Sharing a language

2009-09-25 00:00

THE recent death of Essop Haffejee, elder brother of Dr Hoosen Haffejee, who died at the hands of the apartheid authorities while in detention in 1977, elicited an obituary from Kader Hassim and a tribute from Abdullah Saeed, a regular contributor to this newspaper. In his obituary, Hassim spoke of Essop Haffejee as a man of intellectual curiosity and high principles, and as someone who remained to the end of his life a champion of human rights.

In his letter, Saeed applauded Essop Haffejee’s dignity and generosity and his pursuit of justice. He also noted his own family’s long contact with the Haffejees, remembering how in the late sixties and early seventies his late grandfather used to travel from Richmond to Pietermaritzburg to buy goods for his farm shop, and how the first stop would always be the Haffejees’ shop at the lower end of Church Street, where they would drink tea and engage in chitchat.

In their respective tributes both Hassim and Saeed provide a glimpse of a particular world in which friends and families, both linguistically, spiritually and ideologically, speak the same language. There is a kinship and warmth of shared values.

When poet and former Rhodes University English literature professor Guy Butler died in April 2001, I felt a sense of loss. While I had met him some years before his death, I couldn’t claim to have been a friend of his, yet his passing grieved me. Why? I asked myself.

On reflection, I realise that it was because we had similar points of reference. Like he was, I am the descendent of English settlers, his in the Eastern Cape, mine in Natal. Like he was, I am part of an off-shoot of English culture, with roots in Africa, a stranger to Europe­ yet also a stranger to some aspects of Africa. Like he did, I subscribe to a liberal world view that aspires to be inclusive and respectful of people generally. And like he did, I have the English language as my mother tongue.

So even if Butler and I were not close friends, as Hassim and Saeed were with Essop Haffejee, we nevertheless shared a space. But even if a common language is at the centre of such communication, both vignettes show us that it is also culture and belief systems that bond groups of individuals into specific identities and in so doing govern their reactions in often unappreciated ways. And at the heart of the two communications mentioned above is the English language.

Over the past 500 years English has grown from the language of five or six million people in the British Isles to become the everyday speech of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In the process it has been enriched by words from other cultures, like galore and smithereens from Ireland, canoe­ and squash from North America, anorak and kayak from the Arctic, calypso and reggae from the Caribbean, billabong and boomerang from Australia, veranda­ and pyjamas from India, and commando and apartheid from South Africa.

Proof of the language’s central role in modern discourse was provided in 1898 by German Chancellor Otto Bismarck. When asked to choose a single defining event in recent history, he replied: “North America speaks English.” As linguist Nicholas Ostler explains in his history of language*, Bismarck was correct because twice in the 20th century the major powers of North America stepped in on the side of English-speakers to determine the outcome of conflicts that had started in Europe, and on each occasion helped set the course of history.

Also, adds Ostler, because of the driving role played by America in the technological revolutions in communications, telephones, films, television, computing and the Internet, English finds itself nowadays as the preferred language of communication around the globe. But does linguistically speaking the same language mean really speaking the same language?

Statistics tell us that just over three and a half million South Africans (8,2%) have English as their home language, which is considerably fewer than the 10,5 million Zulu first-language speakers (23,8%), the nearly eight million Xhosa first-language speakers (17,6%), and the nearly six million Afrikaans first-language speakers (13,3%). Yet English is this country’s lingua franca because it is spoken as a second language by millions of people.

So recently, when I received an e-mail from someone seeking to start a community radio station for English speakers whose culture is English-orientated, it reminded me that the widespread success of a language can mean that it outruns the culture from which it originated. For example, Zulu-language radio stations cater­ for people who are embedded in Zulu culture, and Afrikaans radio stations cater for people who are embedded in Afrikaans culture, but English radio stations don’t necessarily cater for people who are embedded in English culture­.

Consequently, while Lotusfm­ may serve English first­-language speakers whose culture originated on the Indian sub­-continent, SAfm is essentially a second­language English station. This is because most of its journalists and participants have another language as their primary means of communication.

At a time when we are trying to forge a broad South African identity it is not my intention to debate the merit of starting a radio station that specifically serves first-language English speakers who subscribe to English culture. In fact, true possession of a language is surely the answer: irrespective of one’s culture, if one thinks and dreams in a language, then it is yours, as is so apparent in the tributes by Hassim and Saeed for their friend Essop Haffajee.


* Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas­ Ostler — HarperCollins 2005.

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