Peter Titlestad

    Retired Professor of English, University of Pretoria

    ‘Motivate,’ meaning ‘to give reasons for’ is a South Africanism that is, perhaps, a little too well established. It comes from the Afrikaans ‘om te motiveer’.  In the rest of the English-speaking world, ‘to motivate’ is to impart a sense of enthusiasm or a desire to get things done. South Africans should be aware that local usage could cause confusion elsewhere.

    ‘Motivate your answer’ is becoming a stock phrase in examination papers, at the cost of other, excellent, English phrases. Would not ‘give reasons for your opinion’ be pleasanter, more direct, more comprehensible? This, and other possibilities, are in danger of being lost to English in South Africa. Should our ‘learners’ grow up not knowing ‘put the case for, ‘argue your case’,  ‘give a reasoned argument’,  ‘state your reasons’, ‘make a well-reasoned case for’, ‘back up your opinions’, ‘justify, ‘explain’?  Instead of ‘a good motivation’ one can ‘make a strong case for’; rather than a ‘weak motivation’ one could say ‘a weak case for’; or ‘weak reasoning’ or an ‘unconvincing explanation’. The specialized phrase ‘put the case’, to express a hypothetical situation, can sometimes be essential.

    Jean Aitcheson, in Language Decay, puts the case that change does not mean language decay. This is a stock-in-trade argument against the wish to preserve, conventionally objurgated as ‘purism’. However, would it not be a pity if South Africa lost the eloquent alternatives to ‘motivate’ and ‘motivation’? ‘Motivate’ is sterile and abstract; the other terms are flexible, vigorous, idiomatic English, and the expressions learners are likely to come across in all sorts of documents and situations wherever English is used. They are important items of vocabulary, basic to any debate or argument. Not to have access to this area of vocabulary is a severe handicap. They are essential items of communication. If one wants to teach ‘communicative English,’ this is the kind of thing that should be taught.

    Categories: Issue I