The subject, Law and Language in a Multilingual Society, raises critical issues not only for us in this country but also for others because language is part - the greater part - of one's culture. A people without a culture is said to be like a zebra without stripes. Culture, and not race, nationality, religion or border (natural or political), determines one's identity. As one of the founding fathers of the Afrikaans language, Rev SJ du Toit, wrote in 1891: language is a portrait of the soul and life of a nation; and it mirrors the character and intellectual development of a people (my translation).
Unfortunately language tends to divide, more particularly, a multilingual society. Law is supposed to close the divide but more often than not widens it and is used to deepen divisions. This is because the ruler determines the law and, consequently, the language of the law, in the belief that the use of language can be enforced from above. Law and language, like oil and water, do not mix although the former is dependent on the latter.
The reason this paper is in English may have had its origin in an incident at the Pretoria Bar, of which I had been a member. During 1910 the Bar held a dinner for the appointees to the newly formed Appellate Division, including a future Chief Justice, Sir James Rose-Innes. It was attended by Sir Patrick Duncan, a future Governor-General. The speech was made by NJ de Wet, who later also became a Chief Justice and was to act as Governor-General during Sir Patrick's illness. But he spoke Dutch. This annoyed some, particularly Sir Patrick, who felt that it was inappropriate considering that part of the audience was not fully conversant with Dutch. Since then, but not because of this, Afrikaans speakers have been very sensitive about the choice of language and have tended to please those who might not understand their language. Proof of this conciliatory approach is to be found in the fact that General Hertzog, when prime minister, chose Sir Patrick to be Governor-General (not that the latter reciprocated when he refused to follow convention and disband parliament at the request of Hertzog, but that is another matter). Another instance is when counsel in the Supreme Court of Appeal responded in English to a question put to him in Afrikaans on the assumption that because of the judge's race he would understand English better. He rephrased his answer in Afrikaans after the judge had asked him if he had misunderstood the question.