Launch of the very first South African language dictionary Kaaps – why it matters
It has been around since the 1500s but the Kaaps language, synonymous with Cape Town in South Africa, has never had a dictionary until now. The trilingual dictionary of Kaaps has been spear by a collective of academic and community actors – the Center for research on multilingualism and diversity at the University of the Western Cape with the hip hop community NGO Heal the Hood Project. The dictionary – in Kaaps, English and Afrikaans – promises to be a powerful democratic resource. Adam Haupt, director of the Center for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, is involved in the project and tells us more.
What is Kaaps and who uses the language?
Kaaps or Afrikaaps is a language created in the colonial South Africa of the settlers, developed in the 1500s. It took shape as a language during meetings between indigenous Africans (Khoi and San), Southeast Asians, Dutch, Portuguese and English . It could be argued that Kaaps predates the emergence of an early form of Kaaps-Hollands (the South African variety of Dutch that is said to help shape Afrikaans). Traders and sailors would have crossed this region long before the start of official colonization. Also consider migration and displacement on the African continent itself. Each intercultural engagement would have created an opportunity for linguistic exchange and negotiation of a new meaning.
Today, Kaaps is most commonly used by largely working class speakers on the Cape Flats, an area of Cape Town where many disenfranchised people have been forcibly displaced by the apartheid government. It is used in all online and offline contexts of socialization, learning, business, politics and religion. And, due to language contact and the temporary and seasonal migration of Western Cape speakers, it is written and spoken across South Africa and beyond its borders.
It is important to recognize the action of the people of the South in the development of the Kaaps – for example, the language was first taught in madrasas (Islamic schools) and was written in Arabic script. This recognition is imperative, all the more so as Afrikaner nationalists have appropriated Kaaps in recent years.
For a great discussion of Kaaps and the explanation of example words and phrases from this language, listen this conversation between academic Quentin Williams and journalist Lester Kiewit.
How did the dictionary come about?
The dictionary project, still in the launch phase, is the result of permanent collaborative work between a few key people. You could say this is one of the results of our interest in hip hop art, activism and education. We are drawn to hip hop’s desire to validate black modes of speech. In a sense, that’s what a dictionary will do for Kaaps.
Quentin Williams, sociolinguist, leads the project. Emile Jansen, Tanswell Jansen and Shaquile Southgate sit on the Editorial Board on behalf of Heal the cap Project, which is an NGO that uses hip-hop education in youth development initiatives. Emile has also worked with hip hop and theater practitioners on a production called Afrikaaps, who claimed Kaaps and told part of his story. Anthropologist H. Samy Alim is the founding director of the Center for race, ethnicity, and language at Stanford University and helped fund the dictionary, along with the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sports.
We are in the process of forming the main editorial board in the scientific area of lexicography, translation and transcription. This includes archiving the initial structured corpus for the dictionary. We will write definitions and determine the meanings of the old and new Kaaps words. This process will go through rigorous scrutiny and a process of editing and styling the Kaaps words that we enter into the dictionary. Entries will include their history of origin, use and adoption. There will also be a translation from Afrikaans and Standard English.
Who will use the dictionary?
It will be a resource for its lecturers and invaluable for educators, students and researchers. This will have an impact on how institutions, as places of power, engage Kaaps speakers. It would also be useful for journalists, editors and editors who want to know more about how to engage Kaaps speakers.
A Kaaps dictionary will validate it as a full language. And it will validate the identity of the people who speak it. It will also help to make visible the various cultural, linguistic, geographical and historical tributaries that have contributed to the evolution of this language.
Has Kaaps been relegated to Afrikaans slang status?
Recognition of the Kaaps is imperative especially because Afrikaner nationalists have appropriated the Kaaps in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans. A ‘to follow‘or’ pure ‘version, claiming a strong Dutch influence, Afrikaans was formally recognized as the official language of South Africa in 1925. It was part of efforts to build white afrikaner identity, who shaped aside based on a belief in white supremacy.
For example, think of the Kaaps tradition of koesiesters – fried dough confectionery – which was appropriated (taken without recognition) and the treats were named koek sisters by white Afrikaners. They have been claimed as a white Afrikaner tradition. The appropriation of Kaaps speaks volumes about the extent to which the race is socially and politically constructed. As I have said somewhere else, cultural appropriation is both the expression of and is made possible by unequal power relations.
When people think of Kaaps, they often regard him as “mixed” or “unclean” (‘supervisor‘). It has to do with how they view “racial” identity. They often think of colored identity as “mixed”, implying that black and white identities are “pure” and limited; that they only become “mixed up” during “interracial” sexual encounters. This way of thinking is biologically essentialist.
Of course, geneticists now know that there is not enough genetic variation between “races” to warrant biologically essentialist understandings. Enter cultural racism to strengthen the concept of “race”. It controls culture and insists on standard linguistic varieties by denigrating often black speech patterns such as “slang” or marginal dialects.
Can a dictionary help overturn stereotypes?
Visibility and the politics of representation are key challenges for Kaaps speakers – whether in the media, which has done a great job of taunting and stereotyping Kaaps speakers – or in engaging these speakers with the speakers. government and educational institutions. If Kaaps is not recognized as a bona fide language, you will continue to see classroom scenarios where school children are explicitly told that the way they speak is not ‘respectable’ and will not guarantee them success in their career pursuit.
This dictionary project, like those of other South African languages like isiXhosa, isiZulu or Sesotho, can be a great democratic resource for developing understanding in a country that continues to be racially divided and unequal.