Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Africans overstating the multiplicity of their languages!

It is a truism that Africa comprises multiple languages. Africa is not only multilingual, Africa is multicultural and massive. Actually if you asked African languages linguists how many languages there are in Africa the number is put in the region of 2000, some even suggesting that there could be even 3000 African languages. Some have seen this as a hurdle to the development of not just African languages, but also of African societies. Africa has become the biblical tower of Babel. Western languages in Africa such as English, French and Portuguese have become the lingua franca of many Africa states and interstate communication. Many African languages have become oral tools of communication in rural and small villages. But really what is a language? What sets languages apart? What is the difference between a language and a dialect? It is generally accepted that a language is a system of human communication shared by a speech community. By a speech community linguists are not necessarily referring to people who reside in the same town, village or country though this may be true. A speech community can be made by persons living in different continents as long as they share the same language. This means that speakers of English in England, America, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand belong to the same speech community and they speak the same language. Speakers of Setswana in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe also speak the same language. These speakers may speak their language in a variety of ways depending on where they are found. We sometimes think of American English as distinct from British English. The difference is in particular obvious when we consider vocabulary distinctions between the two groups of speakers. We know terms such as cellphone, candy, elevator, pickup truck, traffic circle, gasoline, sidewalk, counterclockwise, department store, super market, drug store etc. The British also have a stock of words distinct from those used in America. Such words include boot, bonnet, cinema, dustbin, nappy, pavement, motorbike, pub, a roundabout, windscreen and many others. The most important point to make is that American and British English are not separate languages. They are dialects of the same language: English. Additionally, it is important to observe that the so-called British English and American English each have their own various dialects. British English is not homogenous. Welsh English, Irish English and Scottish English are all varieties of British English. All these are distinct from the Southern & Eastern English dialects.

The situation in Africa is slightly different and must be treated with utmost care. Many African languages were reduced to a written script by missionaries who were concerned primarily with spreading Christianity. Many of these missionaries were in the majority of the instances in competition with each other since they were sent by various European churches. They were also not just on an evangelistic mission. They were fascinated by the idea of discovering new tribes and new languages or claiming to have recently stumbled on a new tribe! As a consequence the development of the writing system of African languages was therefore severely fragmented. Languages of the same group were written in different ways, such that their written text was almost incomprehensible amongst the readers from different ethnic groupings, though the oral language could be understood with surprising ease. In this process missionaries elevated certain dialects above others thus creating different nations out of people who otherwise spoke more or less the same language and belonged to the same linguistic and oftentimes same geographical boundaries. Thus Banda is right in observing that “the emerging of Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi as distinctive languages owes much to the three different missionary societies whose activities were centred in different areas where Sotho was spoken. The London Missionary Society was active in the western side and the Sotho language there became Setswana; the catholic missionaries were active in the south, and the Sotho languages there became Sesotho, while the Lutheran missionaries ere located in the north and the Sotho language there became Sepedi. As a result, not only were three varieties of the same language created, words pronounced the same way, were now spelt differently.” Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi are therefore dialects of the same language, which we could simply call Sotho/Tswana. We know this because the languages are mutually intelligible. Batswana and Basotho don’t need a translator to speak to each other. This is not to say that there are no unique words which belong to each group. They are certainly there just as much as there are uniquely southern African English words or uniquely American or English words. To say Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi constitute separate languages is misleading. The danger is that the missionaries imported their writing systems which made related languages look foreign to each other.  The Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi case is not unique. In Ghana Barifor, Anufu, Ntrobu, Bowli, Likpe, Tafi, Logba and Krachi are all variants of a larger cluster of languages. In Nigeria Gun, Seto & Werne are Fongbe dialects and not separate languages. Phela, Alada, Asento, Gbekou and Savi are all variants of Phla-Phera. In Benin Phla-Phera dialects are Phela, Phla, Alada, Asento, Toli, Tofin, Ayizo, Se, Saxwe and Rota Fon. In Ghana Awlan, Gbin, Peci, Kpando, Ho Vhlin, Towun, Awlangan, Anfoin, Ve Aveno, Avedakpa, Kpelen, Fofome, Dayin Mafi, Agawe and Kuma are all Vehgbe dialects.

There is clear evidence that Africa is not the Tower of Babel that many people have in the past made it to be. Also it is clear that the claim of a host of languages, supremely exaggerates the language situation in Africa. Prof Kwesi Kwaa Praah argues that “The reality of the Tower of Babel emerges only when we split African languages up into minutiae and elevate all variants to the status of separate languages.” He is right.


Read this week's paper

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