A Case For The Promotion Of Indigenous Languages

By Matthew Ochuko

Language to date remains the most important human invention. The earliest account of its emergence is found in different religious texts. For example the Bible tells that in ancient times, man had a universal language which was confused and became diversified at the Tower of Babel.  The idea conveyed in Genesis 2:20 of Adam giving names to all living creatures presupposes that humans were created from the start with an innate capacity to use language.

But we must have to consult the disciplines of anthropology, history, archaeology, linguistics and philosophy to obtain the scientific account. Archaeological evidence indicates that modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged within the last 150,000 years. By 30,000 BC, all other species of humanoids seem to have been replaced by Homo sapiens. Scholars agree that the different groups of humans (Homo sapiens) had already, embedded in their genetic make-up, the capacity and disposition to acquire and speak a language. The natural evolution hypothesis holds that at some point in their evolutionary development, humans acquired a more sophisticated brain which made language invention and learning possible. Words are, scientifically speaking, not inborn, but the capacity to acquire a language and use it creatively seems to be inborn. Noam Chomsky calls this ability the LAD (Language Acquisition Device). There is also a consensus among experts that human language must have evolved from inarticulate sounds, produced by our ancestors in the course of human evolution. However, no one can say exactly the point or date when language finally emerged. But then, there is incontrovertible evidence that the human brain evolved the capacity for spoken language in tandem with the modification of the organs in the mouth particularly the larynx which makes speech possible.

Regardless of whether language was a special gift from God, a natural evolutionary acquisition, or an ingenuous, conscious human invention made at some point in our species’ history, what is not in doubt is that about 5000 languages exist in the world today. Perhaps an important question to ask is whether there was one or more than one original language. Three schools of thought have attempted answers:

The Monogenesis school holds that there was a single original language. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this language was confused by divine intervention at the Tower of Babel. But exactly what this first language was remains a matter of controversy. Basque, German, Greek, and Sanskrit have been suggested. A Swedish philologist claimed that in the Garden of Eden, God spoke Swedish, Adam spoke Danish and the serpent spoke French. One wonders if this is true, how they were able to understand one another.

The Mother Tongue theory is a variant of the monogenesis school, though without the latter’s religious colouration. It holds that one original language spoken by a single group of Homo sapiens perhaps as early as 150,000 years ago gave rise to all human languages spoken on earth today, as a result of colonisation of other humans across continents, leading to the diverging of this original mother tongue to form the numerous languages spoken today.

The Polygenesis school holds the view of parallel evolution. They hold that as humans evolved parallel in more than one location, each group developed its own unique language. For them, given the genetic predisposition for language, the exact language spoken by different human groups all over the world is a reflection of environmental factors. Like other social animals, for instance the bees, the elephants, the dolphins, the chimpanzees, etc., human beings evolved language as a means of intra species communication. The first mode of communication was inarticulate sounds which were accompanied with gestures. Gradually, and as a result of continuous process of evolution, man developed what is now described as the Second Sound Signal System – Language.

Regardless of the various controversies surrounding the origin of language, the existence of several widely differing, mutually unintelligible forms of human speech today is undeniable. And although many languages are radically different from one another in structure, the differences are merely apparent since each and every one of them can be used creatively. All languages possess the same creative potential.

Again a close analysis of the various linguistic groups reveals regularities, patterns and syntactic connections governing the combination of sounds to form words. However, and regardless of this, the representation of objects by sounds or words is arbitrary. The arbitrariness of attaching sounds to objects account for the different linguistic groups.

The sounds which speakers of a linguistic group use in representing ideas, thoughts, experiences and objects are arbitrary in the sense that there is nothing in the objects so called that is representative of the sound. For example the Urhobo word for Cup is Uko; while the Yorubas call it Imomi and the Igbos Ikommiri. Now there is no connection between a small cylindrical object used for drinking water and the sounds which the various linguistic groups have used in describing it. The sounds were all arbitrarily used. This view that language is arbitrary and a cultural construct implies that an infant learns a language by listening to the speakers of the language of the particular community into which he/she is born; the words used in the language as well as the particular grammar or syntax of the language having developed historically as a social product and been handed down by tradition. The idea that language is arbitrary is corroborated by the following experts:

“What we call ‘horse’, the Germans call ‘pferd’, the Frenchman ‘cheval’, the Cree Indian ‘misatim’, and so on; one set of sounds is as unreasonable as any other”.- Bloomfield.

“I want you to remember that words have these meanings which we have given them and we give them meanings by explanations. A word has the meaning someone has given it”. – Wittgenstein.

“Language is a conventional system of habitual vocal behaviour. Before the establishment of a convention, any word could mean anything” – Yuen Ren Chao

“The fact that languages are arbitrary is sufficient evidence that they were invented. In any language, there are conventional ways of combining words to express the relations between ideas. There is no systematic correspondence between the forms of language and its meanings.” – Englefield.

The point to glean from all of these is that all languages are equal to one another insofar as they perform the function of aiding communication among humans within a given geographical formation. Hence one of the worst disgrace of colonisation, African scholars have said, is the destruction of native languages. The colonialists came in with the impression that everything about Africa is dark and therefore evil – from our skin colour, religion, languages to our cultures generally. The impression was that we were inferior to the Whiteman. We must understand that every language is as good as the other. Every language spoken is essentially a tool for communication and once a language performs that function well, then it is as good as any other.

