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Fads, Fashion and Foolery for 1994

January 04, 1994|BOB DROGIN

Johannesburg — TOWER OF BABBLE: One of the many unanswered questions about South Africa's transition to black majority rule after the first democratic elections next April 27 is fairly basic: How will people communicate?

According to its interim constitution, the new South Africa will have no fewer than 11 official languages. In addition to English and Afrikaans, "wherever possible, a person shall have the right to use and to be addressed in his or her dealings with all public administrations at the national level" in any or all of the following traditional African tongues: siNdebele, sePedi, seSotho, siSwati, xiTsonga, seTswana, luVenda, siXhosa and siZulu.

And just in case 11 aren't enough, the constitution authorizes creation of a Pan South African Language Board. Among its duties: "Promoting respect for and the development of Greek, Gujerati, Hindi, Portuguese, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu and other languages used by communities in South Africa, as well as Arabic and Hebrew and other languages used for religious purposes."

James Clark, a columnist for the Star newspaper, warns--tongue in cheek--of problems ahead. Each stop sign, he wrote, presumably must be written in all 11 languages--"which works out at 44 words painted at each intersection and 44 metal signs. The various translations of 'stop street ahead' will have to begin 3 kilometers from the actual stop street.

"Like the Golden Gate Bridge," he added, "each intersection will need a permanent team of painters working ceaselessly."

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