Chris Chameleon: Muzzle FM


I grew up in a home where precise, careful language was encouraged and sometimes even enforced. As it happens when you are a child, you don’t always understand why the quality of language use should be so emphasized and, with time, its meaning is revealed.

It was a cold, early spring morning in Atlanta in 2002. We, the Afrikaner band Boo!, who practiced their art only in English and gibberish, went to eat a late morning breakfast with about six Americans. For the sake of the smokers, who were the majority, we sat on the outside terrace of the restaurant and it was unpleasantly cool and a bit windy. So we passed the time with light subjects and light tones, when the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and the wind died down at the same time. The world around us became infectiously quiet, and bliss gently rippled through the entire company. The silence was broken by my comment:

What a glorious morning.”

This short sentence seemed to hit just as hard as the welcome climatological euphemism of such fluxes. Heads turned and there were meaningful nods with whatever one would call the feeling just this side of wonder. One of the guests then expressed the collective sentiment:

Wow, that’s so precise. That’s exactly what it is: a glorious morning!

It was only then that I understood the unusual reaction to my statement. Within that cultural paradigm, the most commonly available descriptive word for morning might have been something like “amazing“. Maybe “fine“, “great” or “awesome“. But because that blissful turn in the weather is closer in feeling to “glorious” were than to the other words, it hit all the more deeply. Not exactly Shakespeare, but certainly effective.

The biggest realization from that morning was for me that a more extensive vocabulary facilitates a broader emotional repertoire. When the same four words are used repeatedly to describe a feeling, the emotional being runs the risk of limiting emotional awareness to the emotional value of four words. But when a larger vocabulary is developed, it articulates finer nuances between feelings, takes the feelings more sharply and vibrates the heartstrings with the resonance of a broader emotional symphony.

That’s what that simple, yet unusual word accomplished that morning. It resonated with an emotion beyond the usual reference and its constructive interference intensified the entire company’s emotional awareness.

But wait, I digress. That’s not really what I wanted to talk about.

There are certainly things that have a profound effect on language use: culture, subculture, social status, education, training and, best of all, politics. And it’s about the last of these phenomena that I have my egg on.

I’m not much of a radio listener. We have no signal at home, there in the Free State mountains, my wife is too good company and we drive all the way down to the Cape without turning on the radio, because after 13 years we still haven’t exhausted each other’s company not. But every now and then I drive somewhere alone and then I listen to the radio. I rarely get stuck at a station for more than half an hour before switching. My understanding of Zulu and Sotho is limited and I only pick up something here and there. But I like to listen to Ukhozi, Motsweding, Lesedi or Kwekwezi for half an hour at a time between RSG, OFM, 5FM, SAFM, 2000 etc. by.

And with such a hybrid listening habit, one thing strikes me strongly.

The white (and actually also brown) speakers on e.g. RSG speaks much slower than the black speakers on the Bantu language radio stations. The black announcers wave, with speed, cheerfully and outspoken, while the white announcers, with a few exceptions, speak more slowly and often with modulated inflections and unnatural speech habits. And it wasn’t always that bad. The stiffness has increased over time since my youth. A certain part of the reason may be cultural, but it is not going to explain everything. The advertising still flows quickly and confidently (it’s also text based), and has even increased in speed over the past decades. But oh my, the conversations are slow.

And if the road is very long and lonely, I also find time to reflect on this phenomenon. And I could be wrong, who couldn’t? But let me venture a conclusion.

The white announcers are hounded by self-censorship. In the past 30 years, a culture of self-censorship has gradually tightened the noose around the throats of white broadcasters. The tongue is made heavy by the chains of thoughts that are just oh so afraid that something will be said wrong, oh faux pas.

At the same time, the black broadcasters’ voices and expressions were liberated. Politically, culturally, socially, they can loosen up and chatter with full sociable confidence, seemingly free from fear of the consequences of error, perhaps freer from the chance of error.

Well, a muzzle is one thing. But one must be careful that this does not make you stupid.