The Tragedy of the African Babel

by Chinyere Ugomma Eze-Nliam

The story is told in Genesis 11: 6 of a period in biblical era when the whole world had only one language. Being skilled in construction they said to themselves, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”. Apparently, when God saw their zeal and determination in making this happen, He said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” Gen 11:6 (NIV) . He ended up confusing their language so they could not understand each other. “So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth”. Gen 11:8 (NIV)

That was how we became blessed with as many as 6,900 languages in the world. It is however estimated that at the end of this century, 90% of these languages would be extinct. In other words, languages disappear at the rate of one every two weeks. Already, 2,500 languages are in five levels of endangerment:

Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).

Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.

Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.

Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.

Extinct: There are no identifiable speakers and has fallen into oblivion. If a language loses all its native speakers, it becomes a dead language. It becomes extinct when no one speaks the language at all. More than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the last three generations. (Source: UNESCO)

Language is a means of communication, a carrier of culture and an evidence of civilization. Language is inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history and a specific relationship to the world.( Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind). Colonialism brought in its wake several changes including the concept of western education typified by a structured way of learning based on classroom, curriculum and grading. It also introduced the concept of one God. Hitherto, our people who although acknowledged the existence of ‘Chi-ukwu’(the Supreme Being) as the creator and sustainer of the universe, nevertheless believed that this Supreme Being is quite removed from the world, thus leaving the world to the watchful eyes of the deities. These deities which are believed to be created by and subordinate to the Supreme Being, play a mediatory role between God and men and are regarded as God’s servants or messengers/ angels in the world.

The most devastating aspect of colonialism, however, has been in the area of our language. The suppression of our spoken language and the subsequent elevation of that of the colonizers can be favourably compared to a cultural genocide, a weapon of mass destruction, the destruction of a way of life, of a people’s history, culture, arts, that have been in existence since the evolution of humanity. The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized. (Ngugi Wa Thiongo’o). Thus these colonizers succeeded in turning a potential African Babel (It is estimated that there are between 2000 and 3000 languages spoken on the African continent, with possibly as many as 8000 dialects), into primarily three zones. We began to define ourselves in terms of either being Anglophone, francophone, lusophone (Portugese speaking). And therein commences our common tragedy.

The tragedy in itself does not lie in the fact that our parents were compelled to adopt English (Christian names as they called it) as first names and native names (pagan names) as second. It does not lie in the fact that our languages which are considered vernacular were barred from being spoken in schools and public places and apart from the period allotted to learning the so called vernacular, any utterance in the said languages was met with corporal punishment and fines. The word “vernacular” comes from the Latin “vernaculus” (domestic, native) which in turn comes from the Etruscan “verna” (home-born slave, native). In other words, vernacular is the language of the slaves spoken in the house of the master. I leave the interpretation of the underlying theory to my erudite readers.

Neither is the fact that a person’s intellectual prowess is predicated upon his mastery, fluency, locution of the language of the colonizers instead of his mother tongue even the issue. No one could pass an examination who failed the English language paper no matter how brilliantly he performed in other subjects. Pejorative names are ascribed to folks who studied African languages in universities. I remember clearly how people (yours truly included) made fun of linguistic students as those who study “Igbo, Igbo, B.K”

The tragedy lies in our complete assimilation into colonial culture, the constant rejection of our values and principles in favour of western mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, the emergence of a generation of bourgeoisie who turn up their broad African noses at their own cultures and languages. This is not a textbook example of rejecting Mr Devil and all his works. We can still have the best of both worlds, in the sense that we are at a liberty to pick and choose, to discard those cultural practices that are repugnant to natural law and inimical to sustainable human development. We can at the same time adopt the western concept of promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms; technological advancements, transparency and accountability in whichever type of government we choose, equality of persons, sanctity of human life and dignity of the human person.

In conclusion, i’ll like to point out from a certain level of personal experience that those who reject their language and identity in favour of another’s are like the proverbial bat which does not fly high enough to be termed a bird and does not walk on all fours to even be mildly considered an animal. In rejecting our identity, we seek to ingratiate ourselves with the West who in turn condemns us to a perpetual position of second or even third class citizens. Many African languages are in one level of endangerment or the other and it is easy to see why. Parents encourage their children to learn the more dominant languages instead of their native tongues due to globalization. In addition, children are more likely to succeed if they are able to speak the popular languages which enable them to get better jobs and have better future. While it’s all well and good, we should strive to remember that our Language defines our culture and our history. African languages have rich oral cultures with stories, songs, and histories to pass on to younger generations. Therefore with the extinction of any language, an entire culture is lost.

Besides, being bilingual makes one smarter. It can have a profound effect on the brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age. In other words, the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age o

f onset. If that is not an incentive to teach your child your ‘nna’ ways and your native swagger, I wonder what is.

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2 comments July 4, 2012 - 2:17 pm

dalu Chikadibie for your kind words.

Jon Chikadibie Okafo July 3, 2012 - 6:37 pm

Well done Chinyere! This indeed is a brilliant article! Keep it up nnem.


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