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Language is always a burning issue, and we should keep it so

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Language is always a burning issue, and we should keep it so by Kenyans247(1): Sat 14, November, 2020 07:48am
What you need to know:
Even if we are not professional communicators, we are making linguistic choices and performing linguistic acts every conscious moment of our lives.
Thus the choice of local languages for our children will have to be very conscious and deliberate processes if they are going to work in our highly fluid societies.
If you dig “that-will-do”, you will harvest “oh-it’s-finished”. (Ukilima pantosha, utavuna pankwisha). That is a Kimvita proverb that might roughly translate as “what you sow is what you harvest”.

My friend and Mombasa research associate, Mwalimu Zena Mshenga, told me she loved quoting it to her young learners. Madame Mshenga was formerly head of Ganjoni School. When I last heard, she was in charge of Citadel Academy, all in the great coastal city.

Anyway, the methali (proverb) leapt back to my mind as I began receiving your contributions to the language debate I shared with you last Saturday. You remember that it started with the claim by an eminent linguist that Kiswahili, like English and some other “supranational” and “supra-ethnic” languages, was a possible threat to our native, local, home or mother tongues.


As I mentioned to you, even within my relatively small social media group, the responses were startling, not to say bewildering, in their variety and frequent “unexpectedness”. Now with your own uniquely perceptive and original analyses, it appears to me as if we could go on with the language discourse for weeks on end, despite the existence of many other “burning issues”.

I had for example, been burning with indignation at a character who, from the extremities of the world, goes inciting our neighbours to “blow up” the little dams we build across our streams. After all, we have never said a word about the walls he builds to shut out his “criminal and rapist” neighbours, as he calls them. Again, as the Waswahili would say, “pilipili usiyoila yakuwashiani” (how can you feel the heat of pepper you haven’t tasted)? Anyway, the inciter might just be about feeling the heat, of a different kind, just now.

Strong rumble
But justifying our visiting, re-visiting and dwelling on language, we realise that it is a permanently burning issue. Even if we are not professional communicators, we are making linguistic choices and performing linguistic acts every conscious moment of our lives. Do you know that even silence, keeping quiet, is a speech act? In our buoyant Kiswahili mood of the day, we would say,” kimya kingi kina mshindo” (deep silence has a strong rumble). Silence speaks louder than words.

Even more significantly, our language choices and acts profoundly affect us, our relationships and our societies. My long-time friend and Makerere senior colleague, Prof Timothy Wangusa, called his Inaugural Lecture (the one in which you profess your professorship) “A Wordless World”, challenging his audience to imagine a world without words.

It was Wangusa who revealed to me that, on my return to Makerere in the late 1990s, my students there nicknamed me “the Word”, no doubt because of the enthusiasm with which I lectured on the item. But realistically, with what are we left without the word? You no doubt remember that passage of Holy Writ that runs, “In the beginning was the word,” et sequentia. That brings me back to the consequences of our language choices and actions, as suggested to me by some of your ideas.


Our friend Michael Emmanuel Kisa, focusing on the threat to our home languages, or mother tongues, pointed out that the battle for their survival and growth should start right inside our homes “where the attacks (on them) are happening”. This hit me with a punch of truth. Do we realise how often we talk to our children in English or Kiswahili, at home, where we have the best opportunity to interact with them in the “home” language?

The situation, however, is not as simple and as straightforward as it might appear. Indeed, some other discussants had anticipated this. In many homes, like in mine and those of many of my acquaintances, there is no common mother or father tongue to share with the toddlers. If Mum and Dad’s common tongue is English or Kiswahili, the children’s “first” language will be English or Kiswahili!

Thus the choice of local languages for our children will have to be very conscious and deliberate processes if they are going to work in our highly fluid societies. Even we spoke “mother” tongue to our children at home, they will probably become more fluent in the mother tongues of their playmates in the neighbourhood!

Urban Shengs
To come back to a matter of better known common concern to all of us, my friend and colleague, Prof Mohamed Bakari, shared several insights into the internal threats to Kiswahili, even before we start fearing it as a threat to our other languages. The point, hinted at by a scholar I quoted last week, is its potential impoverishment through, not only such perversions as the unbridled urban Shengs, but also the narrow artificialities of over-prescriptive standardisation and scholarly registers.

An area of potential enrichment of Kiswahili would, of course, be an awareness and systematic exploitation of it many dialects, such as Kiamu, Kimvita and many others, of which Prof Bakari is an eminent expert. But how well is his work known beyond narrow scholarly circles?

Even more importantly, how seriously is it put into practice by lexicographers, writers and translators in their search for genuinely Kiswahili expressions? The late Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany and his colleagues tried, but they were largely side-lined because they were no part of the elitist “sanifu” (Standard) establishment.


Then there was the TUKI/BAKITA (Tanzanian) monopoly, which, in my own Dar es Salaam-based viewpoint, ignored or minimised the contributions of Kenyan scholars, like Rocha Chimerah and Mwenda Mbatiah and Bakari himself, to the common Kiswahili treasury. Fortunately, with the establishment of the East African Kiswahili Commission, we have hope that these shortcomings will be eliminated.

This brings me back to where I started. What we get out of our language policies in East Africa, will depend on what we put into them. We need to understand our multilingual and inter-lingual reality and how it works, appreciate its opportunities and challenges and then make intelligent choices within it.

This is what will lead to productive and constructive linguistic action.

abubwase@yahoo.com
https://nation.africa/kenya/life-and-style/weekend/language-is-always-a-burning-issue-and-we-should-keep-it-so-3020418

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