Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims - book launch

Book launch at Timbuktu books in 2011. Dr Achmat Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims (From 1815 to 1915), editors. Hein Willemse and Suleman E. Dangor, publisher Protea Book House. 

Since the 1950s, linguists working on the history of Afrikaans have known that the earliest written and printed Afrikaans documents – a language recognisably distinct from Dutch – were written in “Arabic-Afrikaans” in the 1800s. That is, Arabic script was used to “spell out” and produce the sounds of the language that was then developing in the colony known as the Cape. The most well-known of these is Bayān al-Dīn (loosely, “Exposition of the Faith”) by the Kurdish scholar, Abubakr Effendi, who apparently came to SA, via complicated Ottoman allegiances to the British Empire, to teach Islam to the Muslims at the Cape. While Bayān al-Dīn was completed in 1869 and published in then Constantinople in 1877, Effendi makes reference to an earlier work of the same kind. For a foreigner to move here and learn how to write in this form must mean that there was an already established tradition of such writing, as Achmat Davids indeed claims.

Documents (student notebooks) from as early as 1845 have been found, pointing, obviously, to Muslim writers who were literate in at least Arabic and writing for an audience that could ‘read’ Arabic. And while most of these texts are of a religious nature (for the purposes of Islamic instruction), there are also secular ‘texts’, like a tailor’s shopping list.

It’s a fascinating area of language study, and it’s not exclusive to South Africa and Afrikaans. Languages survive because they can be bent and shaped to a range of local conditions, and there is a well established tradition of “ajami” writing – using Arabic with which to write in a local language – in other parts of Africa where Islam had spread print-literacy in Arabic.

As Achmat Davids (1939-1998) points out, however, research on the social and historical aspects of these Arabic-Afrikaans texts is at best patchy. This posthumous book, his 1992 M.A. thesis, is then one step in renewing the interest in these documents, and it is a fascinating read, albeit at times quite technical.

Davids’s main aim is technical: he lays the ground for a standardised system of transcribing the Arabic-Afrikaans into Afrikaans in Roman script. This requires an extensive discussion on the mechanics of Arabic. But this allows Davids to claim that these manuscripts are virtual audio recordings of what Afrikaans at the Cape at that time would have sounded like. Anyone who has wondered why some older people in Cape Town say “gaseg” (“gesig”/ face) and “karrag” (“krag”/ power) will find some answers here. Arabic has fewer vowels than Afrikaans and these writers used whatever was available in Arabic phonetics to produce sounds as closely as possible to the Afrikaans vowels. Arabic also avoids consonant clusters – the k and r pronounced as one sound in “krag”, so when scripted in Arabic, the word becomes “k’rag”.

Davids paints these writers as creative innovators, which they certainly were. And while they adhered to a rather strict Arabic linguistic science (which their audience of course uses to ‘decode’ as they read), they nevertheless found ways in which they could bend Arabic into sounding out a Germanic language. As Muslims generally think of Arabic as a sacred language, I find it remarkable that religious writers back then were actually re-shaping Arabic, in a manner of speaking.

Notwithstanding the technical nature of the book, Davids is also concerned with the social and cultural context in which this literature was produced. Past studies, he claims, have focussed too narrowly on the linguistics itself, thereby ironically making errors about the linguistic development of Afrikaans itself. Central to this is whether the Afrikaans of the Muslims at the Cape then should be considered a de-limited dialect of Afrikaans or whether this Afrikaans was more widespread. Davids would like to think the latter, although his argument in support of this relies on one early 20th-century grammarian’s assertion.

Nevertheless, the parts on the history of the speech community at the Cape I find the most fascinating because it provides an insight into the influences languages and cultures had (and have) on each other. The Hindu influence in local Islam can be found, for instance, in “rampies” and “puwasa”. “Puwasa”, generally thought of as a Melayu word and meaning “to fast”, here and still in the Malayan Archipelago, comes from Hindi. A “rampie” is a small pouch of “crinkle paper” (crêpe paper) filled with shredded and perfumed citrus leaves, and doled out to attendees at mosque on Maulid, a celebration of  the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Apparently this word comes from the Hindu “Rampa”, indicating that the “rampie” may have been adopted, also, as a way of attracting slaves who were Hindu to Islam.

While the book is thus technical in parts and of interest to historians and linguists, I find that there is much in it to recommend it to the general reader who has an interest in local history, culture and language.

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