that nevertheless are not completely chaotic, even if such chaos appears to be the most conspicuous feature”.3

Official signage in Diepsloot is in English. It is not chaotic, even though sometimes chaos would be the expected outcome! Note how in Picture 3 the little figure about to be engulfed by a wave does not shout in Zulu or Sotho ‘Ngisize!’ or ‘Nthuse!’ – just ‘Help!’ Maybe only English speakers in Diepsloot need (or expect) help when a flood hits. Sotho, Pedi, Zulu, Tsonga, Venda, Tswana and Zulu speakers just calmly accept their fate and drown without a peep.

Food sounds better in ‘African’

Back to nonofficial signage: when it comes to selling certain foodstuffs, like tripe, then only African languages can make your mouth really water:

Nyama yathlogo – meat of the head (nyama is meat in Nguni languages and Tsonga; thlogo is Tswana and Pedi for head).

Maotwana – Pedi, Tswana, Sotho: little chicken feet.

Dibete – Pedi, Tswana, Sotho: chicken livers.

Ditlhogwana – Pedi, Tswana, Sotho: little chicken heads.

Malana – Pedi, Tswana, Sotho: intestines of chicken, smaller animals.

Dikilana – Pedi, Tswana, Sotho: chicken gizzards.

Melelana – Pedi, Tswana, Sotho: small chicken necks (molala – big neck).

Once we’ve scoffed some delicious traditional fare, we may just pop into a local shop for some performance-enhancing muti. You don’t need to be all coy about it and make a secret appointment with your doctor. No, in Diepsloot, shops paint themselves yellow and all but shout out, “Come to us to stock up on your leromo lamadi (spear of the blood = muti), intlamba zifo (washer-off of diseases) and that cure-all, nomakanjani (no matter what = a multipurpose muti).”

So are these the only things advertised in African languages? No, taverns and fast-food shops generally have Nguni and Sotho names like Entokozweni (Zulu for ‘at the delight/excitement’), Phomolong (Sotho for ‘place of rest’) and Phuthaditjaba (phutha is a Sotho verb meaning ‘bring together’ while ditjaba is Sotho and Tswana for ‘nations’).

The schools in Diepsloot are also given African language names, but when there is a motto, it is not a beautiful Pedi proverb but a rather a pragmatic English maxim (for example, ‘Education for self-reliance’).

Sign of the times I wonder what message this sends to the youth of Diepsloot? Your school has an African language name but its motto is in English. Does it suggest that you can name things in your language but English contains all wisdom? Or maybe it is just pragmatic. It is probably safe to assume that most Diepsloot schoolchildren will not know African language proverbs, steeped as they are in metaphor and allusion. There is no time to teach them when their futures depend on knowing English and maths.

Finally, it is gratifying to look at the graffiti in Diepsloot. It is not rude or offensive. In fact, is generally quite considerate and civil – and mostly in English. But sometimes, just sometimes, you will find evidence of that mysterious ‘other’ language statistic – which could include Xhosa. I am not even sure if you can call this injunction in Picture 9 graffiti because it is really just a warning (in Xhosa): ‘Don’t lean’. The owners of the informal dwelling probably got fed up with people leaning against their dwelling after a night of heavy drinking.

Telling signs

But maybe we also need to face realities. My research into Diepsloot signage reveals that people choose English when they want to advertise products that have to do with technology, commerce and education. They use African languages for herbal medicines, traditional cuisine and branding themselves (hence African language names for schools, day care centres, bars, tuck shops and supermarkets), but English in order to give out real information.

Could it be that we are getting closer to Kopano Matlwa’s prophecy that “African languages will one day become an arbitrary subject offered at universities, studied only by the eccentric bead lover and a few curious others”?4 I don’t know – but the signs are there.


1. See

2. Harber, A. (2011) Diepsloot. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.

3. Blommaert, J., Muyllaert, N., Huysmans, M. and Dyers, C. (2005) ‘Peripheral normativity: Literacy and the production of locality in a South African township school’, Linguistics and Education, 16(4).

4. Matlwa, K. (2007) ‘Call me a coconut but African tongues are destined for obscurity’, Sunday Times (South Africa). Available at:

Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2012

About the Author ()

News posts added for Independent Education by Global Latitude DMA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *