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Unpack baggage of language


The baggage that goes with linguistic choice often recalls the bad experiences. Invariably, unfortunate myths take root.

File picture: Pixabay

One of the major hurdles in our reach for a united South Africa is language. We should adjust the way language is perceived and, ultimately, used. When we engage with the issue of language, we refer, of course, to its modalities of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

For the purposes of this column I will assume that English features in the lives of most citizens, by choice or prescription. Unfortunately, there’s a narrative that accompanies the choice.

The observation of Abdulrazak Gurnah, a commentator on writing in English by black people, bears scrutiny. “The debate on the use of European languages is a necessary and important one, opening up complex issues of understanding and affiliation.”

It’s normal to respond to language in terms of life experience. The baggage that goes with linguistic choice often recalls the bad experiences. Invariably, unfortunate myths take root.

For example, Germans are good mechanics, the French are great lovers, Afrikaans is the language of oppression, Latin and Greek remain at the top of the academic linguistic ladder.

One counter to this is my take on German. We recall with sadness the narrative of World War II and its unfortunate revelations. But refusing to buy a Mercedes-Benz on these grounds alone borders on a knee-jerk reaction.

Similarly, with our home-grown languages. In South Africa there is still some resistance to the black languages, in my case because the encryption remains Eurocentric.

We also have a large section of the population in the Western Cape who learn and use Arabic.

It’s unfortunate that this language evokes pictures of turbaned men with bombs strapped around their midriffs. I also recall that the option of kamikaze death was singularly Japanese.

Clearly there’s a need to change the agency of language. It shouldn’t be only a statement of national identity.

I feel that language should be studied as a subject. By that I mean that one doesn’t have to buy into the national ethos – often called cultural baggage – of the language of communication.

The ultimate choice of language should be to facilitate success in society on all levels. If this means accessing the global marketplace, it makes sense to reconsider one’s choices.

I’m not advocating a particular language. My preference for English is not a guideline or prescription.

One can access “meaning” without sacrificing one’s national identity. Language is an access point, an agent of communication.

That means one should acknowledge the various levels of reception. Tweets that categorise or stereotype tend to make language a weapon. It can be that, but it needn’t be.

We still have choices outside our demonstrated preference. We just need to hear what the other person is saying. Clarity refines the responses that are elicited.