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  • Sandeep Prasanna 8:00 am on June 14, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: currency, dollar, , euro, hip hop, money, plural, rand, singular, south africa   

    One euro, two euro, many euro 

    South African rand(s)

    The currency here in South Africa is the Rand, named after the Witwatersrand, which means “white waters ridge” in Afrikaans.  (Witwatersrand refers to the area where Johannesburg was first built. A prominent university here shares the name.)

    It’s a matter of contention whether the plural of “rand” is “rand” or “rands.”Articles 13, 14, 15, 55, and 57 of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1961 use “rand” as the plural. Many currency exchange sites, such as this one, state that “rand” is the plural form. Most of the South Africans I’ve asked say they use “rand,” but I’ve also seen “rands” in some places, like the meter at the local gas station. I’ve also heard “rands” in conversation.


    Other currencies have nonstandard plural forms, too. For example, the European Union has designated in several places that “euro” is the official plural form of “euro” in English. This guide delineates the singular and plural forms of “euro” in all the official languages of the EU and says that one writes “100 euro” in English, not “100 euros.”

    However, another official publication of the EU—the English translation style guide—says that, “where appropriate,” “euro” becomes “euros” in the plural: “This book costs ten euros and fifty cents.” In Ireland, the only English-speaking country to use the currency, most of the media, as well as the Department of Finance, uses “euro” for the plural, an issue that has raised a few hackles, such as here and here.

    According to Google Ngram, “euros” seems to be more common than “euro” for the plural in English-speaking countries, with the difference slightly more pronounced in American English compared to British English. (Unfortunately, there’s no filter for Irish English.)

    “million euro / million euros” | American English | British English | English
    “billion euro / billion euros” | American English | British English | English

    This note says “10 euro,” but it’s also intended to be multilingual.

    And why should “euro” be the plural in English, anyway? Other languages have adapted the currency to fit their own standard plurals—in French, for example, one would say euros (although it’s usually still pronounced the same as the singular euro) and in Spanish it’s the same—euros. In German, it’s 100 Euro, but they did the same thing for their previous currency, the Mark (100 Mark). The point is, we have “dollars” and “pounds” and “shillings” in Anglophone countries, so why shouldn’t it officially be “euros”?

    Hang on—there are currencies in English-speaking countries that take a nonstandard plural. The South African Rand is one example, but there’s also the Pula in Botswana and (possibly) the new Gambian currency, the Dalasi.

    But what about other currencies? Why do we say “10 yen,” “100 baht” (Thailand), and “1,000 renminbi” but reserve the usual English -s plural for “10 rupees,” “100 rubles,” and “1,000 francs”? Why is it pounds in proper British English but quid in slang?

    Surely pop music can set us right. In the immortal words of Chris Brown in “International (Serious)” (on Estelle’s new album):

    My stock grown in Stockholm
    Dough heard in Joburg
    F— the SoundScan
    I left with 3 million rand
    So I don’t want to pound it
    Unless we talking pounds
    Yeah, I take euro – plural
    Estelle, your girl

    Sorry, C.Breezy, but that didn’t clear anything up.


    Perhaps currencies tend to take a standard –s plural when native English speakers are historically familiar with dealing with the currency. This would explain why we have dollars, pounds, and shillings (from direct use), francs, rubles, and pesos (from geographical proximity and frequent historical trade), and even rupees (from the British Raj era, which presented a combination of direct use and frequent trade).

    Even though the EU attempted to legislate the plural for “euro,” they have had questionable success. It seems that, given the chance, native English speakers will revert to the standard English –s plural. This would explain the popularity of “euros” as the plural form in English-speaking countries.

    This pattern might explain why it’s officially and usually “5 rand” but occasionally “5 rands” here in South Africa, a country where native English speakers constitute merely 8% of the population. And that might also explain the persistence of the singular as plural in Botswana and The Gambia, where English is an official language but spoken natively only by small portions of the population.

    However, it doesn’t explain why we still have “yen” and “renminbi” as both singular and plural—surely English speakers are now familiar with these currencies. But perhaps sustained, large-scale trade with Japan and China is too relatively recent to have instigated the change, or perhaps (more convincingly) there isn’t a large enough population of native English speakers dealing directly with the Yen and Renminbi on a daily basis, unlike the Euro, to adapt those words into English and create the change.

    I leave you with a stirring quote from Jay-Z’s verse in “Mr. Carter” (Lil Wayne):

    I see euros, that’s right: plural
    I took so much change from this rap game it’s your go


  • Sandeep Prasanna 10:39 am on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afrikaans, , , south africa, xhosa, zulu   

    Wading into language politics in South Africa (uh, Suid Afrika? iNingizimu Afrika? uMzantsi Afrika?) 

    I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days ago to begin my work with a human rights litigation group for the next two months. I came to South Africa cold—I knew little about its languages. It’s also very cold here.

    But I knew I was in for an awesome experience when I hopped aboard the Gautrain commuter rail to the center of the city and watched patiently as the electronic sign reading “Stops at Rhodesfield, Marlboro, and Sandton” slowly cycled through five or six different languages, none of which looked familiar to me. (Yes, the city names were even different! Cool! Wait—where does the train stop? Come back, English text!)

    The linguistic diversity of South Africa is overwhelming. With 11 official languages–in order of native speaker proportion: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele– South Africa has the second most officially recognized languages in the world after India.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    According to the 2001 census, Zulu had the greatest proportion of native speakers but still only clocked in at 23.8%. Although only about 8% of South Africans speak it as a first language, English emerged as a politically neutral lingua franca, used in business, politics, and the media, during Apartheid. Choosing English was a politically and racially charged move. The conflict came to a head when the Afrikaner (white Dutch-descended South African) government attempted in 1976 to make Afrikaans, a linguistic descendant of Dutch, a main medium of instruction in all South African schools. That didn’t end well.

    While Afrikaans was seen as the “language of the oppressor” (in the words of Desmond Tutu) and virtually useless outside of southern Africa, English offered broader horizons and opportunities in the international community.

    Before I started preparing to come to South Africa, I overestimated the role of Afrikaans in Johannesburg and even wondered whether I would need to learn a few Afrikaans phrases to get by. I didn’t—nearly everyone in Johannesburg at least understands English. Of course, Johannesburg isn’t representative of all of South Africa, and there are certain areas of South Africa where Afrikaans is commonly spoken.

    I also underestimated the role of other languages: 62% of Johannesburg residents speak Bantu languages at home, a fact that blew my mind but really shouldn’t have.

    Not knowing about the sheer diversity of languages in Johannesburg is partly due to my own ignorance, of course. But I also wonder the extent to which representations of South Africa and South Africans in American popular media, and the racial and cultural implications of those images, influenced my previous impressions. I’m still trying to slowly piece a more accurate picture together. For example, I know next to nothing about Bantu languages and I can’t wait to learn more while I’m here.

    And the more I talk to people, the more complex the language politics of Afrikaans seems. What does using Afrikaans convey about the speaker? (Is it still the “language of the oppressor”?) When do people decide to use it? (My housemate, who learned Afrikaans as a first language, says he sticks with English, a politically safe choice, unless he’s positive from a person’s name that they know Afrikaans.) Who decides to learn it? (After expressing a passing interest in taking Afrikaans classes, another friend advised me not to tell others that I was learning Afrikaans. As part of her rationale, she pointed out that the relationship between Indian South Africans—who number over 1 million today—and black South Africans is not easy.)

    Lots of questions, but so little time!

    • Lane 1:00 pm on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I believe the Soweto riots were kicked off by the government’s insistence that *half* of instruction be in Afrikaans – so hated was the language that that was what did it. Looking forward to hearing more about what you find – I vastly enjoyed my own trip there as I went through the same questions…

      • Sandeep Prasanna 5:03 am on June 2, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Right– my mistake! Hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to share over the next weeks.

    • Seumas 6:07 am on June 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      It’s made even more complicated that Afrikaans doesn’t belong exclusively to Afrikaners, it’s also the first language of some rural black and coloured communities in the Cape, younger people from Bushman communities and so on. The ANC’s pro-English policy of trying to erase Afrikaans ignores the needs and plight of non-white South Africans who speak Afrikaans and not English. Language politics in South Africa is fiendishly complex on all levels: politically, historically, racially, geographically and economically.

  • The Diacritics 10:27 am on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: acacia, australia, botany, kruger national park, latin, nomenclature, savanna, , south africa   

    What’s in a (scientific) name? 

    [Editor’s Note: This is the first of many guest posts from our classmates and friends with academic and personal interests in linguistics, writing, cognition, and English. Enjoy!]

    Ben Finkel is a junior at Duke University. He is spending fall 2011 in South African parks studying ecology and conservation. He’s currently blogging about his experiences here.

    South Africans and Australians are feuding. I can’t help but notice this whenever my professor mentions the Aussies and feigns a spit over his shoulder. They say it’s a sports rivalry. Still, to an outsider, this conflict seems like niche competition. Here are two ex British-colonies, rival members of the small club of southern hemisphere powerhouses. I’ve quickly learned that nothing earns a spitting rebuke quite like equating South African and Australian accents—or worse, sports teams.

