Indigenous Languages and the Internet: With LitNet as a case studyRussell H. Kaschula & Izak de Vries (1)
AbstractThe death of apartheid has paved the way for change regarding the status and use of indigenous languages, including Afrikaans. Theoretically, the new constitution provided status and officialdom for all South Africas languages. However, in reality, it would seem that English remains the language of power. Although Afrikaans was released from the officialdom of apartheid, it, along with the nine indigenous languages, have essentially been robbed of their status. This is especially true of Afrikaans, which no longer retains its status as a major, protected, language in South Africa. English, being one of the major languages in which the world trades at present, has become the de facto language in which government addresses the South African nation. In courts of law, for example, the language of record is also set to become English, according to the Minister of Justice. At the present moment English and Afrikaans are both languages of record, but the remaining indigenous languages are not.
It would seem then that the indigenous languages of South Africa, including Afrikaans, now find themselves in the same arena in a post-colonial or neo-colonial Africa. Afrikaans has indeed been re-instated as a minority language, although it is spoken by more than 15,66% of the South African population as opposed to about 8,68% of English speakers. What is interesting is to note how Afrikaners are dealing with this situation, sometimes in conjunction with speakers of the other indigenous languages, which are in fact majority languages, for example, Zulu, spoken by 21,61% of the population. It would seem then, that indigenous languages are often erroneously grouped together as minority languages. Protest groups such as the newly formed PRAAG (Pro Afrikaans Action Group) are lamenting the loss of Afrikaans place in society. For those with money, a new Afrikaans-only television channel has been launched in order to counter the lack of Afrikaans on the SABC.
However, it is the Internet which has allowed Afrikaans to find a new, and cheap, medium to mushroom itself back into contention. This is in line with occurrences elsewhere in the world. While English is the majority language on the Internet, it only holds 57,4% of the world-wide content. Non-English speaking people make use of the net to promote their own languages, sometimes in a bid to release the grip English presently has on the information highway. The Japanese make up 20% of these people, 14,6% are German and 9,8% are French. Dutch, the sister language of Afrikaans, holds 4,5% of users and Italian 5,9%. The question then for South Africa is: How are our indigenous, marginalised languages responding to the challenge posed by the Internet?
Although Afrikaans is not even mentioned in the world-wide statistics above, the Internet has clearly become a way for speakers of the language to break down barriers of distance and space, to air their views, publish their poetry, fiction, academic articles and news. The Internet journal, LitNet, is an example of this phenomenon. Dan Roodt, author, academic and anti-apartheid campaigner has used LitNet to launch a vociferous attack on the hegemony of the English establishment that threatens to choke the minority languages in South Africa. A heated debate has ensued. It has spilled over into the major Afrikaans daily newspapers, all of which are on-line and can be read anywhere in the world. At the same time, the voices of the remaining indigenous languages seem to remain largely mute, with the exception of Xhosa, and to some extent Zulu. Why is this?
LitNets pages, upon which academic content, poetry and fiction get published, are very popular. In a time when the publication of traditional academic journals has become extremely expensive, and the publication of fiction and poetry in the indigenous languages increasingly rare, LitNet has become the standard-bearer for a newly marginalised language (Afrikaans), and it has the potential to reach out to other marginalised languages. LitNet is not exclusively Afrikaans. Xhosa and English already have a strong presence and there are increasing use of Zulu and Sotho. The journal is aspiring to be representative of all of South Africas languages, but this initiative needs to come from the speakers of these languages. One can only postulate as to the reasons why this is taking so long to happen. It is the purpose of this paper to do just that. To date it would seem that Xhosa and Afrikaans remain the most prominent indigenous LitNet languages.
One of the legacies of post-colonialism is the dilemma faced by smaller languages, which run the risk of being swallowed up by the language of the coloniser.
IntroductionIn terms of section 3 of the South African Constitution, individual language rights are entrenched. Even so, there is a serious need for status planning on the part of the indigenous languages. South Africans suffer from a form of linguistic paralysis, which seriously impacts on peoples lives. This is especially true, for example in the medical and legal arenas. Of course it is probably true of most professions in South Africa, but it is in these two where a certain amount of research has been done. (See Kaschula 1995, Moeketsi 1998, Crawford 1999 and Saohatse 2000). It is almost ironic that English is regarded as one of the international languages of trade, yet, in South Africa, it is spoken by a small minority and it thereby excludes a large proportion of the population from participating in the mainstream economy. According to Kaschula (1999:64):
It is the purpose of this paper to explore some of the issues surrounding language planning in South Africa, and the implications of the use of language on the Internet. Furthermore, the relationship between Afrikaans, a previously empowered language in South Africa and the other African languages will be explored. Increasingly it would seem that Afrikaans speakers view their language as an indigenous African language, rather than a language of European origin. There is no doubt that indigenous languages, together with Afrikaans, face similar challenges in the post 1994 era in South Africa.
