NWU Vaal postgraduate study a unique first on Fanagalo

Anjonet Jordaan -- Thu, 02/12/2015 - 14:51

NWU Vaal postgraduate study a unique first on Fanagalo

Most South Africans speak a number of languages other than their mother tongue with varying levels of proficiency. When you ask, most may have a vague notion that Fanagalo is a language spoken by mineworkers, but little else.
Natasha Ravyse, a PhD student, explored in her master’s thesis the status of Fanagalo in South Africa today.

For this study she was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s medal during the 2014 NWU Research awards.

Natasha’s study is unique, as her study leader, Prof Susan Coetzee-van Rooy, points out: "Natasha's study of the attitudes of Fanagalo users about the language was a first from this perspective. Previous studies focused on the linguistic analysis of Fanagalo and the perceptions of non-Fanagalo users towards the use of Fanagalo.”  

Historical perspective

Fanagalo came into existence in the early 1800s and was developed as a communicative strategy between English, Afrikaans and Xhosa speaking individuals. In 1843, Fanagalo was overhauled by British settlers and indigenous Zulu people in the Natal colony; it is from this that common day Fanagalo originated. Although many associate Fanagalo with South Africa, it is more accurate to say that it is a Southern Africa phenomenon, though it is not clear how extensively it is used beyond South African borders.

Not an official language

Fanagalo has shown an unusual ability to survive and thrive for nearly two centuries. During her study, Natasha made some surprising discoveries. Fanagalo is classified as a sub-cultural language within a selected mining context and as an unofficial language displays surprising vitality in terms of language maintenance – it does not receive institutional support and mining management has attempted to phase Fanagalo out for safety reasons.

Natasha’s Master’s study allowed the perspectives of actual Fanagalo speakers to be heard. One of the primary reasons why Fanagalo is still spoken, despite authorities’ disapproval, is due to the effective communication it facilitates to take place in a multilingual setting.

Thus, against all odds, Fanagalo is maintained. This led to the development of a model by Natasha that explains the preservation of sub-cultural languages in a selected context in South Africa. Lastly, the idea of a language policy as a strategy is to preserve language seems almost ineffective since an unrecognised and stigmatised language such as Fanagalo still thrives without the support of policy.

Feedback from Fanagalo speakers themselves

Fanagalo is not limited to being a spoken language.  “During my interviews, I asked participants whether they can and/or ever do read and write in Fanagalo. The common response was, in fact, they can and do. The participants explained that they would communicate in writing in the log for the next shift about any happenings, all in Fanagalo. It is exciting to think that an unofficial language (unofficial since Fanagalo is not even recognised as a 'real' language) exists in the reading and writing domain as well”, says Natasha.

Natasha did a part of her research at a mine, which consisted of demographic questionnaires to ascertain, among other aspects, the Fanagalo speakers’ age, gender, occupation, and language repertoires, which was completed in writing in a group setting. This was followed by private one-on-one interviews with the help of a translator, which focussed on: how, when and why speakers acquired Fanagalo; their attitudes about Fanagalo; identity aspects; if they would use it outside of the mining context; and if they speak or write Fanagalo.

Age in relation to attitude towards Fanagalo proved interesting. The younger speakers had a generally positive attitude towards Fanagalo. One of the older participants overtly expressed his hatred for the language. Yet, despite some negativity from the older generation, they still teach the younger generation to speak the language, because it seems that safety and communication outweighs stigmatisation.

Something else that was unforeseen, and perhaps highlights the complexity of Fanagalo, is the fact that foreign nationals choose to acquire Fanagalo before an internationally recognised language like English.


Natasha maintains that research on languages such as Fanagalo is important: “Sub-cultural languages are rarely explored within a socio-linguistic context and much less in the South African context. If we can understand why sub-cultural languages, which are not institutionally supported, are still maintained perhaps we can develop a greater understanding for mainstream and official languages and apply suitable strategies to preserve them. The sub-cultural languages are an extension of mainstream cultural language, which has been overlooked but clearly they provide an insight into an area not well enough explored. In addition, Fanagalo has an extremely special trait that allows different people to bridge the communication gap between languages, cultures and ages.”

“Natasha collected the first data about the status of Fanagalo among users of the language.  The findings from her MA indicate that the users she studied regard Fanagalo as an invaluable instrument for safety in their workplace (the mine). Their attitudes contrast heavily with the attempts in the mining management sector to introduce English as language of communication. The mining industry is a multilingual working place - mine workers originate from all regions in South African and from the broader Southern Africa as well. The mining industry therefore needs to manage a multilingual workforce and the effect of miscommunication in this work sector could be fatal. The data gathered by Natasha contributes information that can be used to solve this 'real world problem' in the mining industry. Natasha's novel approach to study this language was noted with pleasure by her examiners. In her PhD she is turning her attention to more sub-cultural languages (like Tsotsitaal) and how these languages are maintained in complex societies. She aims to re-conceptualise current theories of language vitality that do not cater for sub-cultural languages at this stage," says prof Susan Coetzee-van Rooy

Natasha Ravyse completed her undergraduate studies in BEd Senior Phase and FET, which she followed up with an Honours Degree in English. Natasha completed her Master’s degree in only a year and received the NWU Vice-Chancellor’s medal for best Master’s dissertation in Humanities. Twenty years before her study leader, Prof Susan Coetzee-van Rooy who is also the director of the UPSET Research Focus Area, received the ABSA Bronze Medal (predecessor of the Vice Chancellor’s medal) for her Master’s dissertation. Natasha is currently busy with her PhD study, which she hopes to submit early in 2016.


*Prof Susan Coetzee-van Rooy is the director of the UPSET Research Focus Area located on the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University (in Vanderbijlpark). UPSET investigates the understanding and processing of language in complex settings. UPSET is divided into four sub-programmes:

  • Audiovisual translation
  • Multilingualism and applied language studies
  • Translation studies
  • Descriptive linguistics