This & That with Maluphosa: The Endangered Species
I feel that the Ndebele language is in danger – and we, the guardians of the language of law as elderly people – are not helping the situation. How would you feel if you were the last Ndebele speaker in the whole world? Scary, isn’t it?
Whatever country you are currently in, what are you doing to preserve IsiNdebele? Your children speak the Queen’s English but they don’t know simple words like ‘isitshwala’ or ‘kwanele’. It’s as if we were embarrassed ngokuba ngama Ndebele. There is a country in South Africa – yes a country – called Orania. It is a country only for Afrikaners – those who want to preserve their language and culture, and all things Afrikaner. They have their own flag, constitution, schools, money and are a complete sovereign state. There is no way their ways are lost, as anyone who is not Afrikaner is banned from this territory. I guess this is also the dream of the Mthwakazi Republic Party?
Ancient Greek and Latin are good examples of languages that gradually died out. These languages are considered dead because they are no longer spoken in the form in which they are found in ancient writings. But they were not suddenly replaced by other languages; instead, Ancient Greek slowly evolved into Modern Greek, and Latin slowly evolved into Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and other modern languages. Similarly, the Middle English of Chaucer’s time is no longer spoken, but has evolved into Modern English.
Soon we will be speaking a form of language without identity – but strongly leaning towards the language of our rulers.
There are several reasons why languages die. The reasons are often of a political, economic or cultural nature. Speakers of a minority language may, for example, decide that it is better for the future of their children to teach them a language linked 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. The language, newspapers and currency only become powerful when their circulation is high. So if a language does not become a language of economics; unless a language offers an economic incentive or employment opportunity to its people, it is bound to be in danger. Shona has been linked to all of our activities of daily living – you have to be Shona to get a job, or a place in college, or to get food aid from the government. Therefore, many of our fellow citizens have used Shona to camouflage their true identity, just to gain economic and/or political advantage. Some products have been given Shona names – such as chibataura, chimombe, mushonga, chikwapuro – all used in public media advertisements.
Political prejudices also prove to be detrimental to the promotion of a language as they create discrimination between social groups and play a divisive role for socio-political reasons. Our communities are now infiltrated by shonas – whether in cities or in rural areas, so that they teach us their language and their abominable ways. And, people can only elect you to parliament or be president if you are Shona.
Outright genocide is another cause of language extinction. For example, when European invaders wiped out the Tasmanians in the early 19th century, an unknown number of languages also died. Much more often, however, languages die out when a community finds itself under pressure to integrate into a larger or more powerful group. Sometimