Migration, language & social change: Language as a means of bringing people together

Professor Rajend Mesthrie, SARChI Chair in Migration, Language and Social Change Linguistics, Faculty of Humanities, University of Cape Town

Professor Mesthrie’s Chair is based on the significance of sociolinguistics in understanding heritage, culture and social change in a multilingual society, one in which migration has been a salient feature. Sociolinguistics offers the tools to examine interactions between speakers of different languages and to examine sensitively the degree of social change occurring in society.

While language can be used as a tool of domination, it can also be used to bring people together and to afford them new opportunities. Migration is treated in the broadest sense, involving cross-border or trans-national migration, internal migration from rural to urban areas, as well as a kind of ‘social migration’ out of the former apartheid townships for black people into the ‘suburbs’, or even a daily trek from black township to ex-model-C school and back.

One completed sub-project on accents and social change was published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics (2010). It focuses on deracialisation in South Africa and the changing nature of multilingualism amongst middle-class youth. In particular it examines the role of accents in reflecting and sustaining new identities in which race is de-emphasized (but class is magnified).

Professor Mesthrie and his graduate students employ state of the art, computer-generated acoustic analyses of accent (via sound waves of our voices) as well as detailed investigations of speaker’s social backgrounds and attitudes in the sociological tradition. Other sub-projects relate to sociolinguistic changes amongst the working classes, in response to urbanization and the new media of globalisation.

Professor Ana Deumert leads a sub-project on how urban isiXhosa speakers are modernizing the language in the age of SMS and Facebook. Dr. Ellen Hurst leads a sub-project on language creation (Tsotsitaal) in the townships. Doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows are working on linguistic adaptations of Central and West African migrants in Cape Town.

Finally, Professor Mesthrie published a Dictionary of South African Indian English in 2010, detailing the linguistic creativity of one former migrant community of long standing in the country. His work on the Indian diaspora is of great interest globally, and forms, for example, a third of a course on this topic at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement

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