EESE 1/2005

Black South African Englishes - towards a variationist account

Christiane Meierkord (Erfurt)


1     Introduction

In South Africa, English is used as a national lingua franca besides Afrikaans. As such, English is spoken as a mother tongue, as a language-shift variety, as a second language and as a foreign language. Its mother tongue speakers are mainly descendants of the British settlers, but English is increasingly becoming the first language of both coloured and black speakers as well. Most of these, however, speak English as a second language, either learned in an institutionalised context or acquired informally, in interaction with a variety of other speakers of English.

The figures for speakers of English in South Africa vary, but the 2001 census reveals, that English was stated as a home language by approximately 3.673.203 of a total of 44.819.777 citizens, i.e. by 8.2 % of the population, in 2001. However, this must not be interpreted as reflecting the number of mother tongue speakers. Rather, the figures need to be read as including those Blacks and Coloureds whose families have undergone language shift from their indigenous African languages or from Afrikaans. Figure 1 below shows the individual national languages and the numbers of persons using these as home languages.

Figure 1: Home languages of South Africa's citizens

This article focuses on English as spoken by the black population in South Africa. It argues for a conceptualisation of Black South African English (BSAE) as a heterogeneous variety which varies depending on its speakers' mother tongues and competence. The paper also proposes that individual features previously claimed to characterise BSAE at large need to be understood as pragmatically conditioned forms which are not peculiar to BSAE, but which also exist in Standard English.

Based on initial analyses of a corpus of 20 hours of authentic interactions, the empirical sections discuss quantitative as well as qualitative findings regarding the use of the past tense and of fronting strategies in BSAE. The paper outlines, how the individual speakers' language biographies as well as the specific situational demands posed on the interaction can be incorporated in the analysis of these forms.

2     Variation in Black South African English

As Gough (1996) points out, "on the basis of census data provided in Schuring (1993: 1) less than 1/4 % of blacks indicate English as being their first language in 1991 (italics added, cm)." Whereas this figure seems fairly uncontroversial, estimates of the number of Blacks speaking English as a second language differ considerably. Schuring (1993: 17, cited in Gough 1996: 53) states that 32 % of all Blacks had reported a speaking knowledge in the 1991 census. However, "speaking knowledge" is a vague notion, and even more recent estimates vary to a high degree, depending on who is counted as a second language speaker.

Due to the effects of the apartheid policy, BSAE had received "virtually no attention" when Aldridge wrote his article in 1987. But since 1990, a large number of studies have become available, many of which initially presented BSAE as a consistent, uniform variety. However, its speakers have very different skills in English, ranging from native-speaker-like competence to knowledge of rudimentary grammatical structures and vocabulary or only formulaic phrases (cf. de Klerk 2003a: 464). This is due to the fact that the majority of all Blacks had been systematically denied access to English during the apartheid regime. As of 1935, black schools were forced to instruct their pupils in their mother tongue. This only changed when the Soweto uprising eventually led to English being permitted as a medium of instruction in schools for Blacks in 1976. Often, however, teachers only had a limited command of the language themselves, thus passing the particular features of their own second language form of English on to their pupils (cf. Buthelezi 1995 and Makalela 2004).

2.1     The acquisition of English in South Africa

From 1990 onwards, after the abolition of apartheid, Blacks were allowed to enrol in a school of their own choice. As a result, children today encounter and acquire English in a much greater variety of contexts. Underresourced and understaffed schools in black townships and rural areas still cannot provide their pupils with the necessary input to acquire competence in English in all skills. Yet other children, especially those of the newly emerging black middle class, enrol in private schools, which used to be reserved to Whites in apartheid times. There, they are in close and regular contact with speakers of White South African English, which is spoken both by their peers and many of their teachers. Yet even if children have the possibility to attend a more prestigious school, they do not necessarily manage to complete their education. The recent census data of 2001 reveal that between 3.78 and 7.50% of all 5 to 24 year-olds do not attend school regularly in South Africa. Especially in urban regions, a large number of black children drop out of the school system early, because they need to contribute to the family's income or because they need to look after their siblings after their parents have died of AIDS or other diseases.

