Background to the study

During the recent World Congress of African Linguistics, held in Cologne in August 2009, a number of important issues were raised regarding the status of informal and youth languages in South African townships. Researchers working in the area identified a pressing need for a coherent and comprehensive research undertaking to document the current national picture and to understand how informal languages are progressing within increasingly mixed townships. Professor Neville Alexander, a figure well known for his language policy initiatives as director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESDA) and member of the provincial subcommittee of PANSALB (Pan South African Language Board) the Western Cape Language Committee, charged with advising the Minister of Cultural Affairs on language matters, recorded a petition submitted to him by members of the public that the informal variety Tsotsitaal be made a national language. Dr Alexander suggested that the issue of urban varieties is crucial for both national language policy and language policy in education, and urged that more research be undertaken in the area.

While some researchers have argued that informal varieties are becoming ‘lingua francas’ or vernaculars in the township space, other researchers have identified varieties which are linked to criminality, violent masculinity and gangsterism. In order to function as a national 'lingua franca', such an urban variety would require codification which seems to be paradoxically at odds with these sub cultural alignments. Additionally, the relationship between grammatical framework and lexicon is currently ambiguous in these varieties. For these reasons, recent calls for reconsideration of these languages as a medium of communication in schools need to be properly informed by an empirical understanding of the linguistic structures and roles of different varieties, and what their use signifies for both speakers and non-speakers.

Research into South African urban varieties (such as Tsotsitaal, Isicamtho, isiTsotsi and Flaaitaal) has been undertaken over the past decade in a number of different townships. The majority have focused on the Gauteng region (Aycard 2008; Bembe 2006; Bembe and Beukes 2007; Calteaux 1994, 1996; Childs 1997; Kiessling and Mous 2004; Makhudu 1995; Molamu 2003; Ntshangase 1993, 1995; Slabbert and Myers-Scotton, 1997), a number of recent studies have begun to consider other urban centres in South Africa (Hurst 2008, 2009; Mesthrie 2008; Rudwick 2005; Stone 1991, 1995), yet little comparison has been made across regional varieties. Additionally each prior study has had its own linguistic or anthropological research aims, and correspondingly different methods, making the overall picture one of differential complexity, and making comparison between varieties nationally a difficult if not impossible task.

Calteaux’s (1994) work in the multilingual township Tembisa revealed that alongside the standard languages, township residents used a number of informal varieties including: ‘a Black urban vernacular, Afrikaans-based Tsostitaal, Zulu-based Tsotsitaal, Soweto Zulu Slang, Soweto Isicamtho, [and] Tembisa Isicamtho’. The diversity in informal language varieties led her to recommend further research in other communities. In particular she suggested that ‘the implications of the widespread use of these varieties, particularly for education also deserve further investigation as a matter of urgency’ (1994: xii). Bembe (2006) during her research in Gauteng, has identified the functions of English-based slang in contrast to Tsotsitaal, and in the process uncovered some implications for youth identity and the importance of context. Similarly to Calteaux, Bembe recommends further research on the educational implications of slang use (Bembe 2006: iv).

Rudwick (2005 & 2008) considers the language situation in the township of Umlazi in Kwa-Zulu Natal, and has identified a generation gap in language use that points to a need for consideration of youth languages in the rapidly evolving linguistic landscapes of multilingual townships. Meanwhile Aycard (2008: 132) studies Iscamtho-speaking youth in White City, and argued that a number of youth can now be considered ‘first language speakers’ of the variety. He asks that we consider youth language as a challenge to colonial language policies and the embodiment of South African linguistic modernity, and suggests language policy implications relating to these varieties. Kiessling and Mous (2004) highlight a number of urban youth languages in various countries in Africa, indicating that the phenomenon may have implications on a continental and even global scale. They suggest that these youth languages can be linked to the production of new ‘project identities’ by the youth and part of the construction of new national identities in post-colonial Africa.

My own work (2008 & 2009) on Tsotsitaal in the Cape Town townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu uncovered a relationship between informal youth languages, style and identity, and discusses the relations between local and global language and identity construction among increasingly globalised youth. I furthermore argue that Tsotsitaal does not have a consistent grammatical framework, and that this undermines its legitimacy as a ‘language’ in the normal sense. In support, Mesthrie (2008: 95) argues that the many urban youth languages flourishing in South African townships may be one phenomenon – essentially a set of lexical items attached to the syntax of existing languages.

