English has stolen from too many cultures to count

The greatest indignity I felt as a child was being denied permission to borrow more than five books at a time. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The greatest indignity I felt as a child was being denied permission to borrow more than five books at a time. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

If language is wine upon the lips, as Virginia Woolf once told her husband over a bottle of Blue Nun, English in SA must be a bottle of Tassenberg: a blight upon the tongue, to some; to others, a luxury. And enough of it should see you all the way through varsity.

English has always been a bastard tongue, stealing and ­stolen from too many cultures to count. Frankensteined on a faraway island from the blood and phlegm of wave upon wave of foreign invaders, it fed first on the words of its oppressors, then their ambitions. And then it escaped, and set about the ­business of empire.

English had exhausted itself of its colonial ambitions by the time it found me, and was in the process of being sold off for parts.

In honour of Youth Day the M&G has published a series of takes on all our official languages. Read the rest here.

Growing up in the Eighties I was vaguely aware that the only language I knew was only grudgingly tolerated by the establishment as a necessary nuisance. Had you suggested that there were nine or more other languages that were decidedly worse off in South Africa, I’d have laughed (politely, always politely) and then run off to see if I could find the simulcast dub for Rabobi on Radio 2000.

But that was the business of the outside world, and for the longest time the English language and the fictions it has proved so good at conjuring served to insulate me from any of the harsher realities that waited rather literally just beyond the doorstep: The house I grew up in in Port Elizabeth was barely a hop, skip and a jump away from where Steve Biko was detained by the security police before being tortured and taken to Pretoria to die. Of any of this I had not even the slightest inkling, in my insulated world. The police station itself barely registered; more important was the library across the road. The greatest indignity I felt as a child was being denied permission to borrow more than five books at a time.

Even so, the library’s shelves were finite, and as I grew older, the supply of new books began to run out, and when the 1990s arrived, so too did high school, and a much wider, much more ­confusing world. English was ­suddenly no longer the language of fantasy and escape. English was now the language of change! Of history! And democracy! Please don’t mention the empire!

It’s been fascinating to see English become the nation’s cultural polyfiller. The second choice of millions of South Africans. The highest common factor or the lowest common denominator, depending on the weather. Either way, the language of compromise.

It’s been less heartening to see how the language itself has been compromised on the wider world stage of the internet, and through txtspk, and infiltrated by so much subcultural jargon that even the most respectable of lexicographers can be reduced to fisticuffs over the preferred spelling of this word or that. But such is the nature of English, I suppose. Resisting change until there’s no other option but to consume it entirely.

Matthew du Plessis

Matthew du Plessis

Matthew du Plessis is the Mail & Guardian's managing editor, and chairs the Adamela Trust, an NGO that administers journalism fellowships. He writes on science, technology and culture. Read more from Matthew du Plessis

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