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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 : 2003-08-11)

The last article in this series touched on the occasional hilarity of present-day South African English. It had no sooner gone on its electronic way than there was a flurry of entertaining errors in the media, which I hasten to share with anybody who’s out there.

President George W Bush recently visited South Africa. On his arrival, our radio news-reader advised us that as the Presidential aircraft came in to land, a Security Forces helicopter “was hoovering near the perimeter of the airfield”. This may, of course, have been a prelude to rolling out the red carpet, but that information’s classified.

Not to be outdone, the print media joined in the fun. One of our Durban newspapers prints a daily column called Thoughts for the Day, which is meant to elevate our thinking (however briefly) to a higher spiritual plane. For some reason not immediately clear, we were recently told about that Biblical moment when Samuel identifies Jesse’s son David as the future king of Israel. This is an interesting example of how a harassed technician will replace a word he doesn’t know with one that he does, never mind the meaning. The Revised Version says of David, “He was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to.”

Withal? What kind of a word is that? Go to the Spell Check. Pick a word, any word.

So the newspaper version read: “He was ruddy, and without of a beautiful countenance…”

It is said in no 45 of the Book of Psalms (often attributed to David himself) that “The King’s daughter is all glorious within.” But what are we to do with a beautiful countenance without?

The next example came from an expensively-produced magazine issued by a credit-card company. The list of contents offered one very promising item: “Whispers of Immorality – Marion W**** explains why everyone should take antioxidants.” Brace yourself, Marion – we hear your siren call, and we’re coming after you, antioxidants in hand.

The article itself is headed “Whispers of Immortality”. What a let-down! But perhaps it was unreasonable to expect more.

These examples have all been “literals” – letters misplaced, omitted or used in error. A different feature of South African English, becoming more and more common, is the misspelling of words because their derivations are not understood. Two that come to mind are the names of dogs, often written as “Dalmations” and “Alsations”, as though they were words like “exclamation” or indeed “derivation” itself.

But actually they derive from place-names. Alsatians must have originated in Alsace, that much-disputed piece of territory in the Rhine basin between Germany and France, and the name simply reflects a geographical origin, like “American” or “Russian”. The dogs are in any case more often called German Shepherds nowadays. Dalmatians, those spotted fellows, similarly announce their origin – the Dalmatian coast region of Croatia (part of the former Yugoslavia).

Several of these geographical signposts still stand about in the background of our vocabulary. More about them next time.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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