In addition to institutionalised learning, the multilingual situation in South Africa provides an array of additional possibilities for informal acquisition of English by speakers of indigenous African languages. English plays a dominant role in everyday life in large parts of South Africa, and it is encountered in the media and at the workplace. As Betty, one of the speakers reported on below, remarks: "when you working you learn, eh, English so when eh somebody talk it, you listen it, you know?"

2.2     Forms of variation in BSAE

Variation reflecting the different commands of English has been captured by the terms basilect, mesolect, and acrolect, developed within creole studies. Platt (1975) adapted these three labels to describe the range of forms which can be found in New Englishes (Singapore English in his case).

  • The basilect is taken to describe the form of English spoken by people who have little contact with L1-English and who have received no or only little formal education
  • The acrolect, in contrast, is the form of English used by educated speakers, which, however, shows slight differences from the L1-English spoken in the region.

Mesthrie (1992) extends Platt's classification to include two further forms of English: the pre-basilect and the post-acrolect.

  • Pre-basilect is used to refer to "speakers, whose command of English is makeshift, and who have difficulties in expressing themselves even about domestic topics" (Mesthrie 1992: 65).
  • The post-acrolect draws largely on the norms of the local L1-variety and is spoken by "a small group of well-educated people who have acquired newly created jobs as television announcers, especially in programmes geared to an Indian listenership." (Mesthrie 1992: 45)

Frequently, authors explicitly restrict their explications to the mesolectal variety of Black South African English, based on the reasoning that the basilectal form is too unstable to allow for a precise description. However, such an approach neglects the variation that can be observed across black speakers of English in South Africa, and which is important from a sociolinguistic point of view. Also, the mesolect itself covers a wide range of forms as will also become apparent in the empirical sections of this paper.

In addition, it seems that Black South African Englishes differ depending on their speakers' mother tongues. Thus, e.g. de Klerk (2003a: 465) proposes a variety called Xhosa English, which she holds to be a sub-category of BSAE.

... while BSAE includes all South Africans who speak a Bantu language as first language and who probably learned English from BSAE-speaking teachers, there are in fact nine different official indigenous Bantu languages in South Africa, and although these form four clusters or groups (Sotho, Nguni, etc.) whose members share some characteristics, the language groups themselves differ quite significantly. ... To lump all these Englishes together as BSAE from the start would, I believe, be unwise, since linguists would run the risk of overlooking any salient differences which might exist between them.

Gough (1996) states that discussions of BSAE have mainly been based on written data obtained from students at matric or university level (1996: 61) and assesses the need to study variation in Black South African English as follows:

Variation in BSAfE has not been examined in research. Sources for such variation (as have been noted for African English more generally by Schmied 1991: 46-52) obviously include the continuum from educated acrolectal to less educated basilectal varieties, the role of the specific mother tongue (for example, the phonological differences between, say, Sotho and Venda Englishes) and regional features (differences, say, between black English in the PWV region and Western Cape). In acrolectal varieties themselves there appears to be a distinction between 'private school' black English, 'Model C' black English and DET black English .... It is obvious that such variation is in need of urgent empirical research.

The remainder of this article presents BSAE from a variationist perspective and concentrates on its spoken form. Variationist linguistics dates back to Labov (1984) and his approach to correlate linguistic behaviour with the speakers' social background. Although quantitative in its origin, variationist linguistics has recently embraced qualitative instruments to account more fully for linguistic variation and to go beyond its mere description towards its explanation.