A point to note about languages is that embedded in them are all sorts of indications of bygone cultures. This is why historians and especially anthropological linguists pay special attention to the study of different languages, in order to see through into a people’s past. Hence when we study and understand a language, we invariably learn about the history of the people who speak that language, and with it a profound acquaintance with their contemporary culture. It is also worthy to state the role language plays in knowledge acquisition. There is an intimate connection between knowledge and language because knowledge is a body of ideas, concepts and theories about what there is, expressed in one language or another. Man’s ability to pass knowledge from one generation to another is only possible because of the availability of language. Language has the capacity to represent objects and entities with abstract signs and symbols.

As paradoxical as it may sound, it is also instructive to note that language has a limiting influence on knowledge. There is the view that language directly influences or limits thought and thus determines reality. This is what Ludwig Wittgenstein has systematized into the famous “Picture Theory of Language” with the catch phrases “The Limit of My Language is the Limit of My World” and “What we cannot say, we cannot think either”. Language, curiously has also been described as a mirror, a weapon, and a shield. In this perspective, the position of Sapir and Whorf on the relation of language to thought and behaviour is that language is a “symbolic guide to culture” such that “a change of language can transform our perception of the cosmos”.

Again we also need to mention the point that language is an evolutionary phenomenon – in other words it is still evolving or developing. Just like culture which is dynamic, language is also dynamic. The dynamism of language is decisively determined by the dynamics of the life experiences of the speakers of the language.

If the speakers of a language do not expect to see a particular word or situation, there will be no word for it. For example in the Urhobo language, before the intrusion of the Whiteman into our history, we had no word for tax because our ancestors neither thought of it, experienced it nor anticipated it. But with the introduction of tax by the colonialists, the Urhobos created a word for it “Osauyovwin” – literally translated head debt. This is what is meant by the dynamism of language.

Finally, we need to emphasize on the role language plays in knowledge acquisition. In fact, there is an intimate connection between knowledge and language, because when we talk of knowledge, we are talking about ideas, concepts and theories all expressed in one language or another.

Man’s ability to pass knowledge from one generation to another is only possible because of the availability of language. Language has the capacity to represent objects and entities with abstract signs and symbols. Again, knowledge is best acquired only in the context of one’s own language or mother tongue. It is more difficult to absorb and understand a concept in a secondary language than in one’s first language. This probably explains the challenges of education in Africa considering the fact that students are not taught in their mother tongue but in colonial languages. Even the national policy on education formulated by such eminent scholars as the late professor Babatunde Fafunwa, which among other things, stipulates that the medium of instruction in schools, at least during the formative years, should be in the child’s mother tongue, only exist on paper. Again we need to state here that spoken language remains the major distinguishing factor between man and the rest of the social animals. As has been noted, the capacity to speak a language is innate in us. Language is a social product invented by human beings, used by them but again and as paradoxical as this may sound, it is true that the same human beings who invented language also has the capacity to kill it. How? By simply seizing to speak it! A language cannot be above or live beyond the people that speak it.

A people without a language autochthonous to them are a defeated, disintegrated and divided people. It may be stating the fact to assert that a people without a language have lost their sense of humanity. They are at best only two-thirds of humans.

Every human has a first language. By first language here is meant ones mother tongue i.e. the language of one’s parents. Every human is born into an ethnic group. Where an individual has parents from different ethnic groups, then that individual has the privilege of belonging to two ethnic groups but usually, and especially in Africa which is basically a patriarchal society, the language of the father has an edge.

This issue is being discussed because of its implication as it affects our day to day lives and forward movement as a multi-national state. It is so pathetic today to notice that our indigenous languages are gradually but consistently going into extinction while we applaud ourselves at our expertise and professionalism in speaking the English Language. We are not by this implying that it is wrong to speak a foreign language. In fact the ability to understand and speak several languages is indicative of a person’s high intelligence quotient. The point however is that, the promotion of foreign colonial languages at the expense of our indigenous African languages only shows that we are yet to fully recover from our poor colonial ancestry. We need not even see foreign languages only as languages ‘imported’ from the Western world. As a native of the Urhobo nation, the Hausa and Igbo languages are as foreign to me as any western language and I, ideally, ought not to be promoting them by speaking them at the expense of my own. This I suppose, is the very basis and foundation of what is patriotism and nationalism. I know of no other. What is noticed presently is an Igbo or Igala man who hardly spoke his language with his kinsmen or is even ashamed to do so for fear of being labelled an “illiterate” getting to a city say, Kano and within a couple of years speaks fluently the Hausa language even in his office. We then wonder what was wrong with that individual’s mother tongue in the first place, which prevented him from speaking it, that he has now found right with the new tongue which he now proudly speaks with impunity? If the position we are advancing that the English, French, Portuguese languages, etc. are colonial and foreign and therefore only at best second (standby) languages, then the Igbo and Hausa languages (respectively) are no less foreign to the Yoruba, and Urhobo man who speaks them.

To be continued

•Ochuko wrote in from Lagos.

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