A final consideration in many of the studies has been gender inequality in the use of these varieties. A number of studies (Hurst 2008, Calteaux 1994, Bembe 2006) have indicated that females are more likely to avoid the use of informal slang such as Tsotsitaal, and that the varieties are primarily used by male peer groups. The varieties are also related to criminal activity. These dynamics would seriously compromise the legitimacy of using the varieties in social institutions such as schools.

These studies indicate that prior to consideration of these varieties as mediums of communication (formal or informal) in schools, or even as a ‘national language’, further research needs to be undertaken to document and interrogate the national picture, the status of these varieties and the implications of their use. The project team for this research proposal includes some of the leading researchers in the field. Additionally, Karen Calteaux and Stephanie Rudwick have indicated they are willing to participate as advisors in the project. Therefore, while the objectives are ambitious, we are confident that the expertise available will allow significant findings to emerge from the research.

Since the termination of apartheid, the South African nation has focused on developing an inclusive society and culture. Youth culture is a major site of this development and should be taken seriously. Furthermore, language is a crucial area in terms of inclusivity. The dynamic language situation particularly relating to youth brings into question assumptions about national languages, what it means to have national languages, and how national languages relate to the development of national identity.

Language is also the medium through which we must provide equal access to education, justice, and democratisation. NGOs working in the field of health awareness and, in particular, HIV/AIDs awareness have recognised the importance of utilising the languages of the youth to target the youth, the most vulnerable population, and the future of the country. A number of representatives of NGOs and researchers involved in these areas attended the start-up workshop and have indicated a wish to be involved in the project going forward (see list of participants on pp. 6 below).

This research relates directly to educational policy through advising the education department on school policy in relation to the use of youth languages and informal languages in the classroom. The results will also have implications for national language policy and will directly affect the position of PANSALB, with resultant impact on the provincial language committees and national language services. Finally the project findings will have implications for language practice and policy in the police & health sectors.

Due to the varied interests of the research team and the students under supervision in the project, the research will draw broadly on a number of theoretical bodies of knowledge, for example language variation and style theory and theories of multilingualism and language contact (Appel & Muysken 1987, Coupland 2007, Rampton 2006). The research project will employ a multi-sited ethnographic approach. Multi-sited ethnography involves multiple locations and is useful in the case of a phenomenon such as Tsotsitaal, which exists in a number of locations simultaneously. Multiple locations make it possible to comparatively identify the features that varieties have in common, and those which are specific to a location. The locations currently identified are: White City, Soweto; Nyanga, Cape Town; East Rand, Gauteng; Grahamstown, Eastern Cape (site & researcher still to be confirmed in Durban in collaboration with Nhlanhla Mathonsi at the UKZN).

The envisaged research project seeks to gather current, empirical linguistic data on the informal varieties being spoken in South African townships, alongside sociological data regarding user groups and functions of the varieties. Additionally, the relationship of language to youth style and subculture will be considered. For this reason, data capture will involve video footage in each location, coupled with audio capture of natural language use. Additionally perception interviews will be conducted to ascertain community attitudes towards the informal varieties. Teams of researchers, comprising both senior and junior researchers and research assistants will capture data in township locations, while naturalistic data will be gathered via community participants contacted through schools (schools have already been identified in Nyanga and East Rand).

The application of identical methodologies at a number of sites will enable comparison of data and allow for a clearer understanding of the national picture. The project will be co-ordinated by a team based at the UCT, enabling centralisation of information and co-ordinated analysis of the various investigations. Training for junior researchers on each project team will be undertaken to ensure consistency of capture and analysis.

The project will focus on video and audio data capture, coupled with perception surveys. Analysis of the data will consist of gestural and linguistic analysis of Tsotsitaal, as well as discourse analysis of attitudes to these urban varieties.

The software suite used for the analysis will be ELAN software, and Professor Maarten Mous, our Dutch research partner, has indicated that resources are available from the Max Planck institute to provide training courses and training materials to junior researchers on the software.
Finally, comparison with similar situations across the continent (Sheng in Nairobi, Nouchi in Abidjan) may be insightful to come to recommendations. Researchers currently working on these varieties across the continent include: Georges Mutabwa (Indubil, Congo); Carol de Feral (Camfranglais, Cameroon); Kathrin Tiewa (Camfranglais, Cameroon); Gardi Stein-Kanjora (Camfranglais, Cameroon); Abdel Rahim Mugaddam (youth language, Khartoum); Maik Gibson (Sheng, Kenya); Juliana Franca Macek (Sheng, Kenya); Philip Rudd (Sheng, Kenya). It is envisaged that a research network between informal urban language researchers will be developed during the course of the project, utilising Information Communication technologies such as online networking and the project management site.