Mind your language

2011-12-03 12:13

The language we have inherited is full of holes.

Even as many try to use it to express the equality, freedom and democracy we prize so highly, the language mocks us.

I was reminded of this not too long ago when I saw something called “township tourism” in Cape Town. I was disturbed by this because the underlying assumption is that you have ‘tourism”, then you have “township tourism”.

If you listen or read carefully, you soon realise how the language we use regularly reinforces stereotypes.

In the case of township tourism, the inherent assumption is that once you’re done with the real tourism, you can take a detour for an exotic township adventure.

While some may protest and say that this is an innocent description, unfortunately it reinforces the idea that this kind of tourism falls outside of “normal” tourism. Sadly, this description is far from innocent.In this instance, those sitting at the vantage point of defining what tourism is, have appropriated the normative experience, which excludes “townships”.

Hence the tag “township tourism” must be understood to represent a break from the norm.In South Africa, there is a tendency to blindly reproduce some of the labels borrowed lazily from the US. So you have within radio the preposterous idea of “black radio stations”.

This is as ridiculous as defining a station in the US as a “white radio station”. Those who still perpetuate these labels need to toss away the language of segregation they have borrowed elsewhere and accept that South Africa’s black population is not a minority.

Even within the confines of English, you quickly grasp that the idea of “black English” is the construct of those in a position to make and perpetuate this kind of segregation.Linked to this is the equally troubling idea of “black languages”.

Even though it may be couched in terms of colour, what this really captures and reflects so powerfully is the idea of the ordinary and the exotic.

Whenever you hear someone saying “I don’t speak any black language”, what you are encountering is a reflection of historical power relations. Nothing says people don’t matter as eloquently as the blunt refusal to learn and speak their language.

Other examples of how language reflects and reproduces social relations include the very troublesome word “chairman”. Even as many women have assumed the top board position, you have the ridiculous situation in which they are referred to as “chairman”.

The revisionists have tried in vain to suggest that the word chairman is somehow gender neutral, but that is just plainly false. It is impossible to run away from the fact that when the first corporations were put together, it was unthinkable that a woman would ever be the overall boss.

So, “chairman” seemed very safe, even logical. But now that the world has dropped much of its segregation, the language still clings stubbornly to segregation-era words and meanings.

If you still doubt how language reflects the social constructs of the past, consider why so many South Africans stubbornly refuse to consider themselves a part of Africa.

So in their everyday language, you hear them saying they are “going to Africa”.Where the person travelling from Dakar to Maputo will just say “I’m going to Mozambique”, it is telling that some South Africans deny that their country is a part of Africa.

This pervasive idea of their separateness and their “special status” is a reflection of how much geography, too, is a social construct. Even if you were to show the “I’m going to Africa” brigade a map of Africa, they would cling on to their belief that Africa is some place alien to their reality.

The real problem with these ridiculous tags, such as “black music”, “boer music”, “ethnic food” and “black art” is that they are unconsciously measured against an unnamed standard that becomes the reference point for what is “normal” music, art, food and so on.

One is rewarded or sanctioned for the extent to which they stray or remain true to this imposing reference point. These uses of languages that reflect and even perpetuate segregation need urgent attention because they are are so powerful.Now all of a sudden we have “black Twitter”.

Of late you even have the emergence of “black Africans” within South African discourse.

Have you ever heard of white Europeans? I mean, really.

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