Colonial concepts about language have helped to implement Northern ideas of what counts as language across the colonized world: they have established institutions and rituals of education and have led to the lasting marginalization of African ways of speaking, codes and multilingualisms. Among these concepts are the ideologemes of the ‘native speaker’ (Bonfiglio 2010), the ‘mother tongue’ (Lüpke and Storch 2013), the existence of ‘boundaries’ between languages (Errington 2008) and the importance of school-transmitted language standards (Deumert 2010).
Missionaries and colonial officials played an important role in the standardization of African languages, and the outcome of their efforts was the establishment of an artificial standard that users did not identify with and that was odds with everyday communicative practices. In the case of isiXhosa, for example, there were vibrant debates in the early twentieth century when missionaries ‘imposed’ a new orthography and users resisted—ultimately unsuccessfully—its implementation. Focusing on the histories of isiXhosa and isiZulu, two closely related South African languages, this chapter look at issues of power and resistance in the standardization of these two languages. The discussion engages in a ‘long conversation’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 1990), which starts in the early nineteenth century and is still with us by having created a lasting disjunction between everyday practices and school-imposed standard norms.