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"We call it Springbok-German!": language contact in the German communities in South Africa.

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posted on 15.01.2017, 23:35 authored by Franke, Katharina
Varieties of German are spoken all over the world, some of which have been maintained for prolonged periods of time. As a result, these transplanted varieties often show traces of the ongoing language contact as specific to their particular context. This thesis explores one such transplanted German language variety – Springbok- German – as spoken by a small subset of German Lutherans in South Africa. Specifically, this study takes as its focus eight rural German communities across two South African provinces, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, which were founded in the second half of the 19th century. The study employs a broadly ethnographic approach and integrates participant observation with interviews and (limited) questionnaire data. On the one hand, it addresses issues of language maintenance and shift, and on the other, presents findings from an analysis of grammatical features, that is morphosyntactic and syntactic features, of this particular German language variety. The thesis explores the domains where speakers continue to make use of German, by discussing practices at home, within the church and community, and at school. It also briefly considers German media consumption. The findings reveal that the home and the church/community constitute the strongholds of German language maintenance, although intermarriage is having an increasing impact on these patterns. Changes in the demographics of the communities, e.g. out-migration of younger speakers and barely any in-migration, are also shown to be detrimental to the continued survival of German in this region. Conceptualising these communities as ethnoreligious ones where (Luther) German functions as a ‘sacred variety’ (cf. Fishman, 2006a) helps to account for the prolonged maintenance patterns as exhibited by the communities. The study explores how the communities are shaped by their German Lutheranism and a 19th century understanding of Volkstum, and how this resulted in an insistence on preserving the German language and culture at all costs. This is still transparent today. This study also seeks to provide new insights into the structure of Springbok- German, and, for this purpose, explores a number of (morpho)syntactic features, including case marking, possessive constructions, word order, and infinitive complements. Although the overall findings indicate that Springbok-German is (still) relatively conservative, there are clear indications of emerging structural changes. While reduction in the case system, for example, is not as advanced as in other transplanted German varieties, the accusative/dative distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. Changes are also apparent in possessive constructions and word order. In this context, the study considers the fundamental question of the role language contact plays in such situations, i.e. whether the respective changes can plausibly be attributed to contact with Afrikaans and/or English, or whether they are best seen as the result of language-internal tendencies. The conclusion follows that it is difficult to ascertain the precise role of external influence vs. internal developments. The developments in Springbok-German are best seen as resulting from a combination of both, shaped furthermore by the social conditions as prevalent in this particular language contact setting.


Principal supervisor

Kreutz, Heinz-Josef

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts