Saturday, July 13, 2024

No honour in not knowing your language

It still gets to me. Yes, it still shocks me terribly that there are still intelligent people in our society who think it is a badge of honour not to know their language, or perhaps to feign ignorance of their tongue. The past few weeks have been most interesting and revealing. Perhaps I had thought wrong that we have moved forward. I had thought that amongst intelligent people of our society, there has been a general acceptance that our languages are important and that they deserve to be preserved; and that one such manner of preservation is to speak the languages in social contexts. However, in the past few weeks I have been confronted by some of the most pretentious persons I have ever met. Some of these are individuals who have grinned with supreme pride claiming that the Setswana language is very difficult. Let us be fair; there are people whose language competence is poor, in part because they were brought up outside the country. Such individuals try much to speak their tongue, but because their language skill was poorly developed in a foreign land; they are under tremendous pains to speak their language. However, there are those who are in flight from their tongue; those whose identity is with the English plains and therefore wish they were native speakers of English; or worse, who mistake their dialect for being one of the South East British dialects. Now if someone was brought up in an extremely rural area of Botswana by Batswana parents, speaking the Setswana language, there is no need for them to pretend not to know the Setswana language. A native tongue cannot be wished away. Once acquired, it sticks to its speaker tenaciously and it will not be easily lost.

In the 1980s young Batswana who had only spent a year in America reading for a Masters degree used to return home claiming to have forgotten their uncles, the food and their language. This is most bizarre and a perfect example of a twisted identity amongst some of the most informed. In the past this was common amongst the French of Senegal and Ivory Coast who wished to speak French better than the Frenchmen of France. These ridiculous mannerisms were taken to the most extreme levels as the same people imported bottled water from the springs of France into Africa.

Now two attacks are used locally against the Setswana language. It is either dismissed as difficult or dismissed as just Setswana. The first assault on the language does not mean that the language is as difficult as say Mathematics; that is, difficult in an admirable manner. The difficulty associated with the Setswana language is that of an obscure, rustic and basic entity that is yet to be explored. It is a difficulty associated with the marginal entities such as traditional medicine; a difficulty of the less informed; an amusing impenetrability that could be easily laughed off.

The second assault against Setswana and those who are researchers of the language is that the language is despised and dismissed as just Setswana. Underlying this dismissal is an assumption that Setswana language; its grammar, syntax, morphology and phonology is unproblematic and basic while English linguistics is presumed to be superior. Strange enough, in Europe among students of traditional grammar, this superiority was ascribed to Latin. Latin was considered a much superior and beautiful tongue above all languages of the world. It was a language of law, education and a language of God. Sermons and prayers were in Latin. Even now in Oxford’s colleges, dinners are preceded by grace in Latin. English on the other hand was considered a language of the common people in the streets until the English men and women took pride in their tongue and imbued it with unprecedented prestige. Their commitment was so impressive that the development of their language took on some theological tones. They believed that: “some kind of divine ordination lay behind what seemed then the ceaseless dissemination of the English language around the planet. God ÔÇô who in this part of London society was held to be an Englishman ÔÇô naturally approved the spread of the language as an essential imperial device; but He also encouraged its undisputed corollary, which was the worldwide growth of Christianity. The equation was really very simple… the more English there was in the world, the more God-fearing its peoples would be” (Winchester 1998: 68).

Regarding the Setswana language we are not there yet. Setswana is seen, in a condescending way, as uncomplicated. It is perceived as a subject that is undemanding to master. A master of the Setswana language is seen as in possession of nothing unique. O itse Setswana fela! Those who dismiss the complexity of the Setswana language have no clue of the complexity of its highly productive morphology, its complex tonal system or its complex syntax. The reason why they despise the Setswana language is largely because it is ubiquitous; it appears effortless since it is widely spoken in the community and acquired naturally by its native speakers.

Where does this leave us? Well it leaves us as persons with a tortured psyche; as those who are yet to discover their identity. To claim intellectual and academic supremacy in other people’s languages is the greatest level of self-denial and self-obfuscation. How can we be experts of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens, when we don’t know Moreri, Monyaise, Moncho, Pheto, Raditladi, Thobega and others? How can we hate Ratsie Setlhako, Speech Madimabe, Sekokotla Kaboyamodimo, Kgomotso Mokane and others? How do we begin to celebrate William Blake and William Wordsworth and other English poets when we don’t know our own poets? Our knowledge and education must start local, stretch regionally and then take us overseas. Our education must not exile and estrange us from our own culture and customs. It must instead foster in us a sense of pride in ourselves and dignity in our own tongue and ways of life. There is no honour in not knowing your tongue.


Read this week's paper