I'm going to take a look over my next few blogs at existing descriptions of Tsotsitaal on the web. If you run a simple Google search for Tsotsitaal one of the first hits is a free online dictionary which gives the following definition:
(Linguistics / Languages) South African a type of street slang used by tsotsis
[from Nguni tsotsi thug + Afrikaans taal language]
(see it online here)
It's actually not a bad description, as far as it goes. It doesn't profess to any detail about the languages which constitute Tsotsitaal, and in its generic nature I think it manages to remain broadly correct. However, it is rather simplifying things to say it is used by tsotsis. My research suggests that lots of people use it who could never be accused of being tsotsis. On the other hand, there are many names for Tsotsitaal, and speakers rarely refer to their own style by the term Tsotsitaal which they do say is linked to criminality.
A second question for me would be the etymology 'Nguni tsotsi thug'. In the South African English dictionary, tsotsi is defined as 'a young black urban criminal' rather than a thug, which I think is more accurate to its usage. Furthermore, as a footnote in a recent paper I wrote with Raj Mesthrie explains, the origins of the term tsotsi are contested:
Huddleston (1956:81) suggests that the term Tsotsi originally referred to a style of narrow-bottomed trousers, and came from the American slang term zoot-suits used by members of gangs. This etymology is contested by those who link it to the Sotho verb go tsotsa ‘to rob’ (see Glaser 2000:50-1).
In my next post I'll have a look at the Wikipedia article on Tsotsitaal, which myself and my reserach students agree is in need of an update!