'White' accents are no longer white preserve

Women lead way in deracialised English, language prof finds

The number of females who have crossed over into what used to be a white space is significantly higher than for black males.
Image: iStock The number of females who have crossed over into what used to be a white space is significantly higher than for black males.

Being called a coconut is regarded as an insult. But a new study says the "black on the outside, white on the inside" accent represents a deracialisation of English, with middle-class black women leading the charge.

Sociolinguistics professor Rajend Mesthrie of the University of Cape Town has tuned in to changes in speech that reveal women have perforated the social barriers of apartheid. The white monopoly on "prestige accents" was being eroded, he said.

The link between accents and power continues to dog South Africa. DA leader Mmusi Maimane has been criticised unfairly, says Mesthrie, for "code-switching", Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor was accused by Julius Malema of having a "fake accent" and reality show star Sibongile Masuku was torn down on Twitter last week for her English pronunciation on Diski Divas.

Mesthrie, whose study has just been published in the academic journal Language, asked 150 students to listen to eight recorded voices and assign gender, age and race to the speakers. The final category had a surprise in store. "The results were astonishingly strong. Almost all the 150 students ... could tell if the males were black or white, but they couldn't tell black and white females apart."

He said: "Language is not something that is fixed; it plays out in the social world and is a very sensitive instrument of societal change. The number of females who have crossed over into what used to be a white space is significantly higher than for black males."

Palesa Likotsi, who attended a Model C school in Johannesburg in the late '90s, said: "I brush it off when people call me a coconut. Imagine if I faked a township accent - that would be ridiculous."

For Gugulethu resident Neliswa Dlaku having a "township accent" is a point of anxiety. "When I apply for jobs and speak to some of the other applicants, I get nervous. I feel they will be chosen just because they speak English with a white accent," she said.

According to a UCT website, only 8% of people aged 15 to 24 speak mainly English at home.

When I apply for jobs ... I get nervous. I feel they will be chosen just because they speak English with a white accent

Mesthrie said the Fallist movement opposed colonial domination, yet he "hasn't seen anyone ... say we want to get rid of English". However, the movement had "dealt a blow to the coconut generation and any positive evaluation of a cross-over accent".

He said it was about "young people experimenting with labels" to deal with the complexities of post-apartheid society. One label was "litchi" to describe a white guy in Durban who had adopted aspects of Indian culture. "He's a litchi: white on the outside, dark on the inside, and turns red in the sun."

• Email farbert@sundaytimes.co.za