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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2018

15 - Language policy in South Africa through the Sapir-Whorf ‘looking glasses’

from Part Five - Language, culture and intercultural communication


Language is the dress of thought

Dr Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets

Words are much more than mere lifeless symbols and signals. They are the very structure of thought.

Karl Albrecht, Social Intelligence

This chapter offers a brief overview of the language and culture debate and the Whorfian hypothesis in general, followed by a consideration of Sapir-Whorfian aspects in selected domains within the South African language planning and policy framework. The chapter concludes with recommendations as to how an acknowledgement of selected Whorfian perspectives could enhance language policy implementation in South Africa.

Developing a coherent understanding of the relationship between language and culture is highly complex, but it is inevitable when developing language policies, immaterial of context, that a slew of assumptions regarding language and culture are accepted, a priori. Taken together with the political and socioeconomic complications in South Africa any assumptions can echo and reverberate far beyond the stated goals and objectives, when policy, whatever it may deal with, continues to be a form of sociocultural engineering.1 The frame of reference for any policy developments requires that policy-makers embrace assumptions that will enhance and ensure implementation and efficacy. Exploring all aspects of the underpinning policy assumptions would require a dedicated text in its own right.

In this chapter the assumptions that feed out of the acceptance or rejection of the Whorfian hypothesis are explored and applied to selected domains within the South African language and cultural landscape. ‘The cultural landscape of South Africa tells a story of underdevelopment, disregard of certain cultures and also a story of preferential treatment of particular cultural communities and cultural practices’ (SANGONeT 2009). Against this backdrop, South African language policy-makers in the mid-1990s were faced with the same possible routes for addressing the legacy and how to take the country forward through viable and effective language policy creation. The response was the Constitution and a wide legislative framework aimed at correcting the impact of historical legislation and creating a fecund base for language and cultural development.