You say Pu-tay-toe, I say Pu-tah-toe… (Conversationalisation)

This was originally posted on my old blog on 18 March 2017.

I’m a sucker for the written word. I have been fascinated, since way before starting my studies, with how words are used to give subtle meaning to a written text, the reader not always realising they are being manipulated. Yet written text leaves out many intriguing aspects of communication. One of these is the impact of conversationalisation.

Conversationalisation is the effect of the audible delivery of a text (remember in media analysis ‘text’ refers to a media artefact, not only the written word). It is the tone of the speaker, their choice of words, grammar, accent, the regionally or culturally specific ‘lingo’ they may use. These factors or choices are as critical to the meaning of the message as the actual words in the sentences; in some cases, more so.

Consider this old advertisement from South African television, first aired in 2008:

The first time I showed this to a friend in Ireland, she asked: “What language are they speaking?” Well, they’re all speaking English, but this ad captures a range of specific ways of speaking English in South Africa which are typical of various cultural groups. The brilliance of the ad lies in tapping into the country’s pride of its cultural diversity, and in making a hero out of the African Mama who was in the past often the least respected member of society.

It’s notable that not a single white person is featured in the ad – this in itself makes a political statement that would resonate with people of colour who find the continued economic dominance of whites frustrating. The use of accents previously looked down on, by those relating the story as important witnesses, as well as by the hero of the story, use of the slang spoken widely in everyday life, and the strong accent of the voice-over at the end, all make a powerful statement that taps into deep emotions and very emotive issues of the day.

Contrast the accents in the ad with the media- or general accent used in this news broadcast:

In South Africa, English is spoken by almost everyone, but people have distinct accents which can indicate their background. Among others, there is an “African” accent, such as heard in the Hall’s ad when the hero speaks, which is indicative of a native South African first language such as Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Venda etc.; an English accent, typical of white people who are descended from English settlers, who were raised speaking English as their first language; then there is an Afrikaans accent, typical of white people who speak Afrikaans as their first language. Accents are very strongly associated with cultural groups rather than regions, though there are minor regional variations.

A South African music group that has seen some international exposure, Die Antwoord, uses the Afrikaner accent. This accent is more likely to be associated with conservative values and, typically, Calvinistic religious convictions. This interview with Eugene Terreblanche shows the accent clearly:

It is difficult to overstate how severely the stereotypical “Boer” would disapprove of Die Antwoord‘s appearance, actions, and especially their music. Instead of tempering their accent, they emphasise it (listen from 2:27):

The duo are well able to temper their accents, indicating that it is deliberately emphasised as an artistic device. While this may not be evident to a foreign ear, I can hear an adaptation in the interview below which seems aimed at an American audience – Ninja rolls his R’s less in this video, while in others I listened to his Afrikaans accent is much more pronounced (listen from 1:32):

(Unfortunately this video is no longer available, so you’ll just have to take my word for it!)

Employed in music designed to shock, it creates a dissonance that works like a car crash: it’s not pretty, but somehow you can’t look away.

Conversationalisation can also be used to create false intimacy, especially in radio. A good example of this in the South African context (bearing in mind this opinion is limited, as I am a white South African and would not be able to evaluate conversationalisation aimed at my black peers) is Jeremy Mansfield. His media personality is of an agreeable, fun guy who gets along with everyone, and his English South African accent is pronounced:

Whereas the same accent is not erased, but still used more formally by a veteran reporter, Jeremy Maggs:

The use of various accents, specific ‘lingo’, and tone are all powerful tools, and in the South African context it can be particularly meaningful and powerful. I have shown examples where various accents were either emphasised or neutralised as part of the message being delivered, where an accent often associated with white supremacy is used as an artistic device, and where an accent associated with a certain cultural group is used in a context that aims for false intimacy and another context that aims for respectability and formality.

Conversationalisation is arguably as important, if not more so, than the words used to deliver a message. It is a fascinating field of study.