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The embedded indexical value of /s/-fronting in Afrikaans and South African English

  • Ian Bekker and Erez Levon EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistics


This paper examines the indexical value of /s/-fronting in White Afrikaans and in White South African English (WSAfE). Prior research on this feature has shown that fronted articulations of /s/ in WSAfE serve as a regional and social indicator of the wealthy northern suburbs of Johannesburg, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the feature carries a similar meaning in White Afrikaans. This study therefore aims to examine whether the variable carries similar meanings across the two languages. Data are based on the evaluative reactions toward different experimental stimuli that were presented to 214 Afrikaans-English bilinguals in South Africa during a modified matched-guise task. The results indicate that /s/-fronting in a man’s voice is perceived in similar terms in White Afrikaans and WSAfE though it carries somewhat different meanings across the two languages when it occurs in a woman’s voice, a difference related in turn to different approaches to gender across the two speech communities. The results of this research, and the indexical value of /s/-fronting in the two languages, are therefore only understandable in terms of certain sociohistorical and sociological differences between the two speech communities. The article ends with some discussion relating to the possible source of the relevant similarities and differences, i.e., parallel innovation or sociophonetic transfer.


The authors would like to thank Kara Schultz, Deon du Plessis, Bertus van Rooy and Andries Coetzee for reading earlier versions of this article and for offering valuable commentary and suggestions.


A Stimuli

Stimulus Passage – Afrikaans (Matthee 1984)

Vandat hy kan onthou, is Oupoot die mees gevreesde olifant in die Bos. Geen houtkapper het sonder respek van hom gepraat of sy spoor gekry en nie onmiddellik gekyk watter kant die wind waai nie.

Hy was veertien toe hy Oupoot vir die eerste keer gesien het. Baie dinge het met hom gebeur toe hy veertien geword het.

Die godsiekte het twee maande voor sy verjaarsdag deur die Bos getrek: masels, kinkhoes en plek-plek waterpokke. Magdalena moes eerste gaan lê. Toe Sara inval, het hul ma ook siek geword. Masels. Hy en sy pa en Jozef en ou Anneries het ver van die huis af kalander vir dwarslêers gewerk en van niks geweet nie.

Stimulus Passage – English (Matthee 2005)

As long as he could remember, Old Foot had been the most feared elephant in the Forest. No woodcutter spoke of him without respect or found his tracks without immediately looking to see which way the wind was blowing.

Saul was fourteen when he saw Old Foot for the first time. Many things happened to him when he was fourteen.

Two months before his birthday the godsickness came through the Forest: measels, whooping-cough and even chickenpox in some places. Magdalena was the first to go down with it. When Sara caught it their mother became ill, too. Measels. He and his father and Jozef and old Arno were working kalander for sleepers far from home and knew nothing of what was going on.

B Rating scales

English translations appear in parentheses. Only Afrikaans was used during the experiment.

Baie intelligent (very intelligent)Glad nie intelligent nie (not at all intelligent)
Baie vriendelik (very friendly)Onvriendelik (not at all friendly)
Baie oneerlik (very dishonest)Baie eerlik (very honest)
Baie manlik(very masculine)Glad nie manlik nie (not at all masculine)
Bly in ʼn stad (lives in a city)Bly op die platteland (lives in the country)
Beslis gay/lesbies(definitely gay/lesbian)Beslis nie gay/lesbies nie(definitely not gay/lesbian)
Baie geleerd (very educated)Glad nie geleerd nie (not at all educated)
Baie gemoedelik (“laid-back”) (very laidback)Glad nie gemoedelik (“laid-back”) nie (not at all laidback)


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Published Online: 2017-9-6
Published in Print: 2017-9-26

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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