Speaking and writing: Emagusheni thoughts

Speaking and writing: Emagusheni thoughts

A few more thoughts on the remaining papers of the Emagusheni trading station, held in the Gallagher collection in the Killie Campbell Library in Durban. An earlier blog about them asked the question of whether there were differences in the way that the black customers wrote letters compared with the white, and suggested this might be around expressions of politeness (Click here to read it). Having now finished and dispatched the chapter on the trading station letters, this can be added to.

‘Functional literacy’ is a useful concept, as it recognises that, although people might not be very proficient in reading and writing, they know enough to be able to get by and to communicate. Most of both the black and the white customers fall under this broad heading, and what was earlier noted as exaggerated politeness is indeed a feature for the black letter-writers, while what seem like mistakes and infelicIties characterise the letters by the white customers. But what stands behind both is that functional literacy pushes people back to make use of the skills that they have, which are of course oral. So what might seem from the perspective of today to have been undue politeness and to look like mistakes are in fact things that track how people would speak and pronounce at the time. Many ‘spelling mistakes’ for the white letter-writers, for example, actually come from following pronunciation and accent, and many expressions of ‘undue politeness’ for the black letter-writers come from writing in English in a way that they would speak in their first language.

Last updated:  16 December 2021


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