South Africa is a uniquely diverse country, and this diversity manifests itself linguistically through its English dialect. The country’s English has roots in British English; therefore, it is non-rhotic meaning the letter “r” is pronounced when it starts a word (eg. really), when it comes after the first letter (eg. try) and in certain words if it precedes a vowel (eg. fairy). In all other words it has a neutral pronunciation and cannot be heard (eg. sort sounds like sought). But despite these similarities to British English, the true quirks and idiosyncrasies of South African linguistics lie in its array of colourful accents, slang and borrowings from other native languages.
Consequently, this essay will explore variations of the English language observed by Coloured South Africans living in Cape Town.
More often than not, people are blissfully unaware of their mannerisms until it is pointed out to them by another person. The same can be said about the use of language. Before moving abroad, I never realised how much I make use of certain words that does not necessarily correlate with its original or intended meaning. An American friend of mine once pointed out my use of the word ‘hey’ but not in the way of a greeting. Upon reflection, it was an interesting observation because that is generally how people in my close circles from back home in Cape Town speaks too. What is interesting to note in this instance is how the word is used to convey a statement but with some inflection at the end, can also be used to formulate a question.
“That’s a really pretty dress, hey?” or “No, hey. I don’t think that’s going to work.” Another word commonly used (again, with no correlation to its original intended meaning) is ‘man’. While the use of this word in these instances is not to carry any gendered connotation but is rather to be used as an adjunct. For example: “Bring me a glass of water please, man.” “I didn’t mean it like that, man.” An additional word that is uniquely used in South Africa is “shame”. Again, this was pointed out to me by my friend
Growing up on the Cape Flats in Cape Town and attending schools that were predominantly made up of Coloured students meant that I was never exposed to much people of different races or cultures until I reached university.
This essay will explore the complexities of the English varieties spoken by Coloured people in Cape Town.
What amazes me most about language is that it is completely interchangeable. Based on your familiarity of accents and dialects, listening to someone speak can tell you a lot about them before even having to ask. The study of sociology teaches us that where, when and how we grow up has a major influence on how we are shaped as people. The same principles can be applied when referring to language. The way in which people speak is directly influenced by many external factors, including their place of origin, who they grow up around, what schools they attend, who they interact with regularly and of course, the society in which they live. Language varieties can also be impacted by people living among cultures different to their own as well as the learning of additional languages, or whether English is not their mother tongue.
The sociology of language explores the relationship between language and society. What is striking about this form of study is that it focuses on the entire spectrum of areas related to the social organisation of language behaviour. Therefore, it looks not only at language usage per se but also the attitudes derived from the language as well as visible behaviours toward the language and its users (Fishman, 1971: p.217). The mention of how language is perceived by society is important to note in this context since the variety of English spoken by the Coloured community is often received negatively, while certain dialects are deemed to carry unfavourable connotations.
As the focus of this essay is on Cape Town residents and the features exhibited in their use of the language, I spoke to six people who self-identify as Coloured and who has lived and gone to school in the greater Cape Town area. Each of the participants were asked to answer several questions via an audio recording.
Since I wanted them to speak as naturally as possible, I asked questions that would evoke emotion and included memorable events that have occurred in their lives. To do this, I asked about fond childhood memories, favourite high school moments and what they would do if they were to win the lottery. The environment in which the participants were schooled greatly influenced the way they speak, while factors such as socio-economic status also plays a role in the dialect learned. One of them grew up in a predominantly Coloured suburb on the Cape Flats called Athlone. She attended a Montessori school during her primary years and later an international school for the senior phase of her school career. This is evident in her speech.
Traditionally, the language spoken by Coloured South Africans is Afrikaans. However, each of the participants’ first language is English.
It made me think of a comedy skit I watched when I was younger, performed by two Coloured men called Joe Barber. This comedic duo centred their performances on the nuances of the Coloured English variety, particularly paying homage to the ‘Kaaps’ dialect that infuses Afrikaans into its vernacular. In one of their shows, one of the characters had been relaying a story to the other character about his son who called him saying: “Daddy, daddy, come quick here.” The character then goes on to suggest to the audience the incorrectness of the sentence with the punchline to the joke being the addition of “please” at the end of the sentence. This is a very indicative and accurate portrayal of the English variety used by certain groups of Coloured people, mainly because it highlights how calques from the Afrikaans language often occur in this dialect.
Another unique nuance of this variety, albeit I would say this is more indicative of cultural circumstances than anything else, is the repetition of the word “mommy” or “daddy” when speaking directly to a parent. After having several brief conversations with Coloured peers online, it became apparent it is something that occurs in many households. For example, speaking directly to a parent would go something like this: “Mommy, where’s mommy going? Oh, I thought mommy said mommy was going to stay home today.”
The use of the word “busy” in this variety is another example of its distinctive qualities.
Two of the participants I spoke to are sisters. They are three years apart in age (one is 26 and the other 23), grew up in the same household and attended the same schools as well as higher learning institutions in the greater Cape Town area. I found it very interesting that their accents have a slight but very noticeable difference. While one sister’s pronunciation of words with the letter “r” is more prominent and accentuated, the other’s is softer – indicating a larger curve of the tongue and certainly less vibration in the roll of the “r”.
In fact, many speakers of this variety have adopted a similar vernacular and are often praised for this accent as it is deemed by society as “correct” or “proper”.
- Fishman, J.A.: 1971, ‘The sociology of language: An interdisciplinary social science approach to language in society’, in J.A. Fishman (ed.), Advances in the Sociology of Language Vol I, Mouton, The Hague, 217–104.