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A Lexicon of South African Indian English

Written by Tim Taylor for World Englishes on no date provided

Creating a dictionary of English for South Africa has its roots as early as 1913 in Charles Pettman’s Africanderismns, which seeks to identify emergent Afrikaans terms in the English language. The complexity of compiling a list of terms unique to English in South Africa has been struggled with ever since.

Of the popular dictionaries available in South Africa, several trends are noticeable. Oxford University’s The South African Pocket Oxford Dictionary, first published in 1924, has recently taken a ‘broad editorial approach’ (1987:vii) with regard to inclusion of lexical items indigenous to South Africa, yet this suggested openness is undermined even as early as the table of contents, which contains such entries as ‘The Greek and Russian Alphabets’ and ‘Books of the Bible’ at the expense of local or regional alphabets and religious works. The dictionary attempts to include a core of English words necessary for the educated writer, and as such includes items likely to be found in any English dictionary worldwide in addition to ‘South African entries’ (1987:xiii). One is left to wonder whether the educated user is meant to belong to a certain official racial category, since the pronunciation guide relies on European languages for examples.

A collaborative effort among scholars at Rhodes University (South Africa) and Oxford University (Great Britain) led to A Dictionary of South African English, first published in 1978. This volume is more circumscribed in nature than the Pocket Dictionary cited earlier and is limited to terms that are believed to be part of ‘South African English’ (1991:ix). Here too, however, the bias of the authors is evident. Following the state of emergency declared in 1986, the authors found it necessary to include terms from the ‘language of National Servicemen,’ as this was seen as a ‘major area of vocabulary growth’ (1987:ix). Similarly, the ‘jargon of the townships’ (1987:x), having found sustenance in the Black press and Black literary circles, also warranted inclusion for the first time, according to the authors. The choice of terms, language for the White National Servicemen and jargon for Black township lexical items, is unfortunate for its suggestion of an inferior status of the ‘jargon’ of the Blacks.

A third trend in dictionary publishing is a number of specialized tomes concerned with scientific terms, such as C. A. Smith and Estelle Van Hoepen’s Common Names of South African Plants (1966) and C. Leo Biden’s Sea-Angling Fishes of the Cape (South Africa) (1930). Often even these specialist works are tainted with a Eurocentric bias. For example, Smith and Van Hoepen assign Latin terms to many of the common plants of the country, and Biden relies on a European-based pronunciation guide.

Within this bacchanal of dictionaries lies the work of Rajend Mesthrie, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Cape Town. The slim volume, A Lexicon of South African Indian English (1992), has a stated goal of ‘supplementing the 1980 edition of the Dictionary of South African English (Branford and Branford 1980). Mesthrie’s book is one in a long tradition of dictionary-like texts concentrating on terms specific to a region or subgroup of a larger population. In this vein are such notable and venerable works as, for example, Hobson-Jobson’s Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases (Yule and Burnell 1903).

Mesthrie follows a nontraditional methodology for arranging the lexical items included in his volume. He advises the reader in the preface that the arrangement is not alphabetical; rather, words and phrases are divided according to a variety of criteria such as grammar, slang, and idioms. Readers are referred to the index in order to locate a word or phrase of interest. With regard to his manner of presentation, Mesthrie states that it was ‘preferable to having one alphabetical list... [because it is] important to differentiate between what is genuinely a different item of vocabulary (belonging to Section I) and what might be a special pronunciation (Section V) or difference in grammar (Section III)’ (p. v). This explanation is confusing. It is difficult to see the boundary that delimits the Grammar section and Items used by most speakers irrespective of ancestral language, for example, especially if a certain grammatical item is used generally. Section I is divided into two groups, 1a., Items used by most speakers irrespective of ancestral language, and 1b., Items restricted to particular subgroups depending on ancestral language, which leads the reader to believe that South African Indians might not be native English speakers when, in fact, the 1986 census reports that most of them are (Central Statistical Services 1986:21). The distinction between Idioms and Popular Phrases (Section II) and Slang (Section IV) is equally untenable given the absence of an explanation of these categories. Eliminating the sections in favor of a single alphabetical list would have enabled Mesthrie to do away with the index and the needless duplication it creates.

Mesthrie’s position on the status of South African Indian English (SAIE) is equally confounding: ‘There is nothing ""wrong"" about any of the items listed in this work... they are perfectly acceptable within the contexts in which they occur, even more so than formal, educated usage’ (p. i). The implication is that SAIE is more acceptable in certain contexts than formal, educated English. This would seem to suggest that SAIE is used among uneducated, informal people - a deduction that Mesthrie may not want his readers to make.

Moreover, the overall indication of the preface points toward the existence of a ‘standard’ South African English. Readers of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary are advised that ‘under a happier social dispensation... a ""General South African English"" might ultimately emerge’ (1987:xi). The Dictionary of South African English holds similar cautionary recommendations that acknowledged that ‘the socio-political revolution that we are experiencing has been accompanied by a ""vocabulary explosion""’ (1991:xi). The end of censorship and the gradual abatement of apartheid alluded to above will lead to a new social dispensation that may have widespread implications for English as a whole in South Africa. At this point it seems that ‘General South African English’ is still emerging, if not still in its infancy.

The way in which items are listed, furthermore, may prove counterproductive to Mesthrie’s aim of describing the ‘spectrum of usage’ (p. ii) for SAIE. In the Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1987), a boldface H indicates a term that is racially offensive, and a boldface U indicates that the offensiveness is widely disputed; in the Dictionary of South African English (1991), terms such as Urban Black and Ind. E. (Indian English), consign lexical items to the ‘non-standard’ variety of South African English. Mesthrie continues the pattern by assigning SAIE terms and phrases to similar ‘non-standard’ categories, of which there are only six. Such categorization may in fact limit the spectrum of usage rather than illuminate it.

In light of the racially charged atmosphere in South Africa, one wonders whether Mesthrie should have chosen a different arrangement. As we have seen earlier, other dictionaries seem to subtly assign the ‘standard’ variety, if there is one, to the White population. Mesthrie appears to follow in this tradition as well. In his short section on General South African English items in South African Indian English (p. 127) there are no definitions, but merely a two-columned list of words. The fact that these words do not carry definitions belies the fact that this is a lexicon. Mesthrie does succeed, however, in providing the only dictionary of SAIE available. He notes that the current work is part of a larger project to be published in the near future. The danger, however, lies in the separateness of this book, which may marginalize the South African Indian variety of English; simply including the word Indian in the title of the book suggests that it is something other than the ‘standard’ included in the other dictionaries. It is interesting to note that as apartheid wanes as official national policy, it is just now beginning to show itself in dictionary-making. Could it be that dictionaries more often reflect what was rather than what is?.

The political situation of South Africa presents unusual challenges to dictionary-makers. In the past, inclusion or exclusion of words was at the discretion of the censorship board. With academia firmly dominated by Whites, and near total segregation of the official racial groups, the compilation of a dictionary that strives to be in any way representative of the usage of South Africans as a whole has been an elusive, if not impossible, task. Works such as Mesthrie’s are important if only to call attention to the politics of language. Interestingly, the word apartheid does not appear in Mesthrie’s lexicon, for if there is one word that we might associate with South Africans of any color, ilk, gender, caste, or creed, it would most certainly be this one.

This is a review of A Lexicon of South African Indian English

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