Monday, May 25, 2015

Engleish, our Engleish

I found a fascinating little grammar book at our local library called, 'Engleish, our Engleish: Common errors in South African English and how to resolve them' (The title has a little joke within it - 'eish' is used to express disbelief, surprise or exasperation.)

Apart from being a general English grammar reference book, there are a few very interesting chapters:

  • No 'Afringlish', please, we're British
  • English as influenced by speakers of our indigenous African tongues
  • 'Pickle fish' and 'corn beef'; our past participles are getting the chop
As I've mentioned on my blog a few times, South Africa has 11 national languages and probably South African Sign Language is the unofficial 12th language. Officially everything (road signs, government publications etc.) is supposed to be made available in all 11 languages. But from what I can see and experience there is still much power being abused through language use (or disuse). In the Western Cape everything is available in English, lots of things in Afrikaans and some things in Xhosa. In other areas languages like Zulu are more prominent. Generally though, English is the language that wields the most power.

The book is an insight into the need and desire that so many South Africans have to use English well. But of course the beauty of South African English lies in its depth and richness from influences from languages like Afrikaans and other African languages.

Given that we have lived here for nearly four years it's natural that we've picked up quite a few South African English vocabulary items and use them everyday. We regularly say, 'Ja', 'Izzit', 'Howzit' and 'must' instead of 'should'. But what I didn't realise was that we had also picked up a few other things like saying, 'stay' instead of 'live' (e.g. 'I stay in Muizenberg.') and, 'to come with' rather than 'to come along' (e.g. 'Please come with'). I get frustrated when I make silly copula mistakes and say things like, 'You is...' In Afrikaans there are different rules regarding subject/verb agreement and strangely this has carried over when talking to Shiri at times. I suppose it's not because I have learnt much Afrikaans (I haven't!) but because she is still working out singular/plural agreement and I hear it being misused nearly every day by people whose first language is Afrikaans.

(This excerpt from a radio show has examples of a few funny Afrikaans influences on English. The example, 'I is wearing a jean pant' is not beyond the realm of possibility when speaking to an Afrikaner!)

At George Whitefield College all teaching is done in English and this can be quite frustrating for students and also for the faculty as they try to translate students' essays and exams come marking time. It can be hard to determine the difference between a student not understanding the material or just not being able to express themselves clearly in English. But one thing I never tire of is listening to all the different accents and picking up why and how English is pronounced depending on the students' linguistic backgrounds. Often syllable stress is just a little off which can make a word completely nonsensical but other times it just sounds so African! Syllable stress is different in other languages and are usually more predictable e.g. in most Bantu languages the penultimate syllable is pronounced. Some examples that you might hear around our neighbourhood:

'circumstances' rather than 'circumstances' or 'deficit' rather than 'deficit'

I loved reading this list from page 28. I could hear the differences in my head and I literally smiled.

'Elongating conventionally short vowel sounds involving making -e, -i, -ea, -ie, -ee, and shortening conventionally long vowel sounds in English, which affects meaning:

Elongation of short vowel                               
Shortening of long vowel
fan fern markets mukits
fed fared assert asset
descent decend cheap chip
bit beat, beet scream scrim
bidding beading feedback fiedbeck
dip deep sheet shit
hit heat heel hill
sit seat weakened weekend
hut heart bird bed
burger beggar
burned banned
buyers bias
court caught, cot

Reflecting on my language use, what I hear around me and what my children are producing is a confusing activity. Will my children think my English is fossilized (that is, my English is will represent Australian English in 2011 and won't develop any further) and will my attempts at South African English sound out of place to them (like my Filipino mum saying 'G'day, mate')? What will happen to South African English as more and more people who have English as their second or third language come into positions of power and influence in society and politics? Will I always be able to hear the differences between South African English and Australian English or are they starting to meld together? Today I was asked if maybe I was from another country since I had a 'slight accent'. 'Slight'??!!!