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Colloquium: Heather Brookes - "Urban Youth ‘Languages’ in South Africa: A Case Study of tsotsitaal in a South African township"

Friday, April 11, 2014
12:00 AM
3254 LSA


Studies of urban youth ‘languages’ in Africa note two informal ‘varieties’ referred to as Iscamtho and Tsotsitaal spoken in South Africa. There has been much debate about the nature of these varieties, their users, functions and roles. This paper presents a case study of urban youth ‘language’ in one township community in the eastern part of Johannesburg. Data are drawn from longitudinal ethnographic work over a fifteen-year period consisting of observations, video and audio recordings of spontaneous interactions and interviews. The research shows that young men engage in a multimodal communicative practice with their peers from the age of approximately eighteen years until their late twenties and early thirties. They utilize the dominant languages spoken in their local area (South Sotho or Zulu) as the grammatical base into which they insert a slang lexicon used with a repertoire of codified gestures. The lexicon, manner of gesturing and intonation vary depending on the social level to which young men belong. This variation can be seen as a continuum from slang styles that are close to the urban varieties of Bantu languages to ways of speaking that are slang and metaphorically dense exhibiting features of anti-languages. The interactive and social functions of this way of speaking suggest it is a gendered performative discursive practice and a powerful icon of an urban streetwise township masculine identity involved in the negotiation of social status among male social networks. New words and phrases emerge during communicative performances and spread based on the power and status of speakers. Ways of speaking indexing different social categories and identities among young men link to differing orientations towards local and global perspectives and aspirations among black male youth. Implications for our understanding of African urban youth ‘languages’ and approaches to their study are discussed.

Heather Brookes (University of Cape Town)