Are African languages relevant today?

That night I sit at the desk and start the story of Warĩĩnga in the Gĩkũyũ language. It flows just like that, and for the first time since my incarceration, I feel transports of joy. That which I have always toyed with but feared – writing a novel in Gĩkũyũ – is happening before my own eyes.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981) in Detained, a writer’s prison diary.

Floating around, there is the perception that somehow African languages would be less apt than their European counterparts to express things of the modern world. For instance, many of us use computers on a daily basis but would be quite challenged if we were to describe the machine in our mother tongue. African languages thus suffer a loss of prestige for being deemed inadequate, obsolete and hence inferior.

Relevance lies in the tongue of the speaker

Of course, relevance lies in the tongue of the speaker…The more a language is used in various spheres, be it at home, at school, in political circles, in the media etc, the more it develops ad hoc vocabulary to cover all those areas. That is to say that words are created or borrowed when the need arises for the speakers to use it.

We could spend a whole post detailing how this may happen but the bottom line is that, as new concepts or objects emerge, ALL languages are faced with the issue of filling lexical gaps. The ability to generate new words is a strong indicator of a language’s dynamism.

However, since most African countries use English, French or Portuguese as the medium of education, the need to find appropriate terms for ‘software’ or ‘microbiology’ in the local languages is hardly felt. The reference then becomes the European language and African languages are in turn limited to “home discourse”.

Literature upholds African languages

In the absence of a supportive educational system, I believe literature can have a redeeming role. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel evoked above is a case in point: writing serves as a rediscovery of the language and one’s own mother tongue becomes an object in creation.

Besides the writer’s effort to tell the world in the language at stake, written material can revive the interest of the speakers in their own mother tongue and elevate its perceived status. Online publishing has the potential to give rise to new forms of expression, with the ability to reach out to geographically scattered speakers at little cost.

Since many of the speakers of African languages never learnt them formally, reading even a simple text in their mother tongue can turn into a fastidious task. This is where oral literature can come in to engage all types of audiences.

So, have fun being creative in your language and throw your words around … who knows, your linguistic inventions might end up in the dictionary a few years down the line!


7 thoughts on “Are African languages relevant today?

  1. Reading a literature in one’s supposedly native tongue can be daunting indeed, because those who learn European languages in Africa often let their mothertongues become vestigial organs.

    Good post—it’s got me thinking. There are a series of back-and-forth essays between Ngugi and Achebe about writing in African languages vs doing so in European languages, with the two writers taking good and funny jabs at each other but nonetheless making good arguments all around.

    • It’s interesting that you’d write ‘supposedly native tongue’ because it used to really puzzle me to hear such paradoxical statements as ‘I don’t speak my mother tongue’ – I guess it still does. I feel that in urban Kenya particularly, mother tongue has come to mean ‘my mother’s language’ as opposed to ‘the language my mother passed on to me’.

      I want to argue that European languages do take precedence in many instances simply because it would take a tremendous effort to keep up with the kind of linguistic expansion afforded by school, advertising, books, music etc. Without engaging material to continue developing the mother tongue, it will definitely remain in the background if it does not wither away altogether.

      The fact that it got you thinking is the best compliment I could imagine so thank you! Do you know where I can find the series of essays you mentioned?

  2. Je pense qu’Achebe (ou Soyinka) avait dit que l’écrivain africain peut écrire en anglais ou en français sans trahir sans pensée d’Africain. C’est devenu une question idéologique. En outre, l’écrivain africain habitué à être lu dans les langues occidentales a peur de perdre son public en écrivant dans une langue peu répandue. En général, il n’ a aussi eu aucune formation dans sa langue maternelle donc il ne la maitrise plus suffisamment pour pouvoir l’utiliser comme le support de son écriture. Or, les canaux traditionnels qui permettaient une bonne retransmission de la langue dans toute sa richesse et ses nuances à travers les générations tel que les contes des veillées sont entrain de disparaitre. Je me souviens avoir appris beaucoup de mots et de tournures avec les contes et légendes. Il faudrait peut-être les réactiver en utilisant les nouveaux moyens de communication.

    • Il est vrai qu’en lisant Achebe, on prend la mesure des possibilités d’appropriation d’une langue européenne dans le contexte africain (la langue anglaise en l’occurrence). Comme il est bien évident que ces langues ne peuvent être ignorées, autant prendre le parti de les intégrer au paysage linguistique et littéraire.

      Ceci dit, faisant volontairement abstraction de la bataille idéologique, je pense que les deux approches ne sont pas mutuellement exclusives ou plutôt que de cultiver les langues africaines ne veut pas dire que l’on doive nécessairement négliger leurs consœurs européennes. Ngugi lui-même a traduit plusieurs de ses œuvres en anglais, dont l’ouvrage évoqué ci-dessus.

      Je vous rejoins sur le problème de l’acquisition d’un vocabulaire suffisamment riche pour être capable de communiquer toutes les nuances désirées. Cela influence aussi la transmission : si je n’ai pas moi-même une connaissance approfondie de la langue, je ne serai pas en mesure d’élever mes enfants dans un environnement qui favorise l’usage de cette langue.

      Avez-vous un exemple concret de réactivation des canaux de transmission par le biais des nouveaux moyens de communication?

      …eh oui, je ne mentais pas quand je vous disais que je pourrais y passer la nuit !

  3. Le langage des sciences est limité meme dans les langues européennes. Après le grec et le latin, maintenant c’est l’anglais qui domine partout dans le monde. C’est comme dans les NTIC. Comment traduirait-on par exemple: blog, Tweet, etc.?

    Par contre les NTIC sont de plus en plus utiles pour l’usage des langues africaines. Avec peu de moyens, on peut créer des radios, des TV ou tout simplement un blog utilisant les langues africaines. Les exemples ne manquent pas! Sur Youtube, My Space, les vidéos en langues africaines sont nombreuses.

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