Languages come and go. New ones develop as old ones die out. Latin is now Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian, Catalan, and other dialects of Spanish and French. English may retain its Anglo-Saxon roots, but none of us can now read or understand early English which is effectively a foreign tongue. English at basics is a pigdin formed of old English and French as imposed by the 1066 Norman overlords.
Growing up in South Africa I learnt a smattering of Fanagalo. My mother spoke what was called kitchen Fanagalo to the maids who helped her run the house and who in effect did the cooking. My father spoke mine Fanagalo to the Blacks on the mine and the fellow who came up to the house to do the gardening. I was formally taught Fanagalo when I joined Union Corporation and went to work on the construction of the Hendrik Verwoerd dam. We chatted away to the workers placing concrete to form the massive gravity and arch dam, now called the GariepDam.
Like all languages, Fanagalo had a cadence, a rhythm, a certain poetry to it. It was certainly unique in that you did not have to worry about declensions or conjugations, or even tenses. You had no need of the subjunctive. Yet I recall that one could express many a subtlety and emotion with an additional wave of the hand, a voice tone, or a look. Talking about the French inspectors who came to check on concrete placement quality, was done in such a way that we all, from the newest laborer to myself, the civil engineer, could understand and appreciate the attitudes the team had to this strange creature from a foreign land and spoke an unitelligible language.
In a report at this link, I read that Fanagalo might be fading away in South Africa and on the mines as a common communication means. The report tells us:
Prof. Mbulungeni Madiba, a linguist at the University of Cape Town, said surveys done a few years ago showed that 36 percent of the workers used Fanagalo when they were off work and away from the mine. Seven percent described it as their “home language” but he said they were most likely migrant workers from places such as Mozambique who wanted to say they spoke something South African.
But companies like Gold Fields, the world’s fourth largest gold miner, are looking to replace it with English or African languages such as Xhosa for cultural and safety reasons. Other South African miners are doing the same. Harmony Gold has a policy to ensure all employees are English literate by 2015, which spokeswoman Marian van der Walt said “implies phasing out Fanagalo.”
Unions also want to see Fanagalo pushed aside. “We are strongly of the view that the languages used should reflect the location of a mine,” said Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers.
Language politics and the urge to change the language everybody speaks is hardly new in South Africa. I was brought up speaking English. My paternal grandmother spoke only Afrikaans to me. My maternal grandmother lapsed often into her native German while claiming to speak the Queen’s English.
The government of the time was trying to get us all, of every hue and origin, to speak Afrikaans. And there were the Afrikaans academics who would not admit that Afrikaans itself is a pidgin language, like Fanagalo. These academics sought to purify Afrikaans by taking it back to its Dutch roots, and so they were forever introducing new germanic words to replace the French words that had crept in from the Huguenots and the English. Recall that the French Huguenots who fled France landed up in South Africa and were forced to speak Dutch–a feat they never truly accomplished.
Left to linguistic-nature, Fanagalo would probably develop over time into a new fully-fledged language that facilitates communication amongst the many varied language-speaking groups of South Africa. (I think there are some thirteen official languages now.) But the language mavens, it appears, are now intent on once again forcibly seeking to change that and to impose a selected language on others. Now it is to be English or Xhosa. The old Afrikaners must be spluttering at the fact that it is English, not Afrikaans that is coming out tops.
Of course the ascendancy of English is inevitable, not because it is a better or easier language, but simply because it is one of those international languages that no longer carries racial or ethnic overtones. (Except if you support Ebonics in the slums of LA.) That is an accident of history and of the need for a common way of communicating. I cannot conceive of Xhosa becoming the primary common language in South Africa, in spite of the fact that it is Mandela’s first language and of many in the ANC. Zuma is Zulu afterall.
There may be a certain nobility in asking that the language of the mine be the language of the area of the mine. It may even contribute to safer working conditions on the mine. But keep in mind that to identify the language of the Witwatersrand where most of the mines are located is nigh on impossible. Many would claim that the original language of that area is Afrikaans.
So the fight and struggle over language continues. Academics will opine; managers will pontificate; unions will appeal to worker instincts; and the common man will speak however it suits him and best promotes his advance. We cannot grieve over the death of a language. That is inevitable; has happened often before; is happening now; and will continue as long as people move around and talk. We can simply sit back and watch with interest what happens.