Linguistics: a study in decolonisation

05 January 2015

Professor Rajend Mesthrie
Department of Linguistics

The way linguistics has developed since 1983 has been an example of decolonisation. Linguistics was founded as a small department of three staff members in 1983, following the growth of linguistics internationally under the influence of Chomsky's theory of universal grammar. At that time, the specialists in African linguistics were to be found in the Department of African Languages, with the main emphasis on languages of Southern Africa, both Khoesan and Bantu languages. The linguistics department nevertheless soon started to focus on sociolinguistics in South Africa, producing a textbook of readings in 1995 that helped define the field.

About ten years ago, the Linguistics Section (as it then became known) realised the need to introduce specific courses in African linguistics to enhance the curriculum and provide students with a more concrete knowledge of key aspects of languages of Africa. As soon as a post became available (three years later), a specialist was sought to take over these classes. The speciality of sociolinguistics in South Africa was strengthened with an additional focus on anthropological and developmental themes.

Graduate studies in linguistics have been strengthened by the SARChI chair on Migration, Language and Social Change, and CALDI, the Centre for African Language Diversity. These have afforded funding for students from different parts of Africa. To date, the department has graduated PhDs on topics that included code-switching between Luhya, Kiswahili and English in Kenya; sociolinguistic variation in Chasu (of Kenya); the linguistics of Khoesan languages; as well as the sociolinguistics of varieties of Tsotsitaal in South Africa. Currently our PhDs work on a wide range of African languages, as well as English, Afrikaans and the sociolinguistics of multilingualism. Several MA students work on language issues facing migrants to South Africa.

Our graduate student intake is diverse, and this year at entry graduate level the proportion of (broadly) black students is 67%. At undergraduate level there has been a steady increase in black students: for linguistics it is not so much race per se that matters, as having students who are mother-tongue speakers of indigenous languages. We are keen to have more such students go on to major in the subject and contribute to the scholarly study and development of these languages than is the case currently, but we understand students' concerns about the marketability of their intended majors.

As far as staffing is concerned, posts are few and far between in linguistics. We have earmarked the next post specifically for a junior scholar who combines expertise in linguistics with mother-tongue knowledge of an Nguni or Sotho language.

So as a small section, linguistics has had diversity and transformation at its core for some time. All of this is embedded in a broader curriculum that emphasises linguistic commonalities of humanity, the possibility of universal grammar, and the various ways in which linguists have approached the study of language, including the new electronic-communicative revolution.

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