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!