COUNTRIES with more than one official language often use public signage as affirmation of the status and usage of the national mother tongues. Thus road signs, official publications, national mottos or coat of arms, postage stamps, airliner decals, and other prominent platforms become vehicles for displaying and fam-iliarizing two or three official languages.
That was the task facing newly democratic South Africa in 1994 when the self-styled “rainbow nation” succeeeded the pariah apartheid state of the previous half century. Among the many novel features of the new nation was a sweeping expansion in the official language count. To foster a new sense of inclusive nation-hood among the country’s diverse ethnicities, the two offic-ial languages that prevailed befo-re 1994 became the 11 of the new South Africa.
The English and Afrikaans of pre- 1994 South Africa were supple-mented after the democratic elec-tions of that year by Ndebele, Nothern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.
Nation builders looking for publ-ic platforms for 11 official langu-ages can forget nearly all of the usual standbys available to two or three mother tongues. But one display medium still presents itself as uniquely qualified to promote 11 languages to a diverse nation: in daily use by nearly all citizens, easily recog-nized by color and design, supremerly portable and storable, and a status symbol to boot: not the postage stamp– which is falling into digital dese-uetude –but the banknote.