Language contact: Southern Ndebele (South Africa)

Stability and Change in Language Contact:
The Case of Southern Ndebele (South Africa)

Funded by the Academy of Finland, 01.09.2014 - 31.01.2019

Helsinki-based project collaborators: Axel Fleisch, Lotta Aunio, Thera Crane, Stephan Schulz; International partners: Laura Downing (University of Gothenburg). Several members of the Department of African Languages, University of South Africa (Tshwane/Pretoria).

Compared to other official languages of South Africa, with approx. one million speakers Southern Ndebele is a small language. Its speakers live close to major cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg and commonly use various other languages. Still, Southern Ndebele speakers have been able to maintain their language. We want to find out how this works, and whether we can learn from this as a model for increasingly multilingual everyday lives that we live as Europeans. Therefore we conduct interviews, record texts and elicit linguistic data which allow us to analyse contact processes, evidence for change due to contact, and persistent language patterns that resist the influence of neighbouring languages. Our team consists of four researchers based in Helsinki, in addition to international specialists based in Sweden and South Africa.

Our project aims to make a significant contribution to the language contact debate in two areas which have not received sufficient scholarly attention, although they are highly significant both for theoretical and for methodological advances in language contact research. One important contribution of the project is to investigate language contact in the highly multilingual African linguistic context, here exemplified by Southern Ndebele. The other contribution is to investigate the effect of contact on two understudied grammatical domains: prosody and the semantic functions underlying morphosyntactic categories and lexicalization patterns. The results of our investigations in these two areas will not only make a solid and novel contribution to the current theoretical debate in the field, they will also lead to a better understanding of the Southern Ndebele language dynamics in contemporary African contexts which are characterised by increasing urbanization and the growth of peri-urban settings.

Hypothesis 1: Analysing exactly those areas – (a) prosody and (b) semantic functions of morphosyntactic categories – which seem to oscillate in terms of stability and changeability in the face of language contact, we can show that the prevalent linguistic conception of “language contact-as-impact” is insufficient. Our results will also challenge the traditional implicational borrowing hierarchy (“lexicon > phonology > morphosyntax”).

Hypothesis 2: S. Ndebele is maintained in a complex linguistic environment despite heavy pressure from neighbouring, more dominant languages. A language does not necessarily deteriorate in such settings. Rather the speakers turn to strategies like translating/transposing and codeswitching. These strategies do not undermine their language identity and do not automatically imply on-going language shift.