The politics of the queen's English

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela

I once unfollowed a longtime school friend on Facebook for being an early adopter of what is now known as the “Bbz” (Babes or Bubsies) language on Black Twitter, a wy of wrtng tht fux wth th langwaj of da colonizer. I remember smugly writing about this in 2011 or 2012 during my early years of column writing at the Mail & Guardian.

Years later, another friendship was threated by Zahara’s then “illogical’’ English lyrics in the song Destiny, in which the singer emotively sings “Everything may be rushing on me/ Everything may be too slow on me/ But I will be here holding it down/ I know where I am going’’.

That friend tried but couldn’t convince me that Zahara’s English was perfectly fine, that non-English speakers all over the world butcher the language and that they add their own patois or pidgin spice to it as a form of owning it.

And then something else happened recently, probably during my third phase of wokeness, past the recovery stages of phases one and two, which are just hot mpamas (slaps) on your entire life to wake you up to the fact that you’ve been in a slumber.

The self-congratulatory naivety of these two stages is not to be underestimated.

Just because you’ve read a few things, you think you’ve done the work of unlearning the habits of being culturally, spiritually, linguistically and physically colonised. Please. I was a problem.

I was relatively woke but in reality, I was yet to awaken and address the deep-seated corrective coloniser in me. I was superficially aware of my class privilege but was oblivious to the idea that I was exerting my power in conversations with people around me.

I corrected a friend of mine for saying “you dranked my juice’’ .

His response tore me and my tendency to correct his command of English, a language he did not like, to much needed shreds.

“The point is, you heard what I had to say, didn’t you?’’ he asked.

He was right, I had understood him. He said I should ask myself why I was so bent on perfecting this language when everything I did was an effort to decant myself of whiteness.

I’ve been thinking about what he said and I’m certainly still stuck in the sauce as a writer, I appreciate the rules of grammar and language, but I am working on changing my relationship to English now, confronting its power over how I see and exist in the world. If I’m going to use it as is, I need to take ownership of it in a way that suits the conditions of my wokeness.

These are the conversations my peers and I are having as a form of decolonising the written English word.

We’re debating whether we should italicise indigenous languages in our articles and losing the Vanity Fair style of profile interviews.

We’re also concerned about telling stories in a way that more people, regardless of their level of education, can relate to and about consistently using narrative as a form of honouring the role of language in a society.

We want to write the everyday stories of people, using words that are being developed develop as a result of the early stages of the internet-propelled decolonisation of everything, words like fallism and woke.

We are rethinking the spelling of words as a tool to antagonise the powers.

My father wrote more than 40 Xhosa books and while I read some of them in high school, I struggle to read his fascinating stories with ease today because I don’t speak the Umhlobo Wenene Xhosa that I wish I could speak. That’s another issue because most of us are bilingual.

So in this clumsy space between the English that got me a nice job and my Xhosa, which is a corroding heirloom inside my head, how do I engage with the politics of language?

Even though the Bbz language has been used to clap back at powerful people like Ferial Haffajee or Helen Zille on Twitter, there are many people for whom it is the way they spell words because they are nowhere near getting master’s degrees to show when it’s time for code-switching and speaking “good” English.

This issue also deserves attention when we speak about intersectionality.

Ilmbali, a new regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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