3     The data base

The later empirical sections of this paper are based on the data collected in the context of my current research project "Linguistic reflections of identity construction in local and global lingua franca discourse" which I currently coordinate. A total of 20 hours (approximately 100.000 words) of authentic semi-natural interactions between second language speakers of different varieties of English have been collected in South Africa between April 2004 and November 2004. These conversations, which are sociolinguistic group interviews, involve speakers who have an indigenous African language or a variety of Afrikaans as their mother tongue. The individual black speakers are of different social and linguistic backgrounds. Some are street vendors selling the local Big Issue magazine, others are kitchen and room service staff employed in hotels, women employed in a local self-help project, and students. Their mother tongues are Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, or Venda. Thus, the corpus captures the variation expressed in the quote above. The data has been transcribed orthographically and is currently being analysed with a focus on syntax, phonetics, and phonology.

The individual empirical sections below present some of the results which have so far been obtained at the level of syntax. I shall focus on two features, the use of the past tense in Black South African Englishes, and the use of what has commonly been labelled "copy pronouns". The quantitative analyses regarding these two features will be supplemented with qualitative case studies of five individual speakers of BSAE. Combining quantitative methods with qualitative ones allows for a detailed investigation into the relation between the speakers' linguistic performance, their language biographies and pragmatic constraints.

The individual speakers are a female domestic worker, a female cleaner, a female chamber-maid, a female office clerk employed in a charity, and a female student enrolled at a university in Cape Town. Their Englishes can all be classified as mesolectal varieties of BSAE. All of them have frequent contact with L1 English speakers.

  • Betty is a female domestic worker, who was born in the Transkei and has Xhosa as her mother tongue. She has learned English in school, where, however, the language was not the medium of instruction. The speaker dropped out of school after standard six (i.e. after eight years of schooling), when her father had died. She then moved to Cape Town where she has had various employments as a domestic worker since. Although she does not mention this explicitly during the interview, we may assume that she was exposed to White South African English at her workplace.
  • Maria is a female cleaner. She was born in Potchefstrom and attended an independent school, probably a mission school, apparently attended by both black and white children. At the time of the interview, Maria was approximately fifty years old and lived in Ikageng, a township near Potchefstrom. Her mother tongue is Tswana.
  • Julia is a chambermaid at a Cape Town hotel and received her education at a state school. She lives in Crossroads, one of the black townships of Cape Town. On her job at the hotel, she regularly interacts with both native and non-native speakers of English. Julia's mother tongue is Xhosa.
  • Kamohelo is a female office clerk. She was born in the Transkei but later moved to Cape Town where she now lives in Khayelitsha, one of the larger black townships. Sotho is her mother tongue, and she learned English in school, from a black teacher, until matric (year twelve). Several years ago, she helped set up an initiative employing hundreds of disadvantaged women and men who now produce artwork. Kamohelo manages personnel and financial affairs. She has regular contact with white mother tongue speakers of English from South Africa as well as with diverse speakers of different forms of English from all over the world.
  • Nomi is a female student at the University of Cape Town. She attended a former state-governed school in Khayelitsha, one of the townships surrounding Cape Town. At university she has attended a number of classes specifically designed to improve the English of students like her. Nomi lives in a residence mainly inhabited by black students, but she regularly interacts with students from a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Her mother tongue is Xhosa.

4     Tense system and fronting strategies in BSAE

Most of the features which characterise Black South African English(es) are held "to relate both to native-language transfer (which explains their specific African quality) as well as universal features relating to principles of language learning and usage (which explains their similarities with other new Englishes generally)" (De Klerk and Gough 2002: 363). The tense system has been identified as a characteristic feature of Black South African English(es) by e.g. Gough (1996) and De Klerk and Gough (2002). And pronoun copying, or the use of a resumptive pronoun in the noun phrase, e.g. [some of the people they]NP [VX]VP, has been regarded as "one of the most prototypical features of BSAE, and probably one of which teachers are more consciously aware" (van der Walt and van Rooy 2002: 120).

