Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Alien nation: middle class linguistic migration

A small group of Bushmen sell their wares at the junction of the main road to Rietfontein, close to the Namibian border and Tweerivieren in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. The two women huddle in the shade of a makeshift ‘skerm’, their fingers busy with ostrich-shell beads and threads. The two men are dressed in skin briefs, looking every bit the authentic Bushman. It is their job to engage with the clients.

As I arrived one of the men was posing for a photograph with a prospective customer. She sat flat on the ground, her jeaned legs spread-eagled apart earthily in front of him. Her husband stood to the side, busy with the camera, and behind him was a dark SUV with a Gauteng registration number.

The woman was listening intently to the Bushman. Her left hand sifted absent-mindedly through the sand between her legs. Her posture, everything about her, made it clear that she was not merely ‘talking’ to him, but ‘communing’. She was soaking up the experience. This was not a touristic event, but a pilgrimage: ‘back to the past’; to her ‘roots’, as it were.

The husband was a likable, jovial type. He had another function apart from taking the photos, one realised after a while. A young girl-child drifted about in the background. She moved in and out of the sacred circle, a distracted look on her face.

“Don’t just take it!” her father instructed when she picked up a bow. She ignored him and tried to fire off an arrow. “Don’t … ” her father added and took the weapon from her. “It is bad manners.”

The girl drifted off again.

The husband and I started chatting in Afrikaans. “Why do you speak English to her?” I asked after a while. “No, she speaks Afrikaans”, he assured me, interrupting the discussion to give her another instruction in English.

In the wake of apartheid I have tended not to question Afrikaans-speakers that raise their children in English. It was, after all, their business and ‘linguistic migration’ seemed a predictable consequence of white Afrikaner callousness and brutality. It was also a racially charged issue that carried with it all the bitterness and embarrassment of an intense family feud.

Yet as time passed this ‘fashion’ intensified, to the point where one feels surprised to hear parents address their children using their mother tongue. It has become an entrenched middle class phenomenon and a way of aspiring to ‘higher’ European culture.

The irony is that linguistic migration does not overcome the alienation caused by apartheid. It merely enhances it. The father keeps the daughter at bay while her mother communes with her ‘roots’. The Bushman concerned happened to come from Namibia and spoke a dialect of Afrikaans that is heavily influenced by Nama; a ‘deep’ Afrikaans with words and expressions that spoke of a long history in this dry land. The daughter will never know or understand this. Already she moved in a new world in which these things carry no meaning.

“They spoke English to me,” a student I once interviewed said, “then they would turn around and speak Afrikaans to one another.” She made excessive use of ‘did’ and mixed up her ‘isses’ and ‘ares’ in a strange new dialect of exclusion. “Don’t climb on the yellow bank!” as a Free-State emigré in Pittsburgh instructed his son. An American flag grew out of the pot at his doorstep.

I do not buy the arguments of some of my friends that migration to English has been hugely beneficial to their children. Nowadays children will learn English whether we want them to do so or not, just as we did. What I see instead are children that have not learned Afrikaans when they could have done so effortlessly and at no cost to themselves. They are made to be monolingual as opposed to laying the foundations for multilingualism. They are deprived of the warmth and intimacy of mother tongue communication, their heritage and their history. There is much well-intended cruelty in this.

The impact of middle class migration extends beyond the individual family. Structurally speaking the Afrikaans poor are being deserted by the upwardly mobile. A possible avenue for their empowerment is being closed off through the imposition of English, the language of the elite. They are turned into foreigners in their own country.

There is no inevitability about the migration to English. It is a deliberate choice and is heavy with consequences.

“Ons is ‘n bastervolk met ‘n bastertaal”. Breyten Breytenbach, 1973.