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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Making a case for Sepitori language

SEPITORI (or Pretoria Sotho) is the lingua franca of the Tshwane urban area, spoken mainly by black people who constitute 75 percent of its nearly 3 million people.

Teachers use it to explain in the classroom and workers speak it at work; it is popular in the entertainment industry (in soapies, movies, music, on Tshwane FM and in stand-up comedy).

Sepitori emerged soon after the Dutch settled in the area now known as Pretoria in 1855.

Setswana speakers, who lived in the area, interacted with migrant Sepedi speakers from Limpopo when both groups provided labour for the Dutch.

Today, it has spread far beyond the Tshwane metro and is spoken in neighbouring towns such as Brits in North West and Bela-Bela in Limpopo.

Some researchers have observed that it is gaining momentum in Rustenburg.

While non-standard language varieties are increasing in popularity, status, prestige and use, standard varieties are on a decline.

Census 2011 reports that six African languages had negative growth between 2001 and 2011 (isiZulu; isiXhosa; Sepedi; Setswana; Sesotho and siSwati) while only three experienced positive growth in the same period (Xitsonga, Tshivenda and isiNdebele).

With the National Planning Commission projecting that South Africa will be more than 70 percent urbanised by 2030, it is reasonable to project that standard language varieties, in their current form, will decline even further, while non-standard varieties grow, as is the case with people who migrate to Tshwane and quickly learn to speak this variety.

Some sociolinguists suggest that there is no reason why non-standard varieties cannot be used to strengthen standard varieties of their ancestor languages. By taking such a bold step, the gap would be narrowed and, over time, the spoken variety (non-standard) will begin to approximate to the written one.

Afrikaans began as a non-standard variety of Dutch. Before and after it became an official language of South Africa in 1925, bold steps were taken to develop it and its custodians did not hesitate to adopt terminology from wherever they could find it – Khoisan, Malay, African, Portuguese and South African English languages among others.
Sepitori is a variety of language based on the Sekgatla dialect of Setswana with many additions from Sepedi (Northern Sotho), and a few from Sesotho (Southern Sotho).
Sepitori has many adoptives from Afrikaans and South African English.

I propose that Sepitori vocabulary (verbs and nouns) be allowed to be synonyms with those of its ancestor languages. Example: a Setswana verb “tsamaya” (to walk) is used in Sepitori while a Sepedi verb with the same meaning “sepela” is not.

Those who learn Sepedi in formal settings would be rebuked for using “tsamaya” and not “sepela”.

If both were allowed to be used as synonyms in Setswana and Sepedi, this would not only narrow the gap between what people ordinarily speak in Tshwane, it would also enrich the vocabularies of both languages. In that case, “tsamaya” would be a regionally based verb used in Tshwane, while “sepela” would remain a preferred verb in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

Speakers of English worldwide prefer to use a noun (e g “petrol” in South African English) without its synonym being necessarily wrong elsewhere (e g “gasoline” in US English).

My other proposal would be to allow Sepitori-coined vocabulary into those of Setswana and Sepedi. For example: “spatlo” (a “bunny chow”) does not have an equivalent in Setswana and Sepedi. Instead of being descriptive when one came across the noun in a translation project, the Sepitori noun should be adopted. All that would be needed is to alter its spelling to conform to the orthographies of the two languages – “s[eph]atlo”.

Sepitori speakers learning Setswana and Sepedi would not be discouraged from sustaining their lessons if they are not reminded that what they speak with pride is a “corrupted language” as some language purists would refer to nonstandard varieties.

Languages which are flexible to enrich their vocabularies as and when such are coined and used have the potential to grow; those that stay rigid, decline in speaker population and eventually die. The status, prestige and growth of Sepitori offer an opportunity to grow Setswana and Sepedi.

Language purists who argue that non-standard varieties should play no role in the development of African languages must engage with current realities as it would be helpful to make radical decisions without delay.

Thabo Ditsele is pursuing a PhD in socio-linguistics at Tshwane University of Technology.

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