Both features seem to be tendencies across African Englishes at large (cf. Schmied 1991). And they have also been shown to characterise nativised Englishes in other areas. However, it remains difficult to assess, whether these similarities with other second language Englishes are indicative of universals of language learning (cf. Mesthrie 1999), since both features seem to be related to structures in the speakers' specific mother tongues. This would seem to suggest that both are caused by interference from the L1, but the matter is complicated further in that they also occur in Standard English, depending on pragmatic factors: the use of the present tense to refer to past actions is characteristic of narratives, and fronting is a strategy employed to facilitate discourse processing.

The two phenomena are not exclusive to BSAE. Both can also be observed in Standard British English as described by Quirk et al (1985) or Biber et al. (1999). The following subchapters discuss these two features against their background of occurrence in Standard British English and White South African English, and in the Nguni and Sotho languages, i.e. the indigenous African languages spoken in South Africa. Particular emphasis will be given to the specific constraints which narrative and discourse structure pose on the use of tenses and word order.

4.1     Present and past tense

Both Gough (1996: 62) and De Klerk and Gough (2002) found that the past tense is not always marked in BSAE. They present the following two examples:

(1)     In 1980 the boycott starts.
(2)     We stayed at home until the boycott stop.

In both (1) and (2), the verb is not marked linguistically for tense. As such, it encodes the present tense, but in both examples the verb phrase semantically refers to an event localised in the past.

In general, tense refers to the "grammaticalised expression of location in time" (Comrie 1985: 9). As Comrie points out, tense serves to locate a particular action within the time sequence. Many languages have elaborate systems of affixes or particles to indicate this location linguistically. English has only one suffix, -ed, which explicitly marks time reference and which is, therefore, related to tense. Thus, Biber et al. (1999: 453) emphasise that "from a structural point of view, English verbs are inflected for only two tenses: present and past." Typically, the two tenses are used to refer to the present or the past time respectively. In the agglutinative Bantu languages, a rich set of tense contrasts is expressed through a combination of inflectional morphemes and tone. "Typically, Zone S marks a basic distinction in absolute tenses between past, present and future" (Gowlett 2003: 631), and this is usually accomplished through pre-stem morphemes (cf. Nurse 2003: 93). The concept of encoding past tense morphologically is therefore not unfamiliar to South African speakers of indigenous African languages.

However, depending on the context in which sentences such as the ones above occur, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the linguistic form of the verb and its meaning within the verb phrase. As Quirk et al. (1985: 175) point out, in relation to the English language "something is defined as 'present' if it has existence at the present moment, allowing for the possibility that its existence may also stretch into the past and into the future." In English, this is the case for the habitual present, the state present (cf. Quirk et al. 1985: 179), and the historic present.

With reference to the latter, Biber et al. (1999: 455) point out that "the use of present tense to refer to past time is strongly associated with conversational narrative." As such, it presents a register-specific syntactic choice particular to conversation. Frequently, the historic present is found with the verb say in reporting clauses, i.e. when speakers report previous conversations as direct speech. Characteristic of narrative, as illustrated in the following example, the form "conveys something of the dramatic immediacy of an eye-witness account" (Quirk et al. 1985: 181; italics in original):

(3)I couldn't believe it! Just as we arrived, up comes Ben and slaps me on the back as if we're life-long friends. 'Come on, old pal,' he says, 'Let me buy you another drink!' I'm telling you, I nearly fainted on the spot.

As Makalela (2004) points out for Sepedi, Setswana, and Sesotho, this usage of the present tense is also common in the Bantu languages. These have a particular system of tense sequencing in narrative sentences which is exemplified in the following construction taken from Makalela:

(4) Re ile toropong ra reka diaparo.
We + go-PAST + town + NARRATIVE PRON + buy-PRESENT + clothes
'We went to town and bought clothes.

As this example reveals, Sotho languages employ a particular narrative pronoun, ra, which combines with the present tense form of the following verb to indicate the narrative character of this compound sentence. The past tense form of the first verb serves and suffices to localise the whole sequence in the past. Makalela (2004: 361) assumes that this system of tense sequencing influences the use of tenses in BSAE: "It can be ferreted out, therefore, that a Bantu way of thinking about temporality in narration, where the point of events is viewed as a continuation of the whole sum, is transferred when speakers communicate in English. In other words, the way temporality is perceived (conceptually) is reflected in the way it is grammaticalized (linguistically)."