As far as the use of languages in present-day South Africa is concerned, Kamwangamalu (2000:50) refers to this system in reality as a
Furthermore, he argues that there should be a serious re-think of the language policy
Though such a capitalistic approach to language planning may seem unfortunate to many, it may be a timely and innovative idea to explore a carrot and stick method to status planning. For example, if a senior council were at least trilingual, then there should be a greater chance of their promotion to the position of judge and so on. In a recent article Kaschula (1999:71-72) argues that:
Is it not ironic that the Internet, developed essentially through the medium of English by those who control the World Bank, is now presenting languages other than English an opportunity to flourish and to even become global players within national and global economies? This is borne out by CNNs new site: CNN.com.jp, which caters for Japanese speakers. IBM is already working on a programme that will enable inter-language translation at the push of a button. There is also a new two and a half million Rand package on the cards for the simultaneous translation of South Africas eleven languages. It is a text to speech programme, which can be accessed at www.nuance.com. Dare one presume that modern technology will encourage the use of, rather than orchestrate the demise of so-called minority languages?
Language-use and the InternetPolitical and economic development in the 20th century has largely been conducted through the medium of English. Likewise, modern technologies such as the Internet owe their development to the English language, having basically been developed in America. Its use has also spread most rapidly among countries of the English-speaking world. According to a recent article published in the British news journal The Editor (April 14, 2000):
Even though English is the dominant language used on the Internet, it would seem that this directly correlates to peoples access to the Internet. Access to the Internet is continually broadening to encapsulate speakers of languages other than English, hence empowering these languages as well. Although Internet hosts have increased by about 450% in the English-speaking world over the past two years, Japanese users have increased by approximately 430%, French by 375%, and German by 250%. This may still imply that English remains well placed to take over the world. Indeed one linguist has suggested that English be renamed Globalese so as to imply that it no longer belongs to a single speech community. The director of a Russian Internet provider has recently referred to the web as the ultimate act of intellectual colonialism, thereby creating a certain amount of anxiety amongst speakers of other languages.
However, it is not just English-speakers who are making use of the web. There are many sites in non-English speaking countries that do make use of English on the web. This is especially true of countries such as Egypt, Latvia, Turkey and even South Africa where English remains the status language. There is also the presumption that if you say something in English it can reach the international community. But it would be wrong to think that the use of English on the Internet will have to come at the expense of other languages. This is especially true when one analyses the socio-economic potential that the Internet stands to unleash world-wide. The African continent may now be poised on the brink of what has been termed the African renaissance, thereby capitulating it onto the information highway, at the same time by-passing the many stop and yield signs which other countries have experienced on the road to globalisation.
Socio-economics and the InternetThe Internet liberates languages from finite communicative resources and provides an economically competitive platform for the dissemination of material at a time when formal publishers are reticent to take any chances with publishing books in minority languages. According to The Editor (April 14, 2000:12):
Arguably there are strong forces advocating for the use of local languages on the Internet. A new development in countries such as France and Italy is the use of the Internet by small businesses that are interested to use the Internet for local communication unlike the initial users who were made up of large businesses and public institutions. English has, for example, always been the language of international trade for books, travel, software, compact discs and so on.
But it is in the realm of news that there has been a recent flourishing of the use of languages other than English. It is also true though that it is organisations such as CNN, the American news network who have truly achieved genuine world-wide news distribution, and this through the medium of English. However, the web has changed this. For example, French speakers who now live in non-Francophone countries have online access to between 20 and 30 French-language newspapers, and to as many direct radio transmissions. This is true also of Afrikaans speakers who have on-line access to Afrikaans newspapers from anywhere in the world. There are also electronic versions of newspapers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Colombia, Turkey, Qatar and about 80 other nations. This means that speech communities will get remote access to government information, educational material and so on. It will also be easier to distribute cultural products from other nations:
This could lead to a closer sense of connection within these language communities, no matter where the speakers live.
The net can have profound influences, for example, where people have not been served by the traditional media perhaps due to geographic or political reasons. The Chinese are today effectively making use of the net as a forum for political discussions.
This presupposes however that everyone will have equal access to the Internet which will be a long time coming in many parts of the world, including Africa. There are, for example only 10 telephones per 100 people in Latin America, whilst there are only 2 per 100 in India.
It is probable that major organisations such as CNN will not always be able to hold onto English and promote it unconditionally. Who could ever have convinced the Romans at the height of their empire, that Latin would become a dead language, replaced by English in the long term. Kamwangamalu (2000:50) quotes the example of a CNN travel quiz that was broadcast on 18 April 1998, four years after South Africa gained its liberation. What is the official language of South Africa? Both English and Afrikaans are the official languages. On the one hand, this smacks of the intellectual colonisation spoken of earlier. On the other hand it also reflects the reality of the lack of status planning on the part of the other nine official languages. However, one would like to think that things can change. The SABC recently set up a site: SABCnews.co.za. This site now provides news in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Sotho.
