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Sunday, January 22, 2012


An interesting and compelling wander into the history of South African English. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Freelance editor and writer Jeanne Hromnik has worked in South African publishing for many years as a book editor, commissioning editor and manuscript reader.

Inspired by the often irate comments regarding the usage of English on John Orr’s popular SAfm radio programme, Word of Mouth, Hromnik set about discovering what is distinctive about South African English or “can there be many grammars?” Noting that in South Africa we speak English a little differently, she adds that: “This depends, too, on which part of the “we” we belong to.”

Often appearing on Word of Mouth is South African language guru Rajend Mesthrie, a professor of linguistics at the University of Cape Town. He has published A Dictionary of South African Indian English, Introducing Sociolinguistics, World Englishes and Language in South Africa. Hromnik put her project to him and he agreed to support it and EISH but is it English? came into being.

Hromnik’s introduction is fairly academic. However, once Mesthrie takes over the book turns into an interesting and compelling wander into the history of South African English. His knowledge is extensive and his explanations are fascinating of how the Dutch and African languages of South Africa have shaped some of the country’s informal grammar.

The chapters have intriguing headings, such as: Cooree home go (historical firsts); He was busy dying (Grammar with a difference); The robot’s not working again (Making sense of the vocabulary), and He has a headache in his toes (The English of Indians).

The latter is a delight as it discusses the history and patterns of speech that have grown through the years since 15,000 Indians arrived in Port Natal as indentured labourers over 150 years ago. Historical records note that only about 2 percent initially knew English so it would have been a daunting process for them, on top of the challenges of living in a strange new land. The patterns of speech, especially in KZN which has the largest community of Indians outside of India, are rich with humour and unique descriptive qualities. Sadly, these are dying out with the widespread influence of television. Fortunately, Professor Mesthrie has preserved hundreds of words and sayings in A Dictionary of South African Indian English.

Tuning into radio or television interviews with politicians or notable personalities these days, one often discovers new words creeping in. Perhaps they dream them up in Parliament? The tendency seems to be to add “ial” or “ion” at will – maybe to make the word sound more impressive? Listening to a chat show the other day, my sister heard “many multifactorials”. What’s wrong with “many different factors”?

EISH but is it English? is published by Zebra Press ISBN 978-1-77022-152-9. Retail price R180. It’s a must for anyone interested in the English language and its usage in South Africa. – Caroline Smart