I am spending seven weeks in South Africa during February and March—the longest visit “back home” that I’ve had in over a decade. After a few days with my family in the small northern town where I grew up (Thabazimbi), I spent five weeks in Potchefstroom (about an hour west of Johannesburg). The North-West University where I earned my BA and MA degrees (both in Semitic Languages) is located in Potchefstroom. This is also where I had my first academic appointment—as a lecturer in Semitic Languages, from 1992 to 1999. It was wonderful to be back in Potchefstroom and to revisit all the places that I frequented as a student (even though the town has changed almost to the point of not being recognizable in the decade and a half that I have been gone). I have just been appointed as an “extraordinary professor” at the North-West University. This is mostly an honorary title that acknowledges my connection with the University. But is an honor that I really appreciate—my early years at the North-West University shaped me and put on the path that eventually brought me to Michigan, and it is a privilege to again have a formal connection with this institution.
While in Potchefstroom, I collected data on two research projects about Afrikaans. Both of these projects are being conducted in collaboration between myself, Pam Beddor, and Daan Wissing (my first linguistics professor at the North-West University!). In both projects, we are exploring ongoing changes in the sound system of Afrikaans. One project focuses on the realization of voiced plosives. Unlike English that does not have real voiced plosives, word-initial voiced plosives in Afrikaans is (or perhaps used to be) realized with voicing during the closure phase of the plosive (i.e. as real voiced plosives). Younger speakers, however, are losing the voicing during the closure of voiced plosives. In order to maintain the contrast between voiceless plosives and plosives that used to be voiced these speakers are realizing vowels following historically voiced plosives with a low tone. What used to be a contrast between [bas] ‘bark’ and [pas] ‘pass’, is hence being replaced with a contrast between [pàs] ‘bark’ (with a low tone) and [pás] ‘pass’ (with a high tone). We are collecting data on how speakers from different age groups both produce and perceive such word pairs.
The second project focuses on the fronting of the high, back vowel [u] in Afrikaans. Preliminary results have shown that this vowel has been gradually moving forward in the acoustic space over the past several decades. We collected both acoustic data and articulatory data on the realization of this vowel, again from different age groups, to track this ongoing change. For articulatory data, we are using our ultrasound scanner to collect images of tongue shapes during the production of these vowels. This will help us to understand the articulatory underpinnings of the acoustic changes that have been documented for Afrikaans [u].
After five weeks of intensive data collection in Potchefstroom, I am currently on a short visit to Rhodes University in the small desert city of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. At Rhodes University, I am giving a colloquium presentation about my research, and leading workshop on “Graduate Study in the United States”. I will then end my South African trip in the beautiful university town of Stellenbosch, just north of Cape Town. Stellenbosch is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, having been founded by the original Dutch settlers in the late 1600’s. In Stellenbosch, I will do research in the Archives of the Dutch Reformed Church about a small group of Afrikaans speakers who emigrated to Patagonia early in the 1900’s. Nick Henriksen and Lorenzo García-Amaya (both from Romance Languages and Literatures at UM) are collaborating with me on a project about the Afrikaans of this Patagonian community. We are planning a research trip to this community later in the summer.
Good wishes from a warm and sunny South Africa!