Some statisticsEnglish captures the biggest segment of the Internet communitys activities, but the use of indigenous languages world-wide have soared in cyber space. English is still used in 57,4% of all Internet activities, but the European languages already capture 26,4% of the market, and the Asian languages 16,2%. In South Africa, 21,2% of the market are now Nguni or Sotho language speakers.
There are millions of people online who access the Internet in languages other than English. As far as the international statistics are concerned, the breakdown is as follows: Japanese 20,6%, German 14,6%, Chinese 10,3%, Spanish 10,1%, French 9,8%, Italian 5,9%, Dutch 4,5%, Korean 4,4%, Swedish 4,1% and Portuguese 3,5% (2).
Afrikaans: a case studyOne of the few language issues which has led to debate over the last year in South Africa has been the perceived marginalisation of Afrikaans. A group of Afrikaners then decided to fight what they perceived to be the demotion of Afrikaans in the public sector and the growth of English. They chose the Internet to initiate this debate. As a result, LitNets letter pages were flooded with letters and petitions. The debate has since been taken up in the media. However, the initial impetus came from Dan Roodt who posted a petition on LitNet on 20 December 1999. A translated portion thereof follows:
We, the undersigned South Africans, hereby take issue with the unfair handling of Afrikaans by the present government, more especially against the unequal status that Afrikaans holds vis-ą-vis English. Not only does this favouring of English over and above Afrikaans (and the other languages) go against the constitution, but it also speaks of a chauvinism and previous British colonialism which has no place in an independent country like South Africa. We demand immediate equalisation of Afrikaans vis-ą-vis English by all authorities, central, provincial and local, as well as all companies or institutions that are government owned or under government control, for example the broadcasting organisation that is presently known exclusively under an English name, the SABC. The encouragement of the use of English only as a main language in institutions such as those mentioned must cease immediately and Afrikaans must at least appear in an equal position with English.
We re-iterate that Afrikaans belongs to the entire South Africa, that it is unique to this land and that it possesses a specifically Afrikaans character, and therefore it deserves official recognition. We will not be colonised!
(Dan Roodt, 20 December 1999,
Extracts from a sample of the responses to this petition are included here. These sample responses represent the main crux of the debate:
(...) PRAAGs hysteria about the universal attack of the Anglo-American colonialism is in my book exactly the same as the reaction of the National Party with their scare tactics about die Rooi Gevaar and the Total onslaught in the seventies and eighties. The idea that the ANC government has a vendetta against Afrikaans is ludicrous. They have really got more important things to think about.
(Hannelie Booyens, 15 April 2000,
But, in another open letter an Afrikaans writer concludes that:
(Johan Rossouw, 26 January 2000,
Ampie Coetzee, author and academic, makes reference to the thirty-something generation which seems not to care about their language. He concludes that:
(3 February 2000,
The reaction to this petition was fierce, many debating the pros and cons of linguistic colonialism. By the 30th of April 2000, no less than 12% of all the letters on LitNet lobbied in favour of a pro-active struggle for Afrikaans. Of note were the 14% of letters that argued vehemently against a new struggle for a language that has already been tainted by its past. Those opposed to a new struggle were in the overwhelming majority of cases quite concerned for and about Afrikaans, but could not bring themselves to face a language war in a country where the need for peace and stability is paramount.
One of the fiercest opponents to the idea of a new struggle for language, is Koos Kombuis, veteran anti-apartheid singer and song writer. In his own words (translated):
(7 December 1999,
Kombuis and many others who argued against a new struggle felt that a positive image of the language, as projected by speakers thereof, would do much more for Afrikaans than a negative struggle. Again the words of Kombuis:
But what is the importance of this mini war of letters?
In the words of Ashcroft et al (1994:78):
At a time when literature, especially in the indigenous languages, has become to be seen as expensive and superfluous by many, the Internet provides the cheap solution to those wishing to replace the colonial text. Not only does it provide a cheap way to allow people to air their views, as the case study regarding Afrikaans has indicated, it also allows young authors the opportunity to see their works published in the company of the well-known writers. Die Rooi Roman (1999), an Afrikaans novel now in print, was initially written on-line by a number of authors, some of them well-known, and others not so well-known. This is the type of interesting experiment which African languages could engage with on the Internet.
