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 coats of arms, postage stamps, airliner decals, and other prominent platforms become vehicles for displaying and familiarizing two or three official languages.
That was the task facing newly democratic South Africa in 1994 when the self-styled “rainbow nation” succeeded 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 nationhood among the country’s diverse ethnicities, the two official languages that prevailed before 1994 became the 11 of the new South Africa.
The English and Afrikaans of pre-1994 South Africa were supplemented after the democratic elections of that year by Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.
Nation builders looking for public platforms for 11 official languages 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 recognized by color and design, supremely portable and storable, and a status symbol to boot: not the postage stamp—which is falling into digital desuetude—but the banknote.