Against this background, the often attested "confusion" of English tenses by speakers of BSAE needs to be reassessed through careful studies into the factual use of the individual tense forms. As Makalela (2004: 361) remarks, the particular use of the tenses in narrative constructions must not be taken to reflect an unstable learner language, but rather as "a reflection of speaker creativity enriched by a confluence of Bantu language logic and English surface manifestation".

4.2     Fronting and pronoun copying

Pronoun copying and the use of resumptive pronouns refer to the use of a personal pronoun, either directly following a coreferential preceding NP (as in (5) below) or occurring in a relative clause which describes the coreferential NP (as in (6)). Gough (1996: 61) and De Klerk and Gough (2002: 362) present the following two examples:

(5)My standard 9, I have enjoyed it very much.
(6)The man who I saw him was wearing a big hat.

As Mesthrie (1997) explains, this construction needs to be understood as being one of several forms of fronting or topicalisation, i.e. the movement of focussed pieces of information into positions which they usually do not occupy. In the above examples, the elements my standard 9 and the man have been moved to the left periphery of the sentence. In addition, the fronted NP is coreferential with a copy pronoun in the main clause (it and him in the above examples).

Such processes have also been described for mother tongue varieties of English (e.g. Geluykens 1992, Michaelis and Gregory 2001). The above form, left-dislocation (e.g. My father, he's working for a bank.), is usually associated with the (re)-introduction of a previous topic or piece of information. Other forms of fronting serve to topicalise an individual sentential element by placing it into sentence-initial position. Prince (1981) and Mesthrie (1997) distinguish between topicalisation proper and focus movement. Whereas the first involves information which is salient in the discourse, the latter puts new information first. In any case, topicalisation performs specific pragmatic functions, especially in the spoken register.

In mother tongue varieties of English, the above forms are characteristic of the spoken register. In BSAE, however, constructions involving topicalisation also characterise its written form (cf. Makalela 2004). Makalela explains this finding with the word order system in the speakers' mother tongues. Although the Bantu languages, like English have SVO structures (cf. Nurse and Philippson 2003: 9), word order is very flexible and permits a large number of permutations, which, however, seem to be semantically conditioned (cf. Bearth 2003: 127). In the Bantu languages, left-dislocation syntactically requires the use of a resumptive pronoun, as in (7) (example taken from Makalela 2004: 361, bold print in original):

(7)Batho ba ja bogobe
People + SM1 + eat-PRESENT + porridge
'People they are eating porridge.'

The noun class prefix ba "requires an obligatory pronominal-agreement marker resembling its noun class prefix" (Makalela 2004: 361). Makalela holds that this property of the Bantu languages triggers the use of pronoun copying in BSAE.

Although there seems to be a considerable amount of linguistic cross-fertilisation here, resumptive pronouns are by no means unique to BSAE. In fact, they have been documented for other African Englishes (cf. Schmied 1991) as well as for second language Englishes spoken elsewhere in the world (e.g. in Singapore, cf. Williams 1987). Fronting also occurs frequently in interactions across different second language varieties of English (cf. Meierkord 2004). De Klerk (2003b: 224) interprets this feature less in terms of an incorporation of Bantu morpho-syntactic logic but rather as reflecting a general "principle of hyperclarity. This principle results in the reduction of ambiguity by achieving maximum salience, not only for the sake of the hearer, but also to help the speaker track their own production, especially in complex constructions."

The above background to past tense and topicalisation indicate the need for a variationist approach for two reasons:

  • If these characteristics are interpreted as being results of language learning processes, they should occur with different frequency in basilectal, mesolectal, and acrolectal forms of BSAE, depending on the individual speaker's exposure to English.

