23 May 2016

Ghana: Minding Your Language... Losing Our Culture and Our Identity


"Gong, gong, gong, gong, gong!" The town crier beat the gong-gong in the village square to announce his presence and tell the people what the chief has for them.

"Township! Nana si ori greet mu! Ori si meeting no na oni opanyin fuo have ye no, about yen development no, ori ma mu ears até see, henceforth youth bia worsey ori lead good life ani behaviour papa.

"Abemuwa biara yebe catch wo anajo, sey wo hide hide wo dark corners edi nsem bone, especially, with small small girls aaa wo mia mia won tight, ana sey ye catch youth biara ori smoke smoke nnuro bone, nie Abrofou frenu wee and wu di bring into yen local language ye frenu yen, emera no be deal with wo well well. Township! Deme na Nana sey me telli mu! Ma nu ese!"

There goes the gong-gong beater announcing the decisions taken by the chief and elders to the inhabitants of a local rural community. All he said was: 'Greetings from Nana. He sends this message that for the development and well-being of our society, henceforth, any youth caught in the dark doing any immoral act will be dealt with. Also, no one should smoke Indian hemp in the community. Anyone who violates these laws will be dealt with severely. These are the words of Nana.'

Language is the most essential component of the culture and identity of a people. It is the reservoir of culture, and, according to Prof. Okoth Okombo of the linguistics and communication skills faculty of the University of Nairobi, most of the cultural wealth of a community is stored in its language - their philosophy of life, stories and medicinal practices. "The death of a language is like the burning of a library," he said.

The death of a language does not mean its people have died or phased out, the critically endangered and disappearing of languages come about mainly through the increasing assimilation by larger language groups.

In Tanzania, the language of the Hadza community, a small tribe of about 1,300 hunters-gatherers, is fast disappearing.

Africa is a continent of over a billion people in fifty-four nations, and has between 2,000 and 2,500 different spoken languages. Some of these languages are critically endangered, and could disappear in a matter of time.

The rate of disappearing languages in Africa is due to the official language policies adapted by the countries. Suddenly, it has become very prestigious to speak the foreign language than to speak in your own native tongue. In prestigious schools it is an offense to speak in vernacular, except during local language classes.

According to UNESCO, about 231 languages have gone extinct in the world, and out of that number, 37 were from sub-Saharan Africa. Examples are Zeem (Nigeria); Berakuo (Chad); Kwadi (Algeria) and Kw'adza (Tanzania) said to be among those that have gone extinct over the last decade.

Nigeria is having 15 endangered languages, perhaps, because it is the most linguistically rich country in Africa. One of its dying languages is Yangham, spoken by people found in the Plateau State. It is mostly those over 50 years of age who still speak the indigenous Yangham. Most of the people have shifted to speaking Hausa.

In Cameroon, Bikya and Bishou are among sixteen languages on the highest risk of extinction. In the Central African Republic, Bodo, Birri and Geme had 15,200 and 500 indigenous speakers left respectively, as at 1996.

In Kenya, the Yaaku of the Mukugodo forest have their language on the way to extinction as they are absorbed by the Maasai; the Elmolo people of Lake Turkana are fast losing their dialect as they blend it into the neighboring Samburu community, and the Omotik of the Rift Valley have their language on extinction as it is absorbed by the Maasai.

Chad has on the extinction list six languages, including Berakou, which had only two speakers in 1995 aged 60 plus, and Mabire which had three speakers in 2001.

In Ethiopia, with 90 individual languages, the Ongota language is critically endangered. Located in the Omo region, it had only eight speakers in 2007. And in South Africa, Korana and Xiri and NІu are endangered. Countries like Somalia and Namibia are seriously having some languages going extinct.

A lost language is a lost culture, and a lost culture is invaluable knowledge lost. One of the reasons languages die is that children do not acquire their mother tongues, and, therefore, do not reproduce them. Parents start off their kids with the foreign official language, and feel proud showing of the prowess of the little ones when they speak impeccable English, French, etc., etc. In most cases, house helps are mandated to speak only the official language with the children.

