Sol Plaatje is well known as an early nationalist intellectual, translator of texts into Setswana, diarist and novelist. Plaatje was also a critical interlocutor in a series of debates in the early twentieth century around orthography, phonetics, and African languages. These debates took place in different mediums: in correspondence with academics at the University of the Witwatersrand where Plaatje was a research assistant and contributor to the Bantu Research Committee; in Plaatje’s own publications such as the Sechuana Reader and translations of Shakespeare, and articles in various publications. They come to mark the formation of what becomes Bantu Studies and come to inform the relationship between disciplinary knowledge and South Africa in the twentieth century, specifically the kind that would script the educational policies of the apartheid state. In this paper, I draw attention to and track two concepts that mark these debates — the phoneme and the diacritic — and suggest that in Plaatje’s interventions with and around them, there is a persistent demand that the sonic aspects of language be critical to the development of an appropriate orthography, and thus to specific concepts of culture and race. I read this demand as part of a larger interest and concern with sound in Plaatje’s corpus, an interest that I note through a number of examples is critical to how we read Plaatje’s own intellectual formation and political ethics. It is an interest that I argue is borne both out of the specific political context of the early twentieth century and out of the aftermath of the technological changes in sense and perception of the nineteenth century.
Dr. Aidan Erasmus is a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape. His research is generally interested in comparative histories of race, technology, and sound, with attention to intellectual histories of language, media, and memory. His doctoral research, completed in 2018, asked what the role of sound as a foundational discourse in the historiography of war in South Africa was. His current project engages the interpretive role of sound in black intellectual circles in the shifting milieus of technology, sense, and race at the turn of the twentieth century.
Date: 02 August 2022
Time: 12:00pm (GMT+2)
Venue: Centre for Humanities Research, UWC
Discussant: William Fourie, Rhodes University
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