Monday, March 06, 2006

An African Dialect

On NPR this morning they reported that while accepting an award at last night's Oscars, director Gavin Hood addressed the stars of his movie "Tsotsi" in "an African dialect." Hearing this, I realized that there is a meaning of the word 'dialect' that is confined largely to the media. Instead of meaning "a variety of a language," in this instance I think dialect means "a language whose identity we were unwilling to determine." See, if they said "he addressed the stars of the movie in an African language," they would sound ignorant, right? But if they say dialect, suddenly they seem to be very knowing -- oh that, that's just a dialect there.

I think that this happens especially often with Africa, for a number of reasons. First of all, nations correspond extremely poorly to indigenous languages on that continent, as opposed to Asia and Europe, where they merely correspond poorly. Thus if a German director had said something in some foreign language, it wouldn't be too hard to figure out what language he or she was speaking, or if Ang Lee said something in some other funny language (which he did) you can fairly certainly ascertain from the fact that he is from Taiwan that he was speaking Thai. Yes, II'm kidding. But if a South Africa says something foreign, all bets are off. An African dialect.

Another factor is that I think most Americans think of Africa as a fairly homogenous place, so that it's hard to pin down anything specific there. Sweden is Sweden and Italy is Italy, and though I think the differences between China and Japan are quite subtle (kidding again), most people are aware that differences exist. But Botswana? Nigeria? Tanzania? Who knows? An African dialect.

Finally, I think there is a lingering colonialist attitude, in spite of the progress of the last century, that makes people think of Africa as a primitive place, where maybe they don't even speak real languages. Languages are spoken in places where there are cathedrals, or maybe pagodas. An African dialect.

Okay, maybe I'm a bit too harsh in my judgement. There was a street slang in South Africa's Gauteng province called Tsotsitaal (the film's title "Tsotsi" means criminal in Arikaans, and Tsotsitaal means Red Welsh 'criminalese'), which has developed into a modern version called isiCamtho. Wikipedia says it is a pidgin based on Zulu, Xhosa, Tswan, English and Afrikaans (which seems a bit vague to me). I guess in this case NPR was only somewhat lazy in calling this "an African dialect," if indeed this is what Hood was speaking. But I still think I'm on to something here.


Ben Zimmer said...

This "dialect" business is certainly not distinct to folk-linguistic descriptions of Africa. Recent examples that have come up on the Language Log include Pie(d)montese being called "the fading dialect of the local Piedmont region" and Yucatec Maya being called an "obscure Mayan dialect."

Also, in many parts of the world, a country's minority languages are commonly called "dialects" (as with any language other than Tagalog in the Philippines).

Ben said...

All good points, especially the one about minority languages. Given that my field is Yiddish, I should have realized this. In fact, now that you mention it, I think that most of the times people call Yiddish "a dialect of German" they aren't doing so because of its proximity to German so much as its unofficial status, and perhaps its undeserved colloquial reputation. In fact, I've even heard it called a slang, presumably for the same reasons.