Sona: Who cares what he says, what’s Zuma done this year?

As we approach another State of the Nation (Sona) address by President Jacob Zuma, there are sure to be the usual laments over his oratory skills. There will be the usual quota of criticism over his pronunciation. There may even be some advice dished out to his speechwriters. KHADIJA PATEL argues that this obsession with Zuma’s pronunciation of English misunderstands how language functions – and some of this criticism may even be racist.

Flippant analyses of the use of the English language often overlook that English, like any other language, is a living thing. Language is not a lifeless instrument of manipulation passed on to us in childhood. We use language to understand ourselves, and the world in which we live. We use language to negotiate our tensions and smooth our interactions. It is a vibrant, social construct, which we acquire as infants – or learn later on – and then continue to use in ways that make most sense in the world we live in.

The annual inclusion of new words into the dictionary is just one way in which language changes, shifts, alters. To give you a sense of how much English has changed through history, what I’m writing here, is vastly different to the English William Shakespeare wrote in the 17th century. Language changes in relation to changes in the society where it is used. Crucially, language changes in relation to who we are.

And yet, the use of language – referencing the English language in particular in this column – is mired in intolerance and tension. It’s present in the denial of mother-tongue education (when the mother tongue is not English) in many schools; it is also present in the complaints about other people’s use of the language.

And too often, complaints about the way other people use English can be understood through the prism of viewing or treating people as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. Or as the British linguist David Crystal puts it: “They doesn’t speak like us, therefore they aren’t like us; therefore they don’t like us.”

So when President Jacob Zuma pronounces “ascertain” as, “as-certain, it ought not to be the subject of furious hand-wringing. His pronunciation of the word is no more correct than any other. It’s just that the president’s pronunciation of the word does not conform to an expected standard. And the standard variety of English in South Africa is associated with those who historically had the most power, money, and influence.

Of course. this way of prescribing language use is not unique to South Africa. When it comes to the English language, it’s also inextricably linked to colonialism.

In her book, Country of My Skull, Anjie Krog describes a speech in the National Assembly by Queen Elizabeth II, as “(T)he Accent that has intimidated half the earth for centuries.”

The way we judge the pronunciation of English, the way we prescribe the pronunciation of English, is inextricably linked to power. And it is problematic when we deride those who do not display a sufficient proficiency in speech. You can’t deny that Zuma speaks English – it’s just not the kind of English he is expected to speak.

But then, Zuma, as a democratically elected president, is also supposed to be the most powerful man in the country. But politics, as it is currently practiced in much of the less violent parts of the world, is a game of language.

Politics is primarily concerned with power and, as I’ve argued before, power is communicated, negotiated, maintained through speeches, slogans and the statements of politicians. Power is communicated through language.

The language that is used for political gain is a site of struggle in which meanings are produced, sustained and challenged.

So, yes, our expectations of the way power ought to be communicated is not entirely misfounded. But it is also high time that we look for more than the manipulation of language from our politicians. It’s high time we looked at what they are doing when they are not showing off their language skills, or lack thereof, for the cameras. It’s high time we focus on what Zuma is doing as president of this country – not just on what he is saying.

– Featured image: via GovernmentZA Flickr page.