A Dictionary of South African Indian EnglishartSMart
Caroline Smart: Rajend Mesthrie’s book preserves the unique and rich descriptive qualities of South African Indian English.
It took me a long time to get a review copy of Rajend Mesthrie’s A Dictionary of South African Indian English. Published in 2010, it became much in demand once it was out. However, it was well worth the wait and I have spent many fulfilled and relaxed moments reading through it.
Rajend Mesthrie is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Cape Town, where he holds a National Research Foundation (SARCHI) research chair, and is the only A-rated researcher in linguistics in the country. He is also the current President of the Linguistics Society of Southern Africa. He has published in the field of Sociolinguistics, with special reference to language contact and variation in South Africa.
In 2011, he collaborated with freelance editor and writer Jeanne Hromnik on EISH but is it English? in which he turns his extensive knowledge of the history of South African English into a compelling and fascinating exploration of how the Dutch and African languages of South Africa have shaped some of the country’s informal grammar.
A Dictionary of South African Indian English Meshthrie looks at the contribution that South African Indian English (SAIE) has made to the make-up of our day-to-day vocabulary in South Africa. It focuses on the ironic humour as well as the unique and rich descriptive qualities of this dialect (as he calls it).
Since the 1960’s, English has become the main language of the Indian communities of South Africa. Television – especially American sitcoms with their permanent and infuriating upward-inflections of speech – has had a widespread influence on the way that young people of all cultures talk. Sadly, many SAIE words and sayings are dying out but fortunately, Mesthrie has preserved them in his book which he describes as being based “on a lifetime’s experience of the dialect and of half a lifetime’s academic study of its nuances”.
Mesthrie indicates that his dictionary is aimed at linguists and lexicographers and should be taken as a cultural, historical and linguistic documentation of SAIE in its full diversity rather than concentrate on any one class of speakers.
However, I believe it has a wider appeal through playwrights, actors, dialogue coaches, poets and lyricists who can continue to preserve the legacy through understanding the origins of words, names and expressions. It will also be of great benefit to those involved in Indian cuisine or wishing to know its herbs and history. The words are also given their phonetic pronunciation to ensure correctness.
The humorous side of the book comes from some of the delightful expressions. Speeches from works by playwrights Kessie Govender and Ronnie Govender are often quoted as placing words or phrases in context. A quick flip through the pages reveals words such as “Arré” (Good Lord, My heavens etc); “boy’s side” (the bridegroom’s party); “dhawa (there it is); “fall-down slap” (a hard smack); “masthi” (trouble, mischief); “nammain” (never mind), and “vai pozi” (to return home).
A Dictionary of South African Indian English by Rajend Mesthrie is published by UCT Press. ISBN 9781919895369.
© Caroline Smart
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