language in the new south africa a.k.a black-english

Thule Zwane

My English teacher would obviously disagree and to be quite frank, I don’t care; it is Monday evening and I have had plenty wine to drink so anything goes.

I am not certain how the conversation started but it included the possible addition of a new member to the group. Don’t get it wrong, my friends and I are not a clique but tonight I realised we  had some clique tendencies. I have always prided myself in not being part of the masses – the populists – everything with an ‘ist’ – not even in high school. There was always something about mass mentality that ‘grated my guava’ except now, after all these years, it has come to my realisation that the ideals I once held so dearly have disintegrated right in front of my eyes. And with that, I came to realise that I belonged to a clique and could no longer deny it.

This discussion began with a friend of mine telling a few of us that he had a ‘maandahtohry’ interview on Friday. He wasn’t quite sure what the word ‘maandahtohry’ meant and asked for assistance in this regard. I, attempting to be helpful, replied that ‘mandatory’ meant ‘that which is compulsory’. Without intending to do so, I had somehow insulted the bugger who had asked the question by pronouncing the word correctly. Apparently enunciation is frowned upon in the new South Africa. Who did I think I was to dare speak the Queen’s language – albeit with a colonial accent.

I was very fortunate that a friend of mine came to my rescue. She hadn’t realised that by doing so she would get buried alive. Not only did I help with the digging of the grave but to my everlasting shame, I blatantly attacked her, threw her in the grave and covered the grave with cement. In my defence… one should always defend one’s self and she bloody hell deserved it. She had the nerve to state… not insinuate, that she could NOT be friends with someone who had a poor command of the English language. She went on to say that she despised talking to people who could not express themselves in English because they always seemed to “misunderstand her” and she hated having to explain herself to those people. She added that, ever since she began accommodating such awful speakers, her own pronunciation of English words had deteriorated. I laughed because I could relate. Not to her abhorrence  of third language speakers but to the fact that “develop” had suddenly become “dehvehlop” , “academic” “acaydemic” and “finance” “fiynance” ( not to mention the infamous “maynaygment”). I took a very long shallow look at myself and realised that, if I allowed myself to think freely, without judgement, prejudice, political correctness or being “real” (which means something completely different to black people) I would probably, possibly and most likely feel the same way.

I called her a language snob, an elitist, a class monger and laughed at the irony. I had to laugh for a number of reasons: a) she is a snob; b) middle class black snob; c) coconut; d) Oreo… necessary to distinguish from the coconut fruit because we don’t get the coconut tree in South Africa and e) she was saying what most people dare not say – or write. This obviously put me on the spot… a very uncomfortable, Pro-English ( which translates into a ‘not-so-black’) spot.

I was forced to psychoanalyse myself. Did I feel the same way? Of course not… I have been conditioned not to. The indoctrination is very deep within and yet I had to face the tough questions regarding Black-English. I am not talking about Gareth Cliff pretending to sound black. I am talking about black people sounding black. I should also add that by Black People sounding ‘black’, I am not referring to u-Ma and U-Tata/Baba/Ntate/Buti/Bru/Sestere. I am talking about people who have gone to multi-racial schools since day-one, that is, private schools or so called model-c schools. I am talking about people who have a semi-perfect command of the English language. Black people who speak, write and think in first language English and yet speak the way I do because it would be an insult not to. Basically, people who change their accents in order to accommodate the multitudes of black people they interact with on a daily basis.

I know for a fact that I have different accents for different people and situations. When I meet someone for the first time, I wait for them to speak and then I subconsciously class their accent and mimic it; not to insult them but to make them comfortable. When I am in a professional environment, I use my professional accent and when a friend happens to call me at the office and ask for Thuli. I usually reply “X, this is she”. Then we get into a debate of some sort dissecting my accent, behaviour and grammar. I feel I should emphasise that they are usually guilty of the same crime.

At this point you are probably wondering “Was the new girl finally welcomed to the clique?”. The answer is “No she wasn’t.” And it wasn’t for my lack of trying – if anything I tried too hard. She simply didn’t feel she would fit in. I explained there was nothing to “fit into” but we had lost her.

Truth be told, I am all the things I accused my friend of being. The difference is, I do not choose my friends based on accents, education or their command of the English language. People tend to not include me in their circles because of my accent, education and command of the English language.

Posted 4th January 2012

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