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Morphosyntactic variation in the dialects of Xhosa

Research project
Inactive research
Project period
2014 - 2017
Project owner
Department of Languages and Literatures

Short description

This project was a survey of linguistic variation in the dialect cluster of Xhosa, a Bantu language of South Africa; one of the very first morpho-syntactic surveys of a dialect continuum in any Bantu language.

About the project

The standard variety of Xhosa is – for historical reasons – based on three dialects in Eastern Cape. The standard often differs considerably from the variety spoken in the home, as identified by researchers at Rhodes University trying to address the linguistic reasons behind low scores on foundation phase literacy in South Africa. However, publications on these differences are scarce and outdated.

The aim of the study was to fill this knowledge gap by means of a study of morpho-syntactic variation in the area of Eastern Cape. This means that it did not focus on phonology or lexicon. The reason for this is that the existing literature on variation gives us some information on just that, but not on grammar. Moreover, initial fieldwork for this project did not reveal the same phonological differences as those reported. Maybe such differences have lost in significance? This was indeed one of the conclusions presented in in Bloom Ström (2018). The findings made clear that the differences between varieties in the Xhosa speaking area are on a very fine level and do not hinder mutual intelligibility, but that the linguistic identity is still strong. I analysed this as a special case of covert prestige.

Rhodes University, the outgoing host of this project, is situated in Grahamstown in the heartland of the Xhosa speaking area where fieldwork will be carried out. Research in the official languages of South Africa is crucial for an inclusive and democratic language policy, in order to implement the ambitious selection of 11 official languages in this young democracy.