Latest News Editor's Choice

Opinion / Columnist

This & that with Mal'phosa: The endangered species

22 Aug 2022 at 11:04hrs | Views
I have a feeling the Ndebele language is endangered - and we, the custodians of the language by right of being senior citizens - are not helping the situation in any way. How would you feel if you were the last Ndebele speaker in the whole world? Scary, isn't it?

In whatever country you are now, what are you doing to preserve IsiNdebele? Your kids speak the English of the queen but they don't know simple words like 'isitshwala' or 'kwanele'. It's like we are embarrassed ngokuba ngama Ndebele. There is a country in South Africa - yes country - called Orania. It is a country solely for Afrikaners - those who want to preserve their language and culture, and everything Afrikaner. They have their own flag, constitution, schools, money, and are a complete, sovereign state. There is no way their ways shall be lost, as anyone who is not Afrikaner is forbidden into that territory. I guess this is also the dream of Mthwakazi Republic Party?

Ancient Greek and Latin are good examples of languages that gradually went extinct. These languages are considered dead because they are no longer spoken in the form in which we find them in ancient writings. But they weren't abruptly replaced by other languages; instead, Ancient Greek slowly evolved into modern Greek, and Latin slowly evolved into modern Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and other languages. In the same way, the Middle English of Chaucer's day is no longer spoken, but it has evolved into Modern English.

Soon, we shall speak a form of language with no identity - but leaning heavily towards the language of our rulers.

There are many reasons why languages die. The reasons are often political, economic or cultural in nature. Speakers of a minority language may, for example, decide that it is better for their children's future to teach them a language that is tied to economic success. In many countries, English has become an indispensable entity in our daily paraphernalia. If you want a job in Zimbabwe, you must have passed English at O Level. Language, Newspaper & Currency become powerful only when its circulation is high. Hence, if a language does not become a language of economy; unless a language throws an economic incentive or job opportunity to its people, it is bound to be endangered. Shona has been tied to all our activities of daily living - you have to be Shona to get to a job, or a place at a college, or to get food relief from the government. Hence, many of our people have used Shona to camouflage their true identity, just so that they benefit economically and/or politically. Certain products have been given Shona names - such chibataura, chimombe, mushonga, chikwapuro - all used in public media adverts.

Political bias also proves detrimental in the promotion of a language as it creates discrimination among social groups and plays a divisive role on sociopolitical grounds. Our communities have now been infiltrated with shonas - whether in towns or rural areas, so that they teach us their language and abominable ways. And, people can only vote you into parliament or to be president, if you are Shona.

Outright genocide is another cause of language extinction. For example, when European invaders exterminated the Tasmanians in the early 19th century, an unknown number of languages died as well. Far more often, however, languages become extinct when a community finds itself under pressure to integrate with a larger or more powerful group. Sometimes the people learn the outsiders' language in addition to their own; this has happened in Greenland, a territory of Denmark, where Kalaallisut is learned alongside Danish. But often the community is pressured to give up its language and even its ethnic and cultural identity. This has been the case for the ethnic Kurds in Turkey, who are forbidden by law to print or formally teach their language.

The Zimbabwean government has used this method as well - trying to exterminate all Ndebele speaking people - and punishing the survivors by denying them death certificates for the victims of genocide, and access to basic government services. When last did you see any form of development in your community? When was the last time you attended a job interview where you are interviewed by your own people? Or your beloved language?

The feelings of giving a prestige symbol to a particular language and presenting it as a symbol of civilization, progress and the feelings of giving low prestige to an endangered language contribute to the loss of a language. Political bias also proves detrimental in the promotion of a language as it creates discrimination among social groups and plays a divisive role on sociopolitical grounds.

Shona has been given that national symbol status, if not international. All national events are addressed in Shona; while Ndebele has been relegated to the language of rogues, barbarians and the unlearned. Our schools, roads, government offices, hospitals, are manned by Shona speaking foreigners who want to impose their ways on all of us.

When there is lack of Institutional support, like representation of a language in public domains, e.g. academia , administration, sports, entertainment, and the media, the situation of language shift arises and the speakers of an endangered language drift to the dominant language causing loss of the language. We have had many instances of our parliamentarians being booed when they speak Ndebele in parliament, forcing them to drift to the language of their colonizers and oppressors, the Shona.

When a community loses its language, it often loses a great deal of its cultural identity at the same time. Although language loss may be voluntary or involuntary, it always involves pressure of some kind, and it is often felt as a loss of social identity or as a symbol of defeat. That doesn't mean that a group's social identity is always lost when its language is lost; for example, both the Chumash in California and the Manx on the Isle of Man have lost their native languages, but not their identity as Chumash or Manx. But language is a powerful symbol of a group's identity.

Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, leave- takings, conversational styles, humor, ways of speaking to children, and terms for habits, behaviors, and emotions. When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language-with different words, sounds, and grammar- if it is to be kept at all. Frequently traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group. For these reasons, among others, it is often very important to the community itself that its language survive.

A community that wants to preserve or revive its language has a number of options. Perhaps the most dramatic story is that of Modern Hebrew, which was revived as a mother tongue after centuries of being learned and studied only in its ancient written form. Irish has had considerable institutional and political support as the national language of Ireland, despite major inroads by English. In New Zealand, Maori communities established nursery schools staffed by elders and conducted entirely in Maori, called kohanga reo, 'language nests'. There, and in Alaska, Hawaii, and elsewhere, this model is being extended to primary and in some cases secondary school. And in California, younger adults have become language apprentices to older adult speakers in communities where only a few older speakers are still living. A growing number of conferences, workshops, and publications now offer support for individuals, schools, and communities trying to preserve languages.

These can also work for us - man all our institutions with our own people. It makes no sense for a Ndebele speaker who knows nothing of Shona language and culture, to teach grade ones in Mashonaland. But how many Shona teachers are in our primary schools, teaching lower grades? We should reestablish pride in and value for IsiNdebele. This entails the active support and participation of individuals throughout the community, as well as the development of teachers and curriculum designed to meet current and future needs.

Because so many languages are in danger of disappearing, including IsiNdebele, linguists are trying to learn as much about them as possible, so that even if the language disappears, all knowledge of the language won't disappear at the same time. Researchers make videotapes, audiotapes, and written records of language use in both formal and informal settings, along with translations.

In addition, they analyze the vocabulary and rules of the language and write dictionaries and grammars. Linguists also work with communities around the world that want to preserve their languages, offering both technical and practical help with language teaching, maintenance, and revival. This help is based in part on the dictionaries and grammars that they write. But linguists can help in other ways, too, using their experience in teaching and studying a wide variety of languages. They can use what they've learned about other endangered languages to help a community preserve its own language, and they can take advantage of the latest technology for recording and studying languages.

We should reestablish pride in and value for IsiNdebele. This entails the active support and participation of individuals throughout the community, as well as the development of teachers and curriculum designed to meet current and future needs.

Ngiyabonga mina!


Live from Joburg

Source - Clerk Ndlovu
All articles and letters published on Bulawayo24 have been independently written by members of Bulawayo24's community. The views of users published on Bulawayo24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bulawayo24. Bulawayo24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.