Youth shape the way we communicate
In 2005 a blog post surfaced on the internet titled "Let's make tsotsitaal the national language". The blog, written by Walton Pantland, generated so much interest it was nominated Best Post on a South African blog in 2007 by the South African Blog awards.
The argument discussed the unifying quality of the tsotsitaal phenomenon – how it is made up of parts of many South African languages, notably isiZulu, English and Afrikaans – and how tsotsitaal gets embedded in the dominant language of a particular place or communicative event.
Pantland argued that tsotsitaal is surely a better choice than English, or even isiZulu, for the role of unifying language.
"We need a tongue that expresses our commonality rather than our differences, an urban language forged in the streets and factories. So let's make tsotsitaal the national language," he said.
In 2009, the late Neville Alexander, well known for his language policy initiatives as director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa and a member of the provincial subcommittee of the Pan South African Language Board, the Western Cape Language Committee, recorded a petition on tsotsitaal submitted to the language board by members of the public to similar effect.
Several years later, the argument still resurfaces in one form or another, such as in the debates following the basic education department's recent announcement that African languages would become compulsory in the school curriculum.
So, is the request to be taken seriously?
My immediate response would be no. Tsotsitaal can barely be considered a "language". Recent work of my own and of various other authors working in the field suggests that it is basically a slang style, set in whichever national language the speaker knows.
But it also depends on how you define tsotsitaal. There are versions that use a lot of slang, but then there are also more accessible urban styles of African languages such as urban isiZulu and urban isiXhosa, which sometimes use tsotsitaal-style vocabulary.
Language purists would shudder in horror at the thought that any of these "corrupt" forms of national languages could be taken seriously. The effect of urbanisation, and related factors such as electronic communications, on the standard forms of national languages such as Sesotho or Setswana has, in their opinion, already caused significant deterioration in the standard of languages young South Africans use. Young people neglect their grammar, take shortcuts, choose English words over their African equivalents, and mix and switch with abandon.
Young people the world over play with language and invent words, but the question is whether this has a permanent effect on language in today's complex urban societies. My answer is: Of course it does. Language has always changed, and we have no right to stop it.
In fact, if we tried to arrest the evolution of language, we would end up with a dry, dead thing. I'm from England, but it does not upset me that we're not still speaking "Shakespearean" English – which was once the closest to "standard" that English had.
Standardisation is, historically, a relatively new concept, and it has to be flexible enough to allow for languages to live and change. New dictionary entries are added every year as new coinages occur and become popular. To freeze African languages in a particular moment of time and prevent their evolution is one way to ensure they will be marginalised.
I would go even further and argue that the languages taught in schools need to be reconsidered and updated in the light of the "less standard" languages that many young people are growing up speaking in South Africa today. If we are not careful, Xhosa-speaking children born in Cape Town will in effect find themselves learning in a language that is foreign to them – as foreign as Shakespeare was to me – if the isiXhosa "standard" is not allowed to grow with its speakers.
That said, there are limits to how flexible we should be with allowances for language change. The question of whether tsotsitaal should be a national language comes back to the question of how to characterise it. On one end of the tsotsitaal spectrum, it is constituted as a deep slang, with many words that are invented to exclude people who are not in the inner circle.
Those people are often delimited along the lines of age and gender – in other words, older people and women are less likely to know the most recent tsotsitaal slang. How could we accept as a national language something that excludes women, the older generation and very young children – in total more than half the population?
However, on the other end of the spectrum – and I think the petition Alexander fielded to consider tsotsitaal as a national language related to the milder, more accessible versions of it – the "less formal" versions of national languages are perhaps deserving of more consideration, in terms of how languages are evolving in modern South Africa.
As Pantland wrote of tsotsitaal: "There is enough commonality for people to understand each other even if they don't know each other's main language."
At some level, even if only in terms of vocabulary, South African languages appear to be moving closer together and, as language is the mirror of culture, this can only be a good thing for the country.
Dr Ellen Hurst is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Cape Town, based in the humanities education development unit. The African Urban and Youth Language Conference in Cape Town on July 5 and 6 will discuss tsotsitaal and urban youth languages. For more details, go to auyl2013.co.za.