  • Since both features are pragmatically conditioned in the mother tongue Englishes, this might also be the case in BSAE and descriptive accounts will need to describe whether and how situation or register determine their use.

The empirical sections shall outline in detail the approach that will be taken for the analyses of our data.

5     Empirical findings

The recordings involving the five speakers portrayed above have been transcribed orthographically, incorporating a number of conversation analytic conventions. For the purpose of this paper, the transcripts have been hand-searched for instances of unmarked past tense meaning of the verb phrase and for movement of elements to the left periphery of the clause. In detail, all verb phrases containing a verb which semantically refers to a past action or state have been isolated from the corpus and counted. The individual verbs have then been identified as either coding the past tense linguistically or as failing to do so. To assess topicalisation strategies, all clauses have been identified, and compound or complex sentences have been broken down into their constituent clauses. The individual clauses have then been examined and the different forms of fronting have been counted.

5.1     Past tense verbs in the speakers' productions

All interviews include sequences in which the speakers refer to events localised in the past. These are often triggered by interview questions eliciting information about the speakers' schooling, about their childhood, and the classical sociolinguistic question about a "danger of death" experience. Sometimes these questions resulted in extended narrative sequences, but this was not generally the case. Depending on the contents of the conversations, the amount of verb phrases denoting past events varies considerably across the individual recordings.

All five recordings contain references to the past which are linguistically marked by a past tense verb form. This is the case in the following examples:

(8) And I could not explain what I'm sick with. (Nomi)
(9)I got sick .. but .. on the last moment .. la::st moment .. I found this job. (Betty)
(10)When I was still young I was schooling at St. Louis patron school. (Maria)
(11)It was like a tiny doll like this, we were doing like this before, but . my mum taught us the. the this stitch. (Kamohelo)
(12)I got a cousin that is working here, and then one day she told me that, uh they need a more staff. (Julia)

Several instances of correctly marked past tense co-occurred with other particularities, such as the ones highlighted in (13) and (14):

(13)That one is what it's why long time when we didn't know what to do and, the business was just start and now we know exactly, what we sell the most. (Kamohelo)
(14)But they're doing this other pattern the one that did you saw the dolls that are. doll like this? (Kamohelo)

In (13), the speaker used the past tense form of the copula verb be, instead of the expected phrase the business had just started, and in (14) she double-marks the past tense, i.e. both the inserted do as well as the verb occur in their past tense form. Instances such as (13) and (14) were counted as regular, since the past event is linguistically encoded, albeit not in a Standard English grammatical form. In contrast, the following three examples present instances of those forms which were counted as irregular uses of a present tense verb form or as unmarked past tense.

(15)I used to perform you know that. but I didn't know when I come to UCT I didn't know that they don't have a course for for for pop music. (Nomi)
(16)I'm stay in Gugulethu/. I rent a, pozzi in Gugulethu, twenty rand a month. (Betty)
(17)Oh you know even after I finish matric I was not so good in English. (Kamohelo)

A comparison of the five speakers' productions is presented in Table 1 below:

speakerverb regularly marked
for past tense
verb unmarkeddoubtful instances
Betty  12,8 % (n = 6)  85,1 % (n = 40)  2,1 % (n = 1)
Maria  56,2 % (n = 41)  42,4 % (n = 31)  1,4 % (n = 1)
Maria (b)  95,4 % (n = 41)  2,3 % (n = 1)  2,3 % (n = 1)
Julia  80,0 % (n = 16)  15,0 % (n = 3)  5,0 % (n = 1)
Kamohelo  87,5 % (n = 35)  10,0 % (n = 4)  2,5 % (n = 1)
Nomi  92,6 % (n = 100)  5,5 % (n = 6)  1,9 % (n = 2)
Table 1: (Ir)regularly marked past tense

As the table indicates, the amount of linguistically unmarked past tense verb phrases decreases with the speakers' exposure to English. Betty, who has acquired most of her English on the job, employs a very low amount of correct verb forms. Three of the speakers, Maria, Julia, and Kamohelo had very similar exposure to English in school. Different from Betty, who quit school when her father died, these three women completed their matric, which is the South African school-leaving certificate obtained at the end of grade 12. Nomi has reached the highest level of formal education, which is reflected in the low amount of unmarked verb form in her productions.

