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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sepitori: The Language of Tshwane

Black people in the metropolitan district of Tshwane, which surrounds the city of Pretoria, communicate in a non-standard variety they call Sepitori, referred to in sociolinguistics as Pretoria Sotho. It is based on the Sekgatla dialect of Setswana with many words from a mutually intelligible language, Sepedi, as well as a few from Afrikaans and English. It emerged soon after Dutch speakers settled in Pretoria during the 1850s. The Bakgatla – 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 local municipalities such as Madibeng (North West Province) and Bela-Bela (Limpopo Province).

Sepitori has entered formal settings such as schools, the workplace and business. It is also popular in the entertainment industry (e.g. soapies, movies, music, stand-up comedy, etc.). It is freely spoken on community radio stations such Tshwane FM. An utterance such as “I know this man; he likes to wear one shoe” in Sepitori would be: “Ka mo itse die man; o rata HO APARA setlhako se one.” (Setswana; Afrikaans; SEPEDI; and English.)

It is not a written ‘language’, but its native speakers can discriminate between ‘bad’ or ‘good’ Sepitori. Speaking it with flair symbolises sophistication and being city-wise. As such, many non-native speakers replace their varieties with it even when they have never lived in Tshwane. One researcher even suggests that it is gaining momentum in areas such as Rustenburg (North West Province).

It is not contested that there is a wide gap between standard and non-standard varieties of African languages. This may explain why learners who study African languages struggle in school, particularly those who reside in multilingual urban centres such as Tshwane. Some sociolinguists suggest that there is no reason why Sepitori cannot be used to strengthen standard varieties of Setswana and Sepedi. By taking such a bold step, this wide gap will be narrowed and over time, the spoken variety (non-standard) will begin to approximate to the written one. Of importance is that language exists for the convenience of people and not vice versa. Put differently, if it works for a speech community to make certain linguistic adjustments for its effective communication (or convenience), then why not?

Current trends suggest that standard varieties are on the decline while non-standard varieties such as Sepitori are increasing in popularity and status. With the National Planning Commission projecting that South Africa will be more than 70% urbanised by 2030, it is reasonable to equally project that standard varieties – in their current form – will decline even further, and may even face attrition within a few generations. Those who argue that non-standard varieties should play no role in resuscitating African languages, must engage with current realities, as it would be helpful to make radical and courageous decisions now.

Thabo Ditsele is a sociolinguist; a professional English language editor and Setswana translator; and the author of a published Setswana novel Maile maila boganana. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Language Practice at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria. In August 2012, he presented a Paper on “Sepitori” at a Linguistics Conference held at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

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