Language dilemma

Writing historical accounts seems to be getting trickier in this globalised world.

A book I recently read had [sic] behind the word ‘Kaffir’ every time it was written – this was in quotes where [sic] is commonly used to indicate that an error has been spotted and recognised in the original. As a South African, it’s been engrained that this is a word not to be used because of its connotations. Recently, however, in one of the local UK chains, there on a spice shelf was ‘Kaffir Lime’. I might also mention that one of my favourite Anton Goosen songs is ‘Wit Kaffers van Afrika’ (white kaffers of Africa) which as I understand was the song to open South Africa’s very first equivalent of Woodstock, Houtstok, back in 1990, on 31 May.

The real dilemma arises though for the historian who wants to write about urban development in mining towns at the start of the twentieth century. Working through local newspapers in Boksburg Public Library when researching for information on Sir George Farrar, I was struck by the pages of applications for licence to open up ‘Kaffir Kitchens’ – what exactly these entailed I cannot say as I was on a tight research deadline and couldn’t stop to digest in detail. What I do know is that it will be very annoying for a reader if every time the word was used it was followed by [sic].

Similarly, ‘non-white’ in inverted commas as it appeared in the same book. I am just as comfortable using non-black, non-Indian and non-coloured when working/writing about other specific groups. It is a short hand. The alternative today, is to list all the specific groups one implies by the all collective which when there are word limits, doesn’t give much opportunity to get the message across.

Another term to come under scrutiny recently is ‘Boy’, and its female equivalent, ‘Girl’. In the South African context yet again, this has negative connotations. However, doing some research for someone on the Peninsular Wars, I was amazed to see in the Muster RollsMuster Rolls lists of ‘Boys’ going back to the early 1800s. This suggests there was a specific roll filled by young boys (how young I do not know) and that as colonisation occurred, this term was transferred to locals (natives – another controversial term for some) who did the same tasks. As older men in the colonies started to take on this work for various reasons, the title/term stuck. It’s a term frowned upon in South Africa, yet black friends and colleagues in Africa (Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana to name but a few) talk quite comfortably about their ‘house girl’ or ‘house boy’.

How we read and understand terms depends on our cultural heritage. I once worked with a woman called Kulvinder – Kuli to those who knew her. However, I struggled to do so until one day I felt I had to come ‘clean’ explaining why my emails were always addressed to Kulvinder and similarly, why I hesitated every time I wanted to say her name. She was astounded when I told her that in SA, the diminutive of her Indian heritage name was the same (sounding) as the derogatory word for Indians – coolies. Both of us wiser having cleared the air, Kulvinder became Kuli, although I still inwardly wince every time I use the word.

One could argue that I’m coming at this from a group which named rather than was/is named. I can, and do, fall (partly) into the category of ‘rooinek’ (red neck) as well as ‘rock spider’ (English and Afrikaans respectively). In Swahili, I’m bluntly ‘white man’ (Mzungu), in Masai ‘those who confine their farts’ (Iloridaa enjekat), in Gambia, ‘Two Bob’ (early white settlers paid two bob for something to be done), in Ghana ‘Fada’ (from Father/Priest).

Working as a cross-cultural historian, it is becoming more apparent that historians need to find ways to deal with terms which have an historical context and at the same time political connotations for specific groups.

Reflecting on this recently whilst writing a review article on three South African Prime Ministers and my own reaction to white South Africans writing about ‘whites’, ‘Africans’ (ie blacks) and ‘Afrikaners’, it struck me that the white African group of mainly Dutch descent (aka Boers) have embraced their African-ness in their own-given title ‘Afrikaner’. And the Afrikaans word for black people is ‘swartes’ – directly translated as blacks. So why in English do the majority of white South African historians refer to black South Africans as ‘African’? I can understand this when writing contextually about the 1950s and 1960s – white South Africa has used different terms over time to refer to the black ethnic groups in the region. I remember at secondary school being told the word ‘Bantu’ was no longer appropriate and acceptable. The term was to be replaced by ‘Black’. Before ‘Black’, it had been ‘African’. How my ears tingle in Tanzania when I hear black Tanzanians refer to themselves as Bantu to distinguish themselves from the coastal peoples.

I don’t know what the solution is to this language dilemma. If historians were only writing for themselves there might/should not be an issue as we’re objective reflectors of the past (as scientific as we can be). However, we’re invariably caught up in the political of what we write about and therefore sensitive to the language we use. But at what expense? How much does being politically correct lead to cultural misunderstandings and myths being perpetuated?