We know South Africa has 11 official languages. At times, we use it as a way to stick our tongue out at the rest of the world and say this diversity is why we’re better than you.
But not all languages are treated equally in our country’s media, despite the many black readers we have. Pick up most South African English newspapers or magazines and you will find they have words in black South African languages italicised to indicate they are from a language that is not English.
Style guides are crucial to publications, and at times they are a reflection of society. The Associated Press regularly changes its style guide – the bible of all style guides – to be more in tune with a developing consciousness of language to do with race, gender and the LBGTI (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transsexual and intersex) community.
Language has always been at the centre of debate when it comes to equality in South Africa. It was there when Hector Pieterson’s body was buried in Soweto, when our national anthem was pieced together, and now when the reconciliation dream has faded and black South Africans are finding more platforms on which to speak out against their marginalisation.
The representation of language in the media has repercussions beyond simply providing news. The way we, as journalists, editors, copywriters or any media workers, write stories have the power to normalise certain identities while still othering people whose mother tongues are not English.
The Mail & Guardian editorial team recently discussed whether words from the South African languages other than English should appear in italics in our pages. A concern about online readers outside South Africa emerged. Would they stick around if words they didn’t recognise were meshed into the text?
We have to respect our readers’ ability to think for themselves. Anyone outside South Africa reading South African news must have an interest in our people, country and cultures, and can deduce that words with which they are unfamiliar are uniquely South African.
Online publication, drawing in an international audience, is also an opportunity for readers to become more knowledgeable about South African languages. Even Google uses isiXhosa. Digital tools provide help. In some cases placing your cursor over a word brings up a translation. But, at the same time, we have to respect the fact that not all words or idioms can be translated to English.
Last year, when Nomvula Mokonyane said, “Re tlo thiba ka dibono”, various publications mistranslated the idiom and furore erupted. The Sepedi idiom cannot be directly translated into English, but loosely it means “We will defend [Zuma] with our all”. Certain media attempted direct translation, publishing “We will defend [Zuma] with our buttocks”.
Commentators wrote about the importance of understanding black South African languages, but few strides have been made. News media run opinion pieces about the importance of black South African languages but fail to place black South African languages in ordinary text.
Italicising words distances these languages from their place of belonging in South Africa. The media has the power to influence the way people read – it can introduce them to words and languages that are still treated as inferior.
Italics may seem to be merely cosmetic, but their use for non-English languages in South Africa indicates that these languages are not seen as fully part of South African discourse.
But an English-language publication can still be English without treating black languages as though they are an alien species. Black people are, after all, our country’s majority.
IsiZulu is South Africa’s most widely spoken first language, according to the 2011 census, with 11.6-million speakers. IsiXhosa is second and Afrikaans third. English is a distant fourth, with only 4.9-million speakers. But, still, English has become normalised for many South Africans.
Afrikaans, too, goes in italics in many English-language publications. But, for many people of every race, Afrikaans is a mother tongue, whether it be kombuis Afrikaans or suiwer Afrikaans.
Although Afrikaans doesn’t carry the same privilege as English, it is still compulsory at many schools in a country in which nine other languages – all black – are treated as simply an option.
The politics of inclusion and exclusion run deep, and debates about language are usually heated enough to pop blood vessels. Some words, such as muthi and gogo, have already shrugged off their italics because they are considered to have been absorbed into South African English.
But to whom have these words become sufficiently familiar to lose their italics? Who decides to drop the italics? Who are we waiting for to be comfortable with such words?
We the media shouldn’t treat black South African languages as an optional extra, because that means we are treating our black writers and readers as different from English mother-tongue speakers.
• The Mail & Guardian has taken the decision to stop italicising words and phrases in South African languages.