Another reason why some languages go extinct is their inability to adapt to change and evolve to the changing demands of society. To survive, a language must coin new words, or even borrow some other languages to fit into the environment.

In Ghana, the Akan, Twi, has successfully coined up words that have become its vocabulary. For example, when draught beer started becoming popular, the word Bubra was coined. It simply meant fetch and bring, as in fetching water. Today, whenever you go to a drinking spot, instead of saying the mouthful words, draught beer, just demand bubra, and the attendant will surely know what you are talking about.

Another recently coined word which is reportedly to have entered the world lexicon is the word dum-so. Instead of going round talking about power cuts, power outages, power rationing, black-out, lights-off, depending on one's social and political divide, the Asantes came out with dum-so, literally meaning put-off/put-on. Today, Ghanaians can be proud to say that a word in our language is adopted into the English language.

One local Ghanaian word which found a place long ago in good foreign language dictionaries and accepted as an international word is kwashiorkor. So, at least, we are trying, but can we weather the storm, when even the chief's town crier cannot speak fluent local dialect?

In Ghana today, even in the English language, our youth are having difficulties in expressing themselves. Notice boards have strange expressions of English grammar, as one can find someone advertising the "sale of dog children, boys and girls." Now there are lots of "Fun Clubs" sprinkling up, when there should have been "Fan Clubs". The situation is even more serious when we take the standard of English spoken and written by most university students. They simply cannot express themselves and choose to speak Patua instead of the Queen's English.

Coming back home to culture and what identifies us, we are in an era where we are fast losing it. There is no local dialect that can be spoken fluently without punctuating it with English. During discussions in local languages on radio or television, you are sure to hear one or another member of the panel speaking a paragraph length of English. Our languages are slowly evolving into English, and that will be a way to secure a one-way ticket into extinction.

To protect our language, we must, as a matter of urgency, introduce the learning of, at least, three indigenous dialects, from primary through to secondary (high school). A student must learn his or her own mother tongue and two others. With, at least, seventy-nine indigenous languages spoken in Ghana, one may think it will be an uphill task to have such number of teachers in linguistics in every school.

One thing we ought to do, as a nation, is to document our languages. Hebrew was one language which was saved from extinction because it was documented and well preserved during the over 1,500 years in the Diaspora, even as the Jews were spread out in different countries in Europe and the Americas. So, when they came back home, they started learning what can be said to be the New Hebrew. Today, over 90% of Jews speak Hebrew.

If all the local dialects are documented, pupils and students can be thought via electronics, and so the teacher need not be there. And the advantage of learning at least two other languages is to make the student widely literate in Ghanaian languages.

Language is all about culture, and it is the reservoir of the history of the people, that is why foreign students who learn languages of the countries they go to study, learn about the history and culture of the people. You understand phrases and idioms better, when you understand the culture of the people.

It is very important to learn about other people's language, especially, when you are visiting. I remember one day in Abidjan, back in the 70s when we went on visit. We decided to have a pet dog at home. One day, my elder brother came from a walk and stated that there were lots of dog sellers around the neighborhood. Puzzled, my father asked how he meant. He said on the gates of such houses were notices which read "Chien Menchant." His revelation saved him, because what he saw did not say "Dog Merchant" as he thought, rather it meant "Wild Dogs In Here."

We are too proud a race to lose our local dialects, so we must be mindful of our languages. They are our identity and must be safeguarded. We can adopt three or four major languages as Ghana's official languages, and have all notices in English and in the four languages. We see these when we visit some countries and we find out that the people there are proud that God has given them an identity.

If our languages die, we die with them, then sooner than later, the chief sitting in state will address his subjects in not too good English.

In the meantime, "Readership, I am Dan (Done) for now."


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