Betty's productions also reveal a considerable instability of the tense system. Example (18) indicates that Betty does not use the tenses systematically.

(18)But eh, I'm grow up up up up (getting softer) .. and then for the last moment, eh I'll found a job. (Betty)

Betty does not only fail to mark verbs relating to past events with an appropriate linguistic form, but she also seems to confuse the linguistic tense markers when she uses the contracted form of the auxiliary will, a future marker, together with a full verb marked for the past tense.

An additional finding concerns the figures calculated for Maria. She seems to use unmarked verb forms to refer to the past to a high extent. However, a detailed investigation into the data revealed that most of these unmarked forms occur in an extended piece of narrative, during which Maria refers to her time at a convent school. Example (19) presents a part of her story:

(19)One time there came a priest from ( ). They tell that priest about me. You must not know in the school there's a naughtiest girl they called Mary Theresa. That was my Christian name, Mary Theresa. You must look after Mary Theresa. She's much clever brilliant superb in everything, but naughty. (1 sec.) Th- the priest took me to the sacristy and asked me some questions why am I so naughty. I told the priest that I'm just trying to be friendly with other kids, but I'm not beating them. (1 sec.). I'm just doing clowns with them not beating them. The priest said I look at you. you mustn't- (Every Friday) if you can't do any fault in this week by Friday I shall I'll take you to my ( ) for free. (1 sec.) I say yes priest yes priest I will. (1 sec.) Hardly after three days I repeated again .. The priest take me to the sanitary to wash all the loos. (2 secs.) I washed the first one. Second. When I reached the third washed them I start vomiting and I call out.

The sequence contains numerous instances of present tense verb forms, all of which refer to the past. As has been pointed out in 4.1 above, this is common in narratives in English as well as in the Bantu languages. As a consequence, the present tense forms occurring in narrative sequences must not be interpreted as incorrect. Table 1 therefore contains a second row for Maria, labelled (b), which only considers those forms which have been observed outside of the narrative. However, although Maria's usage of the past and present tense seems to be triggered by the narrative character of this stretch of speech, it is not fully systematic. For example, she twice refers to a priest taking her somewhere. In the first case she does so using the past tense form took, but in the second instance, the form take is employed. Also, she seems to use the forms said and say interchangeable in reporting clauses introducing direct speech reports.

In sum, the use of past tense forms to refer to past events seems to be determined by each speaker's language biography as well as be the content of their productions. The high frequency of present tense verb forms indicating the past in narratives may reflect a speaker's competence to adapt her speech to the communicative situation.

5.2     Fronting strategies and copy pronouns

Overall, the different forms of fronting mentioned in 4.2 do not occur very frequently in the productions of any of the five speakers on which this paper reports. The individual figures are summarised in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Fronting across the five speakers

Table 2 documents that of the different forms of fronting only two occur in the data. Left-dislocation, which involves the use of a copy pronoun, is especially prominent with one of the speakers, Kamohelo. Apart from this observation, a comparison of the different speakers' data does not reveal any clear pattern. The amount of fronting does not seem to correlate with the speakers' proficiency in English or with the exposure they had to different varieties of English. Interestingly, there is one speaker who does not use any form of fronting in her contributions: Julia. Unfortunately, it is not possible to explain this finding.

The amount of fronting that was observed for Nomi needs to be interpreted against the fact that the recording is about twice as long as the two conversations taped with Betty and Maria. This means that she uses fronting to approximately the same degree as these two women. The high amount of fronting strategies observed with Kamohelo is caused by her frequent use of copy pronouns. Again, it is not possible to interpret this high figure as being caused by a particular characteristic of her language biography. Kamohelo's educational background is similar to that of Maria and Julia. Also, her extensive use of copy pronouns is in contrast to the observations which have been reported regarding her use of past tense verb forms.

