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Intricacies of spoken English in South Africa
22 Feb 2012

IN her introduction to this book, Jean Hromnik admits that the inspiration came from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

However, the final product is a very different thing. For a start, and perhaps wisely in this complicated country, Eish but is it English? , subtitled Celebrating the South African Variety , is not in any way prescriptive. Right and wrong are not the issue, and while that is sensible (not to say right), it does cut out the grumpy, harrumph factor which can enliven books of this kind.

Hromnik conducted a series of interviews with University of Cape Town Professor of Linguistics, Rajend Mesthrie, in which he talks about what makes spoken English in South Africa specific to this country. He deals with grammar, vocabulary, slang and the distinctions ­between the language as spoken by the various groups — black, white, coloured and Indian — and why these diff­erences exist and to what extent they may one day disappear. Mesthrie is both entertaining and informative, and in his afterword, says: “Diversity is all” — he is keen to celebrate all South African Englishes.

You do get the feeling that he is very nervous of being politically incorrect. Language carries political and social baggage, nowhere more than here, and Mesthrie asks the question: “Who is to be admired more: someone who knows only English (and knows it rather well) or someone who knows another language very well and English moderately well?” Of course, there is only one answer to that, and Mesthrie is right to make the point. But it does leave a sense that, enjoyable though it is, the whole book has been tiptoeing around on eggshells. Margaret von Klemperer


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