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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-07-12)

The decay of English in South Africa, sad though it is, has brought a few moments of hilarity as well. The demise of apartheid made room for what is called “affirmative action.” Whereas the apartheid system discriminated against blacks, affirmative action discriminates against whites, especially in such areas as job-seeking. This policy is highly regarded, demonstrating as it does the tried and tested principle that two wrongs do make a right.

As a result, many of our radio newsreaders and interviewers are affirmative-action appointees who did not grow up with English as their home language, and their battles with English pronunciation are a daily source of unkind merriment. (“Determined” pronounced “DEET – a – MINED” kept us happy for days.) Inevitably, one is struck by the smallness of the gap between understanding what is said and not understanding it. When the speaker says “revelled” with the same stress-pattern as “rebelled”, there is a significant loss of comprehension for a second or two. Several of our broadcasters now pronounce the word “defuse” (a bomb) in the same way as they would say “refuse” (a request). The result is indistinguishable from “diffuse”, which doesn’t have the same meaning at all.

Print journalists too are engaged in a daily struggle with the language. Along with the blessings of democracy has come an avalanche of fraud and corruption at every level of local and national government – or perhaps we just hear more about it than we did before. In connection with a recent investigation into corruption in the Provincial Health Department of KwaZulu-Natal, our morning paper said that “the personal security of … the minister was severely compromised when an official…put a tracker into his vehicle and once demobilised the car without the minister’s knowledge.”

The word he was actually looking for was “immobilise.” To my generation “demobilise” means “discharge from the army,” and its use here is distinctly confusing. It can mean “to take out of service”, but that isn’t what happened either. The car was simply brought to a standstill. Further on in the same story our writer states that Mr X had “authorised payments in access of R9 million”, at which point one begins to despair. How is it possible to write “access” instead of “excess”, bearing in mind that writing is what this man does for a living?

So far the details we have looked at have been single syllables. Now we look at a single letter – or do we? Is it that simple? In today’s paper a piece of correspondence from a reader was given the headline “S A can do without these kind of people.” (The people in question were casino operators.)

One thing is certain: you can’t have “these kind.” But what are the options? “These kinds of people”? Not really, because there is only one category of people under discussion. “This kind of people” sounds awkward. “This kind of person” sounds better, but it’s misleading because we aren’t looking at one person – there are lots of casino operators out there, another result of the end of the apartheid policy, under which casinos were illegal.

The best way out of this impasse would be “S A can do without people of this kind.” Clumsy? No, not especially. Impossible to fit into the column width? No - a letter count reveals that it’s shorter by one letter. It fits. There are no excuses – this is sloppy writing, in headline-size letters too. And the details ()do() matter.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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