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Let’s make Tsotsitaal the national language

January 31, 2005

There are supposed to be eleven official languages in Azania, but English is clearly dominant. In the urge not to leave anyone out, to make us all separate but equal, we have created a situation that is too unwieldy to be practical, and the iron tongue of the Saxon wins by default.

What we need is a language we can all speak to each other in, to create shared identity. This should not be imposed as an attempt at nation-building, of superficial ‘rainbow nationism’, but allowed to develop as a human-to-human attempt to find a means of communicating with all the others – indigenes, settlers, refugees – who find themselves cast on this strange shore.

This unifying language already exists – it is Tsotsitaal, the gangster patois that developed on the mines and in places like Sophiatown. Made up mostly of Zulu, English and Afrikaans, Tsotsitaal represents an organically-grown, ready-made language that we can all adopt.

‘Tsotsitaal’ – literally ‘gangster language’ – is also known as ‘flaaitaal’ or ‘flytaal’, which means ‘smart talk’ or ‘jive talk’. From a linguistic point of view, it is a highly degenerate form of Zulu which developed as a slang or pidgin used by thugs, gangsters and smart guys in pre-World War Two Johannesburg.

Most vocabulary and the grammatic structure come from Zulu, but a lot of words and phrases come from English, Afrikaans, and other languages. Very few people communicate entirely in Tsotsitaal – it is much more common to integrate Tsotsi words and phrases into the dominant language. For example, an English person might say “you can hamba, Baba, it’s tshaila-time” (“you can go, old man, it’s knock off time”), an Afrikaner might say “Djy kan hamba, Baba, dis tshaila-tyd”. So Cape Flaaitaal has much more Afrikaans in it than the Johannesburg version, which is mostly used by Zulu-speakers.

Despite this tremendous variation, there is enough commonality for people to understand each other even if they don’t know each other’s main language (the words “hamba, Baba, tshaila” are enough), and probably enough to map a basic grammar and vocabulary for the language.

This willed leap from creole to common language has been done before, with Afrikaans, a language derided for centuries as the bastard tongue of servants, a kombuistaal, Kitchen Dutch. But when the language was taken seriously, a common identity was forged – for better or worse. The language is based on Dutch, but has elements of other European languages – English, German and French – as well as the Portuguese patois spoken by slaves at the Cape, Malay and the Khoesan languages.

Afrikaans is a powerful, rich and expressive language, its dry cadences echoing the emptiness of our open spaces. It creates a sense of identity, of South Africaness – even Anglophile whites who would never deign to let a harsh Afrikaans syllable scratch their throats at home dig into their high school reserves of the language when they find themselves in London and realise, perhaps for the first time, that they are not Europeans. Being able to speak Afrikaans is a powerful signifier of belonging to something other, and not being just a lost child of Empire.

Yet the weakness of Afrikaans is that it doesn’t speak well of the indigenous experience, is curiously deaf to the elegance of Black languages. As such, it is unlikely to ever be acceptable as a lingua franca. While Afrikaans remains an important and powerful language in Mzantsi, one we should celebrate and speak, it is not a language of all South Africans.

Which leaves us with what? English? This is a logical choice, except that it robs us of our uniqueness, homogenises our culture into a one-size-fits-all McWorld. It is also a difficult language to speak well, and gives first language speakers an unfair – and racially skewed – advantage. Everyone should be taught English, because of the doors it opens, but it would be a mistake to lose the richness of uniquely Southern African expression found in our other languages.

What about Zulu? Already a quarter of our people speak Zulu as a mother tongue, and many others speak a Nguni language that would make Zulu accessible. But is replacing one kind of dominance with another really what we want? Also, as a language born of cattle farmers and warriors, Zulu is a little unwieldy for the modern world.

We need a tongue that expresses our commonality rather than our differences, an urban language forged in the streets and factories. So let’s make Tsotsitaal the national language.

What are we calling for here? A new, politically correct Fanagalo? An African Esperanto? Do we want Kwaito stars or reformed hijackers to compile Tsotsitaal dictionaries, the linguists of the Academy to map grammars, maybe a Tsotsitaal Wikipedia?
That would be interesting, even worthwhile. Some standardised spelling might help our hidden language show itself in print more, but all it really needs is a bit of respect, and some pride.

So let us not disregard Tsotsitaal as some degenerate slang, but see it as the nucleus of a new language. Let’s start by taking those words which are truly South African – babalaas, braaivleis, tshaila – and proudly integrate them into the language we speak most often. Let’s take those phrases – one time, sharp sharp – that we reserve for humorous self-reflection and make them part of our everyday speech. Slowly, slowly, let’s grow ourselves a common language, an urban African patois we can all see ourselves in.

And since we live in a gangsta’s paradise, we might as well learn the language.

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