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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS NO 65 (article first published : 2005-03-29)

It has been a fruitful couple of weeks for howlers in the daily press. The first candidate for inclusion in this column was a letter-writer to our morning paper. He remarked on the habit of Durban motorists of driving with one arm out of the window, “while still maintaining a decorum of control over the vehicle.” The word he wanted was “modicum” – a small amount. “Decorum” means, at its simplest, propriety or decency, neither of which is conspicuous in Durban traffic. He could have said “a measure of control” and made perfect sense, but bandying Latin words about makes sentences look so much classier, doesn’t it, even if you don’t know what they mean.

The next contributor to our early morning euphoria was our pseudonymous old friend Jane, who is Dean of Something-or-Other at the local university. We have encountered her matchless prose at least twice before. This time she wrote about someone knocking at her door, apparently in defiance of regulations: “I could see her as a cartoon in Batman’s series of British humour with the caption, ‘The woman who dared to knock…’”

I have to admit that this sentence threw me completely. How could Batman, a cartoon character himself and as American as apple pie, be drawing cartoons, and in “a series of British humour” at that? (Just in passing, you can’t have a series of humour – a series is a set of things.) When enlightenment finally dawned, I realised that she actually meant the English cartoonist H M Bateman, who flourished sixty or seventy years ago and who specialised in depicting embarrassing situations. I suppose we shall have to let Jane off with a caution this time – it could be a typographical error made by someone else, someone too young to remember anything much before the Batman movie.

Either way, it was a mistake. But I am beginning to suspect that, mistakes apart, there is a conspiracy afoot in South Africa to destroy the English language altogether. Sometimes it takes the form of mispronouncing words. In a country where English is one of eleven official languages some errors are to be expected, but there is an alarming consistency about some of them. “PROtest”, the noun, and “proTEST”, the verb, are now both routinely spoken with the stress on the first syllable; last week one of our radio presenters talked, rather endearingly, of students “organising a protestation”. The difference between a protest and a protestation is clearly not apparent to him.

Institutionalised spelling errors are even more irritating. In the bad old apartheid days the only official languages were English and Afrikaans. The Afrikaans alphabet does not contain the letter C except for words borrowed from other languages, such as “Christus”. The letter K is used instead. As a result English-speaking children, who are now adults, developed a habit of using K in English words that they thought, incorrectly, to be of Afrikaans origin. Two that come to mind are “katty” (short for catapult) and “takkie”, meaning a rubber-soled tennis shoe. “Catapult” has a perfectly respectable Latin source and should be spelt with a C (although, ironically, the Greek original had a K; the Greek alphabet has no C either.)

“Takkie” is even worse. The expression “a pair of tackies” (tennis shoes) seems to be uniquely South African, but it is well entrenched, and has a respectable source: the word “tacky” means “slightly sticky”, which accurately describes how a rough rubber sole feels on a smooth floor. To make the confusion worse, “takkie” is a legitimate Afrikaans word, the diminutive of “tak”, and means “a little branch”. I wonder what Afrikaans-speakers make of the word applied to English footwear.

If we couldn’t manage two official languages properly, what will we do with eleven?

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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