Linguistic winds of change blow at Rhodes University

Department of English Language and Linguistics has changed its name to Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.
Department of English Language and Linguistics has changed its name to Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.

At the last Senate meeting, a request to change the name of the Department of English Language and Linguistics at Rhodes University was approved. The name has been changed to Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.

“The new name more accurately represents the evolution of the Department over the years concerning the focus of its curricula and research activities. The Department has transitioned from chiefly focusing on phenomena related to English to include a broader range of languages, mainly languages of Southern Africa,” Senior Lecturer in the department, Dr Ian Siebörger,  explains.

The name change is in keeping with the university’s process of implementing an Institutional Transformation Plan (ITP) that emanated from the 2017 Transformation Summit. In line with a strategy agreed to in the Council meeting of the 17 March 2018, recommendations were distributed for consideration and comment amongst the heads of the university’s units, including academic departments. These heads are tasked to implement the transformation strategies proposed by members of the university during the Transformation Summit process.

The Department of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies started as a section in the former Department of English, before being established as a separate department in the 1970s. In recent years, the Department has focused on decolonising its curriculum. “The focus on English in the Department’s name no longer reflects our practice. We have studies in a wide range of different languages from South Africa and beyond. The original name has increasingly become irrelevant. We do not want to identify ourselves with only one language (English) when we deal with so many. We decided we should move away from ‘English’ and towards the core of what we do, which is linguistics and applied language studies,” Dr Siebörger explained.

Besides steadily moving away from English as its dominant language of study, the now Department of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies has achieved the following:

  • It has introduced an entire strand of undergraduate modules, from first to third year, on African Linguistics, with a focus on the morphology and syntax of indigenous Southern African languages.
  • The Department has continued offering an undergraduate module on the linguistics of South African Sign Language. From this has also developed a postgraduate module, with three Master’s theses having been done on the topic so far.
  • Indigenous Southern African languages are increasingly used as languages of exemplification in many of the Department’s other modules, including modules on phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax and sociolinguistics.

In addition, many of the Department’s staff members have research interests and research projects on indigenous Southern African languages.

  • The Head of Department, Professor Ron Simango, has research interests in the morphology and syntax of African languages and investigating code-switching and language contact in Southern Africa, as well as the use of language in education across the sub-continent.
  • Professor Mark de Vos and Ms Tracy Probert run a very successful research project that aims to improve the literacy of Foundation Phase learners in African languages. This project was originally funded by Rhodes University’s Sandisa Imbewu research fund. Their work informs policy at a national level through engagement with the government’s Department of Basic Education.
  • Dr Will Bennett’s research is focused on the phonetics, phonology and morphology of African languages. He is also very interested in endangered language description and documentation, primarily focusing on the Ju, Tuu and Khoe languages (previously known as Khoisan languages).
  • Ms Kelly Kilian and the Department’s postdoctoral research fellow, Dr Kerry Jones, also have interests in the documentation of endangered languages in Southern Africa.
  • Ms Mbali Jiyane has interests in the morpho-syntactic structure of African languages and their use in education.

The Department is also in the process of replacing signage around its building, as well as changing the name on all internal documents and records in the University.

Visit the Department of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies’ website at