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The rain in the Northern Cape puzzles Mark de Vos

Date Released: Thu, 19 May 2011 12:43 +0200

“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” the highly prescriptivist phonetician Henry Higgins battles to teach Eliza Dolittle to say in a prestigious English accent in My Fair Lady.  Rhodes Linguistics' highly descriptivist resident syntactician, Mark de Vos, has a very different problem … with the rain in the Northern Cape.

De Vos was in charge of a project that aimed to map the Afrikaans dialects of the Northern and Eastern Cape according to differences in morphology (the way words are put together) and syntax (the way words are ordered into sentences). At a Linguistics Departmental Research Seminar on Tuesday 17 May, he talked about how he came across a strange way of saying that it is raining, used by some rural people in these provinces.

The standard way of saying “It is raining tonight” in Afrikaans is Dit reën vanaand. However, while De Vos and his team were doing interviews with Afrikaans speakers all over the Eastern and Northern Cape to collect the data they needed for their dialect map, they asked whether their interviewees had heard people say Daar reën vanaand, a sentence which is highly ungrammatical in standard Afrikaans. The closest equivalent in English would be something like “There rains tonight,” which sounds quite odd. To the team's surprise, 55% of their interviewees said that people did say Daar reën vanaand. When the team members expressed disbelief at what they were hearing, the interviewees insisted that the sentence was grammatical.

The team found that this use of the word daar wasn't limited to that particular sentence – or even talk about the rain. Some interviewees (36%) insisted that one could say Daar lyk of die weer môre mooi sal wees, literally “There looks as if the weather will be pleasant tomorrow.”

What mystified De Vos even more was that there doesn't seem to be any pattern to this usage: it was found in just about every place the team went to, no matter who was doing the interview. In most cases, a sentence is either grammatical or it isn't, so one expects almost all the interviewees to say “Yes, people say that” or “No, nobody says that.” But what does one do when 55% of your interviewees say they’ve heard such a sentence, and the others don’t? De Vos has a few ideas, but didn’t share them at the seminar, preferring to find out how the audience would solve the puzzle.