82 year old receives MPhil Degree in ‘troeteltaal’

It has long been a dream of her to obtain a postgraduate degree at Stellenbosch University and at 82 it has become reality.

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Prof Rufus Gouws and Ms Gerda Simpson

When Mrs Gerda Simpson retired as receptionist at the general practice of her son, Dr André Simpson, this active woman realised she had to keep herself occupied.

“I needed to keep my mind active,” she says in her house in Brandwacht, Stellenbosch.

Over the years Simpson was also a teacher; an external examiner of matric papers, she was involved with the former Department of National Education where she organised cultural programmes; she organised provincial competitions for school and church choirs and established reading circles – indeed, not somebody who, even in retirement, can sit still all day long.

Eventually she decided to do her MPhil in Lexicography under Prof Rufus Gouws of the Department Afrikaans and Dutch in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

“He said he was willing to work with this old lady,” says Simpson smiling. “He and my son were my two pillars of support.”

The title of her thesis is ʼn Taalkundige en leksikografiese perspektief op troeteltaal in Afrikaans. Her research partially consisted of contacting learners at a number of primary and high schools in mostly rural areas and asking them to fill out a questionnaire about what they understand by troeteltaal, which can roughly be described as the language one uses to express affection. Words that are similar to troetel, are cherish, pamper, caress and nurture. A basic example: the gentle “baby words” a mother uses to speak to her baby, is a form of “troeteltaal”.

“Most of the learners had no idea what the word ‘troetel’ means, although they indicated it makes them think that it has something to do with love,” says Simpson. “They were allowed to use a dictionary to find out what the word means, but most of them did not even know how to use this resource.”

She believes that many modern parents are often so busy that they do not have time to form a nurturing bond with their children.

Words, their meaning and how they are used, is a passion of Simpson’s. “My research gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into our wonderful Afrikaans vocabulary and how it is used. How does one evaluate the different nuances of language use? How does one decide how to choose the correct word during a specific conversation? It bothers me when I listen to young people and I see no sign that they have an affinity for the language when they chose a specific word. Everything is nice. What happened to the Afrikaans word ‘lekker’ which has been absorbed into other languages?”

She opens a Van Dale dictionary dating back to 1950. “See, here are many uses of ‘lekker’ in this Dutch dictionary.”

Completing her MPhil degree, has in a sense, brought her full circle. When she was only 17 years old, Simpson obtained her first degree, a BA at Stellenbosch University. And now, as an 82-year-old, she achieved something that many far younger people would not even consider attempting.

  • Article by STEPHANIE NIEUWOUDT