Afrikaans Variation Project
A simple introduction to the importance of studying dialects and language
This page provides a very simple introduction to why it is important to study languages in general and language dialects in particular.
Language dialect and identity
Language says a lot about our identity. Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans all speak differently. When we meet somebody from a different part of the country, they may use different words, sounds or grammatical structures. A dialect is a variety of language that is characteristic of a certain area. For instance, in the Northern Cape, people refer to older people as grootmense and paper as pampier whereas in Pretoria they are called oumense and papier. If you hear coloured people from Cape Town speaking Afrikaans, they sound different to Afrikaans spoken elsewhere. People from Natal speak English in different ways to people from Johannesburg etc. So often, the way we speak says a lot about where we are from, who we are and what we care about. So studying dialects is one way of validating people's identities and ways of life.
The need for new research on dialects
Early research on Afrikaans dialects and varieties include (Swanepoel 1927, Kat 1937, Rademeyer 1938). Rademeyer's (1938) work describes aspects of Griekwa Afrikaans from the 19th century, from where his primary sources are taken. Importantly, much early research was characterized by a prescriptive attitudes as a result of a nationalistic focus on `standard' Afrikaans.
During the 1950s and early '60s, a flurry of research into various dialects was done for Western Cape Afrikaans (Heiberg 1950), Jonkersberg (Hupkes 1951), Loeriesfontein (Loubser 1954), Witwatersrand (Bothma 1962). Relatively little research appears to have been done through much of the 1960s and '70s. The next major research impetus came in the 1980's with the publication of the Van Rensburg group's Finale verslag van 'n ondersoek na die Afrikaans van die Griekwas van die tagtigerjare (Van Rensburg 1984). This was followed by descriptions of a variety of dialects. Western Cape Afrikaans (Klopper 1983, Dreyer 1986, Kotze 1983, Fourie 1985), Richmond (Nel de Klerk 1986), Pretoria (De Klerk 1985, De Villiers 1985), Orange River (Verhoef 1988, Henning 1983, Roux 1988), Johannesburg (Coetzee 1989), Durban (Tiflin 1984), Namibia (Du Plessis 1985).
However, there has been relatively little research done since the late 1980s and some dialects may have changed since they were last studied. For this reason, it is important to study these varieties.
Language and development
Development in South Africa and language are closely linked. Economic development often goes hand-in-hand with urbanization and concomitant rural depopulation. Urbanization is also fuelled by local dynamics of land ownership and drought e.g. since 1994, more than 1 million farm workers have been evicted and another 700 000 in the decade preceding that (Nkuzi Development Association report http://www.nkuzi.org.za/). This motivates language change in two ways: first, rural varieties become less sustainable as urbanization of the youth occurs; second, urban areas linguistic melting pots that will lead to future varieties. However, the rural varieties may have important clues to the development and spread of Afrikaans and are thus culturally important. This means that it is important to study dialects before they are disappear in certain areas. Of course, new dialects will arise to replace the old ones, and in time linguists will study the new dialects too.
Dialect and cultural history
In South Africa, Afrikaans started developing as a distinctive language almost as soon as the colony was established. As the colony expanded, people moved into the hinterland of South Africa, taking their language varieities with them. Towns and farms were established and each one used language in a way that represented the identity of the people who lived there. Sometimes people would move to a new place and the language they spoke changed as they had less and less contact with the Cape colony. Linguists call this process language change. Thus, studying dialects is also a way of looking at how a language has changed and developed over time. As such it is an important part of the cultural history of South Africa.
Afrikaans dialects and identity
In South Africa, Afrikaans started developing as a variety of Dutch almost as soon as the colony was established in 1652. Gradually people speaking this variety developed a group identity and started advocating that the language be recognized as being different to Dutch. This was eventually achieved in 1925 when Afrikaans was recognized as one of the official languages of the Union of South Africa -- up to that point Dutch was an official language.
People felt very strongly about their new language and their identity. This led to a strong focus on teaching Standard Afrikaans at schools. Unfortunately, people who spoke regional dialects felt as though their identities were not included. This process is not unique to South Africa -- it is quite often the case that local dialects are marginalized in many countries around the world.
Empowering people and communities through dialects
But marginalization is not inevitable. It is possible to dream of empowering people through dialects. For instance, Norway has a strong tradition of linguistic democracy and linguistic tolerance. There are two official standard versions of the same Norwegian language --bokmaal and nynorsk. Government institutions can actually choose which `flavour' of the standard language they want to use! "In local government, 117 municipalities have in 2002 chosen nynorsk, and about 180 bokmaal, whereas 150 haven't made any definite choice" (Almenningen 2002).
When one considers Norwegian dialects, there is similar diversity. "Rural dialects in Norway are not only seen as appropriate in private settings, [...] but are generally used in public contexts, too. Dialects are spoken at the kitchen table, among friends, in the media, in university lectures and in Parliament" (Roeyneland 2007). People are proud to express their identities through their local dialects. If you read a newspaper in northern Norway, you will see that letters and sometimes even whole articles are sometimes written using local dialects and local orthography. For instance, in bokmaal, one might write "Hva er det?" ("what is it?"). But in Northern Norway, one would say "Ka e det?". Both variants are used in official newspapers etc. This situation empowers local communities. There is no reason why the same should not eventually happen in South Africa.
Dialects and computers
South Africa is a multi-lingual country and this poses interesting challenges for development. People often have to use English or a second language in order to get money from the bank, fill in forms at Home Affairs or to get educated. Of course, it would make a lot of sense if people could interact in their own language.
Imagine a world where you could go to the bank and instead of pushing buttons on a machine, you could simply tell it what to do in your own language. Imagine going to Home Affairs, and instead of waiting for hours, be able to explain to a machine what you want in your own language. Imagine going to school and instead of having to study in a particular language, having a machine that will automatically translate the teacher's language into your own language.
Linguists are now working on computers that aim to do these things. For many years we thought it would be impossible to do. But over the last ten years or so, computational linguists have managed to get computers to understand human language -- to a limited degree. But computers are pretty dumb -- they can learn to understand one person but when they hear another variety of language, they tend to get confused. One way of solving this would be to let computers listen to many different varieties and dialects of a language. If the computer listens long enough, it can learn to recognize many different people speaking many different languages. Of course, this can only happen if we study dialects and record people who speak them.
Language and the brain
Humans are the only animals that can use language. While some animals do communicate to a degree, only humans can really use language as we know it. Scientists have claimed that the human brain is uniquely designed to acquire language. This means that by studying linguistics, we can try and find out how our brains work. Dialects are important here too. Linguists can compare closely-related dialects and can use that information to make judgements about how grammar (and the brain) works.
Disclaimer: This is is not an academic page; it is intended for a wide audience that is not necessarily familiar with linguistic theory. So if you are interested in finding out more, you will have to look elsewhere.