Black South African Englishes - towards a variationist account
|(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:
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:
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:
|speaker||verb regularly marked|
for past tense
|verb unmarked||doubtful 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)|
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 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
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