The Dynamic World of Language

Language is not static; it is interpreted and constantly being created and re-created through experience. My time in South Africa, though brief, has already begun to change how I perceive certain words. As a Communication major in undergrad, one of my favorite theories was Charles Peirce’s semiotics theory. To very briefly summarize, Peirce’s theory was that the understanding of words comprises three parts: 1) representation, or the actual word; 2) object, such as a physical tree; and 3) interpretation, or the person’s understanding of “tree.” For example, my friend could tell me about a tree that she saw. In my mind, I picture an oak tree (object), which are common in Ohio, and subconsciously relate that to pleasant memories of sitting under trees reading or plucking apples (interpretation). My friend, however, is talking about a baobab tree (object) and subconsciously relates that to a time when she fell and broke her leg while climbing a tree (interpretation). [Griffin, First Look at Communication Theory]

Example of Peirce’s semiotic triangle

My time in South Africa has already begun to change my interpretation of certain words. A few examples below:

  • Bucket: vital, multi-purpose tool necessary for daily life. Minimum of 4 buckets needed: one for a chamber pot, one to fetch water, one to wash dishes in, and one large basin to bathe self and clothes in. Realistically, you need two buckets for handwashing- one to wash and one to rinse, but I use my water-fetching bucket for rinsing.

My life in buckets, clockwise: Chamber pot gifted to me by former PCV Barbara; Dishes bucket; Water bucket and bathing basin

  • Chips: fries.  Due to colonization by the British, most of the English here is British English.
  • Directions: forget street signs and Google Maps in the village. My village is large enough to have several sections, which are largely used for verbal directions along with major landmarks (the pond, shops, schools, etc.). Since I haven’t learned the sections yet, I navigate by going with someone or asking every passerby if I’m going the right way.
  • Fast food: sphatlo or kota, a sandwich concoction somewhat reminiscent of a gyro. The sandwich base is chips, and beyond that, you can choose to either add egg, French (baloney), Russian (sausage), Vienna (hot dog), or my favorite, a burger. Although the default is to have it with mango achar, or pickled mango, I usually request it sans achar as it’s an acquired taste! (Read more about kota preparation here) There’s no other pre-prepared food, or even restaurants, here in the village, although you’ll find many restaurants and familiar fast-food chains in the cities.

Sphatlo [photo credit: Forbes]

  • Internet: data.  There’s one place in my shopping town that offers free wi-fi, but it’s very slow.  Most people purchase data bundles for phones or tablets, and those who do have laptops have to transfer documents to their tablets in order to email them unless they purchase a relatively pricey modem stick at about R900 (and then you still have to buy the data).  Even with phones, it’s best to have one for each of the two main cellphone providers (MTN and Vodacom) so you can switch when signal isn’t good.  For example, there’s a Vodacom tower next to work but at home, MTN signal is much stronger.
  • Pumpkin: butternut squash.
  • Road: in the US, when I say “road,” I mean a paved road. Where I currently live, there are three categories: tar (paved), gravel, and sand.
    1) Tar road– My village has one tar road, and this tends to be where most of the stores, taverns (bars), schools, and other main landmarks are clustered around for access. We call it “the tar road,” similar to “the Ohio State University.”
    2) Gravel road– There are several gravel roads in my village, one of which is my route to work. They’re usually wide enough to comfortably fit two cars and have varying amounts of gravel. Though they get pretty muddy during the rain, they tend to still be drivable.
    3) Sand road– By far the most popular roads in my village, these range from grass-covered pathways in between houses to sandy passages that are wide enough for about one car. The sand tends to be so deep that cars get stuck (as has already happened to me) and they turn into mud-filled, unnavigable swamps when it rains.

Clockwise from top left: The tar road; A sand road; A muddy gravel road; A dry gravel road

  • Taxi/Public transportation: 12- to 20-passenger minibuses, or kombi, crammed full of people and bags, and the only real form of public transportation between villages (there are buses for some long-distance travel). Getting a taxi usually requires getting to the tar road, waiting between 10 minutes and an hour for a taxi going to your location to show up, giving the right hand signal for where you’re going and then double-checking that the driver is actually going there, paying the base fare for your ride that’s determined by the taxi associations, and yelling “short left!” or “short right!” so the taxi can careen to a halt at your destination. Some taxis are quite nice, but often the ones in the villages are downtrodden from being ridden over countless pockmarked sand roads. More on these (with pictures) in a later post!
  • Water: an essential ingredient to life. I’m very fortunate to live in a village now that has a relatively bountiful supply of water, but when I was in my training village, water was incredibly scarce. My family in my training village depends solely on rainwater, which is captured in a large Jojo tank and several barrels. When it hadn’t rained in a while, I bought large water bottles for drinking, learned to use 1/8 of a bucket full of water to bathe, saved dish water, and learned other methods of water conservation from my training village host family. In the village next to where I currently live, taps aren’t readily available so people typically buy their water.

These are just a few examples of how words have shifted meaning for me since I arrived. There are more intangible concepts that are changing for me as well, such as time, patience, and fun, but I’m still working on what those mean to me in a South African context. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this brief insight into life in my village!

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