Exploring Fanagalo - SA's mystery language

Fanagalo: proof that not only Boers, but Africans in general, can always make a plan. This language is famous for being used extensively in South African gold and diamond mines - poitjie pots of culture and communication - but what is the real deal behind this creative concoction of language?

Prof Ralph Adendorff, head of the Rhodes University Department of English Language and Linguistics, recently presented a lecture to the University of the Third Age (U3A) on the subject. “Fanagalo's ancestry existed before the mines came to being,” the professor explained, “Its sentence structure and the Nguni roots make it a very unusual language.”

Fanagalo was commandeered by the mines and had technical jargon incorporated into it to adjust it to the mining industry. Mine managers were given Fanagalo textbooks upon arrival and were told to learn it as quickly as possible to communicate with everyone.

Yet the exact lineage of the language is still a mystery. Some might think that it is a creole or pidgin language, but Adendorff explained that Fanagalo is neither.

And while Fanagalo does borrow words from other established languages, there are no mother tongue speakers of it. It also differs from pidgins and creoles in one major way: these are always based on the language of the colonising or trading power whereas Fanagalo is firmly Nguni based.

Researchers have surmised it might have evolved with travelling missionaries, or Nguni groups that needed a common language to trade in. “We're still trying to decipher the mysteries of this language,” Adendorff said.

“If you have any old diaries or letters that perhaps contain Fanagalo we'd greatly appreciate reading over them.” After the talk Grahamstown U3A chair Malcolm Hacksley said it was a real eye-opener that gave the audience great insight into the complexities of languages.

U3A lectures are open to the public at a cost of R10 and are held in the St Andrew's Prep Mullins room at 10am on Thursdays. On 22 November, Prof Jay O'Keeffe of the UNESCO Water Research Institute will speak about river systems and water management.

The next Thursday Dr Matthew Lester, Prof of Taxation at Rhodes University, will give a presentation on money management. side bar Let's talk pidgin and creole With over 5 000 spoken languages in the world today, it's no wonder that humans have sometimes had to come up with a plan B for communication.

One way for people trying to talk to others who don't speak their language is called a pidgin. This simplified linguistic bridge helps to close the gap between foreign language speakers. Its construction is impromptu, simplified and is never a mother tongue language to anyone.

Adendorff gave some west African pidgin English examples.

Try deciphering this: “I bin brukim ai foh wuman pikin dem”, which means “I winked at the girls”. Broken eye? Winking? Get it? A far more sophisticated manner of communication, a creole language, is constructed from parent languages. A

frikaans is not classified as a creole but was influenced by some now extinct South-Holland Dutch based creole languages.

Unlike pidgin, a creole has mother-tongue speakers and becomes one with the local culture. Fanagalo has attributes of each of these categories but is neither a pidgin nor a creole. It is far more sophisticated in grammar and vocabulary than a pidgin yet has no mother-tongue speakers like a creole.

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WHAT'S IN A WORD?... Prof Ralph Adendorff explains the intricacies of Fanagalo, an Nguni based language with mysterious roots that has been widely used in South African mines. He presented a lecture on the topic to the Grahamstown University of the Third Age (U3A) recently. Photo: Desiree Schirlinger
WHAT'S IN A WORD?... Prof Ralph Adendorff explains the intricacies of Fanagalo, an Nguni based language with mysterious roots that has been widely used in South African mines. He presented a lecture on the topic to the Grahamstown University of the Third Age (U3A) recently. Photo: Desiree Schirlinger