Your language is my barrier

2009-10-14 09:59

A few years ago my best friend, a travel agent by day and a person who complains bitterly about being a travel agent by night, told me this amusing work story. One day a client phoned him and, in Afrikaans, said that his family was immigrating to Perth and he wanted tickets that were cheap, and not SAA.

Since my friend had spent most of his high school Afrikaans classes secretly reading biographies about Thatcher and Reagan, or fantasising about the boy sitting next to him (you know what homosexual DA supporters are like), he could just about understand what the man was saying, but that was pretty much as far as his Afrikaans skills could take him. So rather than maul the man's mother tongue and embarrass himself in the process, he replied in English.

The client freaked. "Speak in Afrikaans when I speak Afrikaans to you!" he screamed (in Afrikaans). "This is a bilingual country!" [sic]

Now if it were me, I would have had a few choice words to share with the man – which I suppose is one of the many reasons I'm not a travel agent. Instead, my friend tried to placate him with quiet diplomacy. But since he was still speaking English, the now ex-client demanded to know if he got paid for doing such a bad job, promised to have him fired, and hung up in fury.

Hah, I thought. Welcome to my world.

"I've got to ask," I said over mocktails. "What language did he expect to speak when he finally arrived in Perth?"

"Well… Given the soutpiel-drain he'd probably have more luck there than here," my friend joked, making me realise that the once-derogatory term for English speaking South Africans was no longer applicable.

Like most people my age, I've had other people's languages invading my space for as long as I can remember. In school, we were told that if we failed Afrikaans, we failed the standard, no matter how well we did in our other subjects, which in my case, wasn't very well at all. Then when my family moved to Lesotho we were forced to learn French. I failed miserably, although to this day I can still do a pretty convincing French accent, but I think that's mainly thanks to Monty Python.

 In Catholic boarding school I had Latin quite literally beaten into me, then, after high school, I went to army where I got the whole "Praat Afrikaans, troep - hierdie is 'n tweetalige land!" all over again, which always made me think, "Not for very much longer, you racist son of a bitch."

And to be historically accurate, I've spent my entire life speaking the language of my oppressors, the British. Before fleeing the blackened tubers of Tipperary for pastures browner, my undoubtedly illiterate forebears probably spoke some dialect of Irish, a crude vernacular of guttural snorts and snarls that was more phlegm than enunciation.

Fortunately, they made no attempt to preserve their language. Instead my people did what the Irish do best: blended in with wherever they were, shared their drinks with anyone who could keep up with them and impregnated anything with a vagina. And it worked out just great. It's hard to oppress the Irish when there's a little Irish in everyone.

Now I live in a country with 11 official languages. Twelve, if you want to count sign language – and why the hell not? For all I care they could make Klingon an official language, and have Sanskrit subtitles on Top Billing. DSTV could launch an entire channel hosted by Julius Malema in which they make up new words in Pedi, like "time machine", just to see if it suddenly puffs into existence. I might even re-subscribe for that.

But what I won't do is learn to speak any of them.

"You must learn isiXhosa, mfowethu," says a colleague, only half joking, after hearing our company is offering a free language course.

"What's the point?" I retort. "I don't even like soccer." He laughs when I tell him that my only goal for personal transformation in the new South Africa is to learn how to say, "Speak English or get out of my face" in all official languages.

Language conservationists argue that they're attempting to preserve their cultural heritage. And thanks to democracy, they can now do so without getting me involved. But I have to ask: what language, and what cultural heritage? Exactly what heritage is Eugène Terr'blanche, for example, attempting to preserve, when most Afrikaners would rather forget him as well as the past he holds so dear?

And what language, when so many young Afrikaners speak Afrikaans much like I speak French: 98% English, but in an Afrikaans accent. I've met more Xhosas than I can count who speak better English than me, and anger their parents for taking no interest in learning their mother tongue.  Does this make them any less Xhosa, or less Afrikaans? Nope. It just makes them more adept at communicating with the rest of the world. And since we like to think our country is something of a gateway between the developed and the developing world, there's no way this can be a bad thing.

Besides, culture, like language, defies preservation. It moves with the times, incorporating Japanese electronics, American movies, French wine, German cars, African music, Chinese food, Cuban cigars, British comedy, Spanish guitars, Irish columnists, and where would the entire entertainment industry be if it weren't for the finest product Colombia had to offer?

Now I could always try to buy these things in IsiXhosa, Afrikaans or Gaeilge, but for the sake of convenience, I think I'll just forget about those 500 years of tyranny against my people, and order my non-Irish mod-cons in the language of my oppressors.

Twit me at @Chrismcevoy_
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