Which South African language will survive

In a previous post, I wrote about the predicted demise of African languages in South Africa.
For a while I thought that perhaps the Prospect magazine article does not take into account the official status of some South African languages in our neighboring countries. I thought surely the survival of siSwati, Sesotho and Setswana are guaranteed because in countries where those languages are spoken by the vast majority of the population, and where they have official status, there should be no problem. I thought that these countries and their universities would eventually become the intellectual base for these languages, also for South Africans who speak siSwati, Sesotho and Setswana.
But what are the facts? I’m not keen to legitimize the CIA by using their “World Factbook”, but as a quick reference it is useful. According to the Factbook, the status is as follows:
Lesotho: English is the official language
Botswana: English is the official language
Swaziland: English (official, government business conducted in English), but siSwati is also official, though what that means is unclear if government business is English.

The situation on the ground might be different from what these facts suggest, but I will not be surprised if the Universities (and even schools) in these countries are English. This suggests to me that among South African languages, only Afrikaans has a desire to live. The others will still be around in at most 100 years. But I think they will be extinct in about 200 years.

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2 Responses to Which South African language will survive

  1. thakadu sê:

    Hi Gerhard

    I am trying to understand how you come to the conclusion that only Afrikaans has a desire to live. The reasons for choosing English as an official language in countries such as Botswana was not through any lack of desire to support Setswana, but rather a desire to not favour one of the many indigenous languages, and English is seen as a ‘neutral’ language. I think the same could happen in South Africa, there are some major practical advantages to selecting English as the official language. I believe that inevitably and sadly ALL languages apart from a dialect of English will be extinct in a few hundred years. (For sure some may even survive a thousand years, like perhaps a dialect of Chinese, but eventaully the world will speak one language)

  2. Gerhard sê:

    I don’t believe for a moment that all other languages will become extinct – I see no reason why languages with official status, universities, newspapers, public debate and literature will die out. As I see it, only languages without these things, or without the desire to establish them will die out. And while the desire of Afrikaans to survive is clear, it is not at all evident to me of the other languages. But I will be thrilled if you or anyone else can convince me that Setswana, Sesotho etc also have a desire to live, because if the other languages of Southern Africa could all stand up for their rights and development, the danger of English as a minority language killing off all the others will fade. It will be far more difficult for Afrikaans to survive if the other African languages die out.

    The case of Botswana that you mentioned is somewhat complicated, because there are indeed significant language minorities. I would be amazed if the reason for using English as the official language was really a sensitivity towards these minorities. I would think it has more to do with the history of Botswana as a British protectorate. But to remove minorities from the equation, let’s take the case of Lesotho instead. There, only English is the official language, even though 99.7% of the population are Basotho. The National University of Lesotho has no subjects in Sesotho, except the study of the language itself.
    So it appears that for the Basotho, English might be the language of basically everything outside the home and some entertainment. And this – the eventual death of Sesotho if it happens, will be mainly their own choice.

    I am not aware of any language rights movement for any other language except Afrikaans, and SA government support for languages other than English seem non-existent, despite positive utterances made by president Mbeki.

    Of course, this might change in the future, and that will be mainly influenced by identity and prosperity. It may well happen (in our livetimes even) that when black people have advanced sufficiently in the economic sphere, they will turn their attention more towards their real identity and languages. That would be an excellent development.

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