    Even so, the most heated fight between the two right now is not on any athletics field. It’s at the International Botanical Congress (IBC). Every six years, a formal meeting of the world’s plant experts convenes. With power from the International Code of Nomenclature, the IBC’s goals are to discuss and revise species phylogenies to reach a standardized and streamlined system. This is how algae, fungi, and plant species get their Latin names or lose them.

    So how has a labeling issue has South Africans frothing at the mouth? Renaming the Acacia.

    You’ve seen the acacia before—whether in The Lion King or nature documentaries. It’s “quintessentially African,” those majestic trees that rise angularly from the savanna. Phrases like “an acacia sunset” or “an acacia savanna” are commonly used here in Kruger National Park. It’s a symbol of national pride.

    In the face of a widely circulated petition and broad opposition within Africa as a whole, scientists decided to split up the genus Acacia. A 2011 vote of those taxonomists resolved to uphold a previous decision and give the name to 948 Australian species. Now the losers in this battle, the South Africans, now have to split and rename 176 species of South African Acacia into the genera Senegalia and Vachelia.

    The Aussies argue that, although Africa has the type specimen, they have the majority of Acacia diversity and have produced more of its descriptive literature.

    In the words of my botany professor, “The Australians are saying, ‘f— sentimentality, we’ve done all the work.’ This is the cold hard edge of science. It’s like changing the name elephant or lion. South Africa will fight these bastards.”

    But that will be harder than just crossing arms. Scientific journals automatically reject any submissions that name species incorrectly—“no matter how groundbreaking the research,” according to my professor. This threat looms large over botany researchers, who make up a large part of the opposition here.

    As an ecology student in South Africa, I learned the name of Acacia tortillis, which exhibits that classic flat top canopy, first. Going back into my data to rename it seems like a waste of time. The name acacia already belongs to an entire continent. That’s a license that cannot be taken away, right?

    African scientists could decide to boycott the change. Some surely will. A mass boycott could stall the shift and maybe even garner some sympathy. More likely, though, it would create conflict. Focus would turn to this symbolic issue rather than more pressing ones like conservation. Such controversy would slow down scientific dialogues.

    Scientific research is now a globalized institution of collaboration. One group cannot operate by their own rules.

    This cooperation depends everyone using the same language and terms. Species names help biologists communicate with one another to compare and see patterns. Nowadays, naturalists have the pleasure of an organizational structure. A species’ whole title goes from kingdom (e.g., Animalia) all the way down to the genus (e.g., Homo) and species (e.g., sapiens), which most of us Homo sapiens recognize. Name the genus and a scientist will probably immediately know what broader categories it belongs to.

    Research would move at a gastropod’s pace if it weren’t for these tools.

    One problem is that nature doesn’t like cut-and-dry categories. As Sandeep said in a previous post on new words, language strives to achieve stability, while natural systems are dynamic. Ask just two biologists to define “species” and you will almost certainly hear more than two answers. Where does one species end and another begin? Infinite variation often leads to arbitrary boundaries.

    Taxonomists’ conferences like the IBC exist because of this fluidity. We are still discovering new species or even entire phyla in the microscopic world. Reordering occurs constantly at the behest of new DNA analysis tools. Naming Earth’s life is a process that will never be finished. (For instance, did you know that termites no longer belong to their own order Isoptera? They’re now grouped with cockroaches under Blattodea!)

    So what’s the best next step for the African naturalists’ mob? Acknowledging the useful—while imperfect—scientific naming process results in a bitter answer: Australia wins. “Suck it up,” some have said. Continuing to use “acacia” as the genus’s common name will result in little change for most people.

    Another possible scenario: some South African naturalists vow, “I’ll call it Acacia until the day I die!” Well, when they do, Acacia will fall out of use. Then, a generation from now, the IBC reconvenes under new evidence to declare the genus Acacia for Africa, and the debate begins all over again. Frustrated students moan over changing lexicon. Researchers grumble about edits to their papers.

    It’s possible. In the dynamic world of nomenclature, nothing is forever. That’s the language of science.

    • johnwcowan 1:49 pm on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Somehow the rest of the anglophone world has survived the fact that (as Tolkien noted in one of his letters), nasturtiums are called Tropaeolum, whereas Nasturtium is watercress.

    • Alon 3:16 am on September 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      National pride is a queer thing. I remember people complaining about the scientific name of the Golden Dorado (Salminus brasiliensis), on the ground that it was also to be found in Paraguay and Argentina.

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