Be proud of your township lingo, says expert

2015-08-07 14:29


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Johannesburg - Township lingo, like Iscamtho, should not be regarded as inferior to African languages because they were a sign of progress, according to a French-born linguist.

"Although it may be debated, I consider the standard and official versions of African languages as a colonial construction, never a reality in people’s everyday life," Dr Pierre Aycard told News24.

"The emergence of an independent mixed variety [of slang] in White City [Jabavu] is a sign modern African cultures can invent their own ‘institutions’, in the anthropological sense, and their own identities.

"Favouring this process is easy: let us stop considering township ‘lingos’ as inferior things. Let us stop believing an African cannot be a good African if he or she doesn’t speak a language which, at best, was spoken 200 years ago, and which most probably was never really spoken as such by anyone.

"Let us stop teaching children their native language is inferior. Let us create a system in which being born in a culture that speaks an urban language will not be an obstacle to success."

Native language

Aycard has studied the use of Iscamtho, a slang used in Soweto.

"In 2007, I enrolled for [a master of philosophy degree] in African Studies at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. As part of this curriculum, I came to Soweto for six months field research in White City [Jabavu].

"I was then interviewing young adults to understand their experience of multilingualism and it became clear they considered the mixed urban language to be their native language, with Iscamtho being a full part of it."

He said for his doctorate of philosophy (PhD) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he decided to investigate these claims by studying children's speech in ekasi.

He said Iscamtho is distinct from urban mixed languages developing in South African amakasi and it was kept in an "inferior status" by the fact other African languages had their official standard.  

Origin of Iscamtho

He said what was now called Iscamtho, started as slang used among a small criminal group before World War I. By the 1920s that slang, known as Shalambombo among Nguni criminals, had spread to a large part of the Witwatersrand criminal community.

However, criminals also spoke Tsotsitaal, an Afrikaans kind of slang, with heavy influence from Tswana and later Zulu.

Both slangs were then used by youngsters.

"Between the 1960s and 1970s, especially with the rise of political resistance among Soweto youth, Tsotsitaal was abandoned due to a large reject of Afrikaans," he said.

"As the practice of urban slang was generalised, the youth turned to Iscamtho to replace Tsotsitaal. I have testimonies of Sowetan speakers above 60-years-old who claim Iscamtho was already used by their fathers at home."

He said the term Iscamtho was derived from Xhosa ukucamtha ‘speak volubly’, although some scholars saw its origin in the Zulu ukuqamunda.

Use of Iscamtho among girls and boys

Aycard said his research showed boys used Iscamtho with their peers, marking their "friendship and masculinity".

"Girls know it as well, but they use it as an ironic and humorous style with lots of Iscamtho terms in few sentences. However, I have three examples of girls using Iscamtho terms in exactly the same way as boys with no ironic dimension.

"Teenagers tend to speak Iscamtho when they are alone with children, either to educate them to local ways or impress them or impose their status as older ones. Whenever children use Iscamtho, adults and elderlies understand everything they say. In addition, children may use Iscamtho in front of adults, but not to discuss improper or vulgar things," Aycard said.

"About 85% of Iscamtho utterances from children in my large corpus of data occurred in the street, but 15% occurred in the house, yard or the backroom. Some occurred at the spaza shop. Even when under the care of their grandmothers, children faced no risk to be disciplined for using Iscamtho, but they will naturally tend to avoid using it when addressing their grandparents, parents or any other adult they respect.

"However, I have evidence some children address their parents with Iscamtho words, but this is not the norm."

Several Iscamtho examples and their origins: 

Aycard read for his PhD at UCT's Linguistics Section of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics. His research was conducted through the support of the National Research Foundation, the South African Netherlands Project for Alternatives in Development and UCT.

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