Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Click, click, click

We bought our daughter, Shiri, a few alphabet books. I was struck when browsing alphabet books that the examples chosen by the author would not be the same as what I would choose. The books we we had bought were Africa focused which are of course different from the Australian focused alphabet books I grew up with e.g 'K is for kangaroo' etc. 

What I really found strange was the example for the letter 'X'. The example given is 'Xhosa woman'. I really struggled to understand how this was an appropriate example for this particular letter. As far as I can make out, this book is focused on giving uniquely South African examples for the letters of the alphabet but the alphabet used is the English alphabet. When I read the word 'Xhosa' I read it with the Xhosa pronunciation i.e with a lateral click at the beginning of the word. When the word is used as a loan-word or a borrowed word into English, the word is pronounced more like /'ko:sĘŚ/. 

So I was confused. This word, in English, seemed like a better example for the letter 'K' than 'X'. But why was this word even in an English alphabet book? 'Xhosa' isn't an English word. It's a Xhosa word. The letter 'X' doesn't represent the same sound in English and Xhosa. 

I can only assume that this book isn't really trying to be a piece of genuine English educational material but a small insight into the cultural and linguistic diversity in South Africa. In South Africa there are 11 national languages. I live my life primarily in English but have some interactions in Afrikaans but they are limited to just greetings. It's the same for me with Xhosa. But for the majority of South Africans each day is made up of multiple multilingual interactions and actually the far majority is at least bilingual. I have found that most English speakers will pronounce the word 'Xhosa' with a /k/ rather than attempt the click. I can understand the reticence to attempt a foreign consonant but at the same time I do wonder how much this reticence reveals an underlying issue of language status and power. 

It's a funny thing that even though the majority of South African speak Zulu, English is the language of education and government. Most people, like I said above, are at least bilingual but being bilingual in Swazi and Tswana isn't going to get you as far as if you were bilingual in English and Afrikaans. 

I think my discomfort with this example in a children's alphabet book is that it's a deliberate choice to subvert the Xhosa pronunciation and replace it with an English pronunciation of a Xhosa word. I don't find it to be a cute cultural observation but an acute observation of language prestige. It seems like English is presented as superior to Xhosa.