Orality-literacy and technologyLet us pursue this point using oral literature as an example. In a recent article (1999), Kaschula noted, inter alia, that it is the three-way-dialectic between the oral word, the written word and the technologised word that needs further exploration insofar as the Internet is concerned. Today, it is the use of the Internet that has the potential to revolutionise the composition, transmission and reception not only of written literature, but also oral literature, for example, poetry. It could be orally performed and simultaneously translated to a global audience through the oral word. Thereafter it could be down-loaded and published in book form. The recent purchasing of Bongani Sitoles oral poetry by Microsoft marks the beginning of the process and the return to what could be termed technologised orality (3). Finnegan (1992:169) concludes that
This is true too of Sitoles work. His spontaneous oral performances were initially video-taped and then reduced to writing and published in a book entitled Qhiwu-u-u-la!! Return to the Fold!! (Kaschula & Matyumza 1996). Some of his poetry captured on cassette can now be heard on the Internet hence a return back to orality via the technologised word.
A further example of this type of interaction can be found in Goldstucks Ink in the Porridge (1994) which is a collection of urban legends (initially orally told) taken from the Internet and published in written form. These legends were told during South Africas transition to democracy.
Wynchank (1994:13) takes this point further by exploring the role of the West African griot in relation to contemporary cinema in Senegal, arguing that the cineaste represents a type of modern griot in West Africa, which is neither primary nor secondary. Wynchank argues that
Although the latter may be true of cinema, this mechanical transmission is becoming less deferred and more immediate as far as the Internet is concerned. It is also true that many of the extra-linguistic factors associated with performance poetry such as gesture, emphasis and speed, timing, context, intonation and voice quality, dramatisation and so on, are lost when the poem is written down, but this does not necessarily apply to technologised orality where the oral could again be accompanied by the visual as well as the written. It is now timely to place the orality-literacy debate within the context of a fast-changing world-wide technological boom in order to understand the oral-literate continuum more holistically.
ConclusionIn his recent article, Kamwangamalu (2000:59-60) concludes that status planning for the nine official African languages seems to be at odds with language practices in the countrys institutions such as television, education, government and administration, courts of law as well as the Defence Force. It is in reality English and Afrikaans that flourish in these institutions. He concludes that
Writers in all of South Africas languages should therefore be encouraged to make use of sites such as LitNet (www.mweb.co.za/litnet), not only to have their literature placed on-line, but also to contribute to the letter pages and to submit their academic work in all our indigenous languages. It is also the intention of LitNet to broaden its base in time to come in order to cover languages from various parts of Africa. It is only through vibrant and constructive debate that language issues can be addressed in South Africa, indeed throughout the continent. The case of Afrikaans has highlighted this issue. Whether the other languages will follow in the same footsteps remains to be seen. Already though, sites on LitNet such as Isikhundla Sababhali, a Xhosa site, as well as Phezulu, a Zulu site, are becoming increasingly well established. Academic material pertaining to African Languages, normally involving articles pending publication in the South African Journal of African Languages is also placed on LitNet in the Seminar Room site. All writers should take advantage of this medium of publication. The site has a world-wide readership and averages more than 100 000 withdrawals per month. This gives some indication as to the popularity of the site. Furthermore, there are on-going debates within tertiary institutions regarding the accreditation of material published on the Internet. Many would argue that it is the publication forum of the future and that books will ultimately become obsolete as more readers simply down-load material from the Internet. This is, of course largely dependent on the availability of access to the Internet. If access does become widely available throughout Africa, this could mean that African languages could work their way upwards on the information highway. There are already moves afoot by the South African Foundation for example, to have every school wired in Gauteng. Virtual villages in the remotest parts of our continent could become a reality. For example, they would be able to trade with anyone in the world at the push of a button.
Finally, if there is anyone who wishes to contribute material to the LitNet site, this material can be submitted directly to the African languages co-ordinator, care of the following e-mail address: email@example.com. Alternatively material can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Kopiereg in die ontwerp en inhoud van hierdie webruimte behoort aan LitNet, uitgesluit die kopiereg in bydraes wat berus by die outeurs wat sodanige bydraes verskaf. LitNet streef na die plasing van oorspronklike materiaal en na die oop en onbeperkte uitruil van idees en menings. Die menings van bydraers tot hierdie werftuiste is dus hul eie en weerspieėl nie noodwendig die mening van die redaksie en bestuur van LitNet nie. LitNet kan ongelukkig ook nie waarborg dat hierdie diens ononderbroke of foutloos sal wees nie en gebruikers wat steun op inligting wat hier verskaf word, doen dit op hul eie risiko. Media24, M-Web, Ligitprops 3042 BK en die bestuur en redaksie van LitNet aanvaar derhalwe geen aanspreeklikheid vir enige regstreekse of onregstreekse verlies of skade wat uit sodanige bydraes of die verskaffing van hierdie diens spruit nie. LitNet is n onafhanklike joernaal op die Internet, en word as gesamentlike onderneming deur Ligitprops 3042 BK en Media24 bedryf.