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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Mapping isiXhosa dialects

Date Released: Wed, 8 April 2015 10:49 +0200

Rhodes linguist Mark de Vos has recently done some very exciting work on a pilot project in which he is creating maps of regional language variation in isiXhosa and isiZulu.  He presented this work and some of his maps at a Linguistics Departmental Research Seminar Tuesday 24 March 2015.

There is relatively little published research on isiXhosa dialects and there are no dialect maps that clearly show how the language varies from region to region.  Effective dialect maps would be useful as a way of documenting indigenous knowledge systems and validating the identities of those who speak different regional varieties of isiXhosa.  They would help in developing better resources such as dictionaries and literacy materials.  Lastly, they could aid in better educational planning and improve understanding of how regional variation affects literacy and learning of other language-related skills. 

In part, dialect mapping is difficult because it requires collection of large amounts of primary data from geographically diverse locations.  It is therefore resource-intense (in terms of time, capital and skilled collectors).     However, modern technologies such as Geographical Information Systems and online teaching platforms offer an opportunity to resolve some of these complexities. 

This is why Mark devoted the second half of his talk to explaining the methods he used to do the dialect mapping.  He used the peer networks of first-year Linguistics students to access dialectal knowledge through a questionnaire as part of a broader assessment task.  This introduced students to the basic concepts in research and methodology as well as making them active participants in knowledge production.   This methodology explicitly avoided traditional approaches to dialectology (which often involve interviewing non-mobile, older, rural males). Instead, Mark focused on the dialectal knowledge contained within peer networks, using the expertise of mobile, urban youth who tend to be highly networked.   Mark’s research shows that dialectal mapping can be done quicker and with larger numbers of respondents than is possible with traditional methods.

In his talk, Mark presented some preliminary dialect maps, demonstrating the geographic range of regional variation within the dialect continuum that exists along the southeastern coast of South Africa, in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.  These maps showed interesting trends.  For instance, they showed how there is not a sharp boundary between ‘isiXhosa’ and ‘isiZulu’ coinciding neatly with the Eastern Cape / KwaZulu-Natal provincial boundary.  They also showed how the use of certain terms from dialects like isiMpondo and isiBhaca is concentrated in particular small geographical areas.  

Source:Ian Siebörger