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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


KOTZE, Ernst. Democratisation and standardisation - conflicting objectives for indigenous languages?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2011, vol.51, n.4, pp.746-757. ISSN 2224-7912.

At first blush, the two concepts, democratisation and standardisation, seem to be in conflict if the objectives underlying the processes they describe are compared, in particular if they are applied to the field of language planning and politics, and especially within the context of the colonial history of Africa and further afield. It is in the nature of standardisation not to tolerate much variety, even in the language to be standardised (especially in the formal registers). The functional requirements of stylistic, sociolectal or geolectal variants in a language community, on the other hand, reflect a wide spectrum of varieties in a given language. Underlying the need for standardisation is the requirement for communication in the form of a unitary code (i.e. a language) which is understood and used by as many members of the community as possible, necessarily and usually in formal contexts. However, a standardised language, like all others, also has need of neutral and informal registers for which the appropriate vocabulary should be available. Such vocabulary originates in everyday speech, while "formal" terminology aimed at the higher functions of language is often compiled by bodies such as language commissions. The standardisation of language is often the result of a political process, which is a corollary of conquest, colonialism, or (sometimes) democratic change. A standard language, once established, normally possesses a self-perpetuating force - those who have acquired it, do not easily relinquish the concomitant social and political power associated with it. This applies in particular to non-mother-tongue speakers of the standard language, who benefi t from the social status and increased access to knowledge associated with it. The result is, predictably, discrimination on the basis of profi ciency in the standard, and societal imbalances. Arguments in defence of the selection of a non-indigenous standard are the purportedly equal distribution of disadvantage, as well as the possible unifying force of such a medium. To understand the task facing those who wish to standardise an indigenous language, the four phases traditionally identified by Haugen could be recalled, i.e. selection (macro and micro), codification, acceptance and cultivation (elaboration of functions). This is possibly another reason why already established colonial languages seemed to be an attractive choice at the outset when considering the adoption of an indigenous language for the purposes of standardisation. However, when the intellectual and economic benefits of linguistic democracy are considered, the investment in the enhancement of access to knowledge for entire language communities is well spent. The advantages for the development of human capital in the short and long term for such communities have been proven in countless scientific studies. A common disincentive is the purported "unsuitability" of indigenous languages for use in technical and scientific contexts. However, similar techniques for the creation of terminology are applied by all languages where elaboration of functions takes place, i.e. relexification, use of international cognates, conceptual translation (calquing), the use of informal vocabulary in specialised applications, neologisms, etcetera. Examples of attempts at standardisation or restandardisation of nonstandard varieties, such as in Norway and Albania can be adduced. In Norway, Nynorsk was created to replace Bokmål, but there was a clear differentiation by the speakers between spoken and written requirements, so that the written language gravitated to Bokmål, and the spoken language to Nynorsk. In Albania, where Standard Albanian was based on Tosc, attempts were made at incorporating elements of North Albanian (Gegh) into the standard for reasons of "justice". However, it foundered as a result of resistance from intellectuals on the basis that "justice" in standardisation was "impossible". Some lessons from Norway, and also the Magreb (which is subsequently discussed), are that varieties in both Norwegian and Arabic are closely linked to rules of contextuality and register; and that, although there is a greater need for uniformity as regards the form of written standard, the written form of informally used items needs to be standardised as well, albeit in a different way. Finally, the use of the internet as agent for both standardisation and democratisation is briefly investigated. It is apparent that informal standardisation (through codification) is taking place through the production of increased volumes of texts by common users. The production of electronic texts leads to the compilation of corpora, and standardisation of the lexicon takes place on the basis of frequency counts and the use of concordances by NGO's. Some examples of such standardisation (official and unoffi cial) in Africa are provided. The conclusions drawn from the overview are that: (a) Democratisation and standardisation do not have to represent conflicting objectives for indigenous languages in Africa; (b) Users of language determine the form that is standardised in the end; and (c) Speakers of African languages have the ability to determine not only which language(s) they prefer to use for which purpose, but also the form of such languages.

Keywords : standardisation; democratisation; language planning; indigenous languages; minority languages; restandardisation; sociolect; electronic corpora; selection; acceptance; codification; elaboration of functions; terminology; register.

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