Languages never die they evolve mutate and live on

Okot Nyormoi

In the Jan 17 2015 issue of Nile Journal, an anonymous author (turned out John Otim) penned a thought provoking article entitled Dilemma of a small African culture and its language. The author describes how languages move from just being spoken to being spoken and written even in the era of electronic technology. The author also points out that in Africa, men like Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) Sembene Usman (Senegal) Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) Okot p’ Bitek (Uganda) Ngugi wa Thiongo Kenya) and Peter Abrahams (South Africa) and their significant collections of superlative works are the product of this new imperative that said to cultures, write or be damned.

In the specific case of LebLango, the author explains how several factors including the colonial introduction of English which is now the dominant language in Uganda, the absence of clearly defined orthography, an apparent unreadability of LebLango, paucity of written materials and migration away from daily use of the language, have negatively impacted the language. From this situation, the author asserted that the language has already fallen into the category of endangered species.

While conscientious efforts are being made to save the language by teaching it in schools and using it on the radio, the introduction of a new clearly defined orthography has not made much impact, the author concluded.  The author called for action, and a deliberate strategy of creating well written, interesting and informative reading materials that are affordable and readily available, if LebLango is to remove itself from the growing list of endangered languages. Now will this work?

Whether or not this strategy will work depends on multiple factors. To begin with, language evolves for the purpose of communication and it is dynamic. It is like life; it evolves according to the pressure put on it by the environment in which it exists. Fortunately, humans are endowed with an exquisite ability to learn whole languages, exchange and adopt words between different languages, transform borrowed words or create new words to suit the needs for effective communication.

The dynamism in the life of languages raises the question of whether languages can actually die. The death of a language is conventionally defined as the absence of native speakers, meaning nobody is raised speaking the language from childhood to adulthood. Based on this criterion, thousands of languages are classified as dead. Likewise, languages are classified as endangered if only adults speak it. Again, thousands of languages are listed as endangered. According to UNESCO’s 2010 data, Uganda has only three languages: Napore, Nyagi and Singa listed as extinct, two: Ik and Soo listed as endangered and only one, Amba, listed as vulnerable. According to the UNESCO data, LebLango is not on the list of dead, endangered or even the lowest level of endangerment, vulnerability, which exists when most children speak a language only at home. This is consistent with the fact that the majority of people in Lango are peasants who use the language in their daily life. Therefore, it is premature to refer to LebLango or its neighbor LebAcholi and other Lwo languages (Alur, Kumam, Dhola, DohLuo etc.) as endangered.

Of course, this does not mean that we should not be concerned about the danger of these languages becoming extinct down the road. It is just that the concern about the alleged imminent death of LebLango is much exaggerated. Nevertheless, the goal to improve it is to be strongly encouraged. However, the goal of the proposed creation, production and widespread distribution of well written, informative and easy to read works in LebLango should not be driven only by the fear of the language becoming extinct. Rather, it should be driven by the need to expand the capacity of the language to become an effective medium for communication in the era of globalization. Such efforts must also be commensurate with the communication needs of the community as it marches from a predominantly peasant social formation towards an industrialized society.

As mentioned before, the survival of a language depends on many factors including government policies, some of which may be supportive or retardant. In today’s global market, languages will compete for space. Weaker ones will not survive regardless of whether they are written or not. Fortunately, while a language may cease to be spoken in its entirety, it will not completely disappear. It may form a new hybrid language with other nearby languages or it may evolve into a new language in the manner dinosaurs evolved into birds or primitive hominids evolved into humans.

At worse, a language will survive by having other languages adopt some of its words. For example, even the much heralded dead language, Latin, is living in many extant European languages including Italian, Spanish, French and English. Although nobody learns Latin as a mother tongue anymore, it is taught in medical schools around the world and science uses it liberally to name newly discovered phenomena.

The author also asked the question of whether an African or any culture can express itself in a foreign language. To put it differently, can a culture be identified when it is portrayed in a foreign language? The simple answer is yes. Anyone who lives within a culture, experiences its joy, pain, love, hatred, indifference, beliefs etc. should be able to express those experiences in whatever language he or she is competent. Evidently, African cultures are known to express themselves in various foreign languages, obviously not to the satisfaction of all.

A nuanced answer to the question is that there is no definitive answer. To begin with, what would be the criteria to assess whether the foreign language succeeds in expressing the culture?  Even if well established criteria are available, restricting the cultural expression to one language would stifle the development of the culture. Moreover, foreign languages will have to be used to share the culture with the world through oral or written translations.

Another subtle consideration concerns African (Lango) cultural experiences. For example, is an African (Lango) who is exposed to other cultures still considered an African (Lango) on the same cultural level as one who never left home?  Can the two express the essence of the culture in the same way? There are many other considerations in answering the question of whether a culture can express itself in a foreign language. The debate will continue.