Left-dislocation, involving the use of an appositive pronoun, makes up the majority of all the different instances of fronting in the data. Examples (20) - (23) are representative of this form of fronting.

(20)Nelson Mandela, when he's come. (Betty)
(21)Too much crime. (1 sec.) People in Ikageng they like to break. (Maria)
(22)And also Barbara, Barbara Jackson she has like, inspired me a lot. (Kamohelo)
(23)Or maybe like the neighbours they like to work too and the beads it's like something when you do a, you know when they play cards it's like playing cards, people they just work together, (Kamohelo)

Mesthrie (1997) has suggested that the use of a copy pronoun is often triggered by a complex noun phrase which either contains a prepositional phrase or a relative clause. Interestingly, most of the appositive pronouns in the data discussed here do not follow a complex noun phrase. The only exception is (24): here the pronoun he occurs after a conditional has been placed after the fronted noun phrase.

(24)Just like my cousin overseas when they speaking English he like oh God he gets bored and leaves. (Nomi)

At times, left-dislocation seems to be pragmatically conditioned as in mother tongue Englishes (cf. e.g. Geluykens 1992 and 4.2 above). However, the majority of the copy pronouns produced by Kamohelo (i.e. six out of seven) do not seem not to serve any pragmatic function.

When speakers referred to entities already salient in the previous discourse, these were sometimes emphasised using the strategy of topicalisation, i.e. the focussed piece of information is moved into sentence-initial position as in (25) and (26). In (26), topicalisation serves the additional function of creating a contrastive effect.

(25)So the response we didn't get yet. (Nomi)
(26)The other township they just come to the building but one of the ladies she just brought five women's work (Kamohelo)

As was the case with the data analysed by Mesthrie (1997), the productions of the speakers observed for the purpose of this paper did not contain instances of focus movement and "Yiddish movement". Thus, fronting strategies not involving the use of a copy pronoun were generally related to topicalising previously established entities.

In sum, different forms of topicalisation occur across four of the five speakers. It is not possible to arrive at conclusive assessments in relation to the speakers' language biographies. Rather, topicalisation seems to be a feature prevalent in BSAE, as represented by these five speakers, at large. Thus, the qualitative results obtained from these five speakers do not confirm the quantitative findings presented in Mesthrie (1997). In my data, the amount of topicalisation does not correlate with the speakers educational background or employment status.

6     Conclusions and implications for data analysis

The analyses of the productions of five individual speakers of BSAE indicate that this variety of English is in fact a heterogeneous one, which assumes a number of forms across its individual users. Although previous studies have established a correlation between linguistic forms and the speakers' demographic characteristics, individual language biographies seem to also influence the speakers' linguistic performance. The use of individual constructions at the level of syntax seems to be constrained by both the speakers' mother tongues as well a by their educational background and their profession, both of which determine the type of Englishes they encountered and continue to encounter. In addition, register-specific constraints seem to influence a speaker's choices with regard to a particular structure. However, these observations hold for the use of past tense forms, but they were not corroborated by the findings relating to the use of fronting strategies and copy pronouns.

Observations such as the above are only possible if the individual constructions are scrutinised in the context of their occurrence. Although corpus analytic tools are important to establish the notable characteristics of a particular variety, they sometimes run the risk of missing important contextual information, which influences the choices which speakers have made at the level of syntax. The subsequent analyses in the context of the project will therefore continue to combine quantitative methods with qualitative approaches. The individual linguistic forms will be

  • approached in comparison to their occurrence in other, first and second language, varieties of English.
  • studied quantitatively to assess their prominence in BSAE.
  • correlated with the speakers' demographic characteristics whenever possible.
  • investigated qualitatively with a focus on the individual speaker's language biography and the form's genre-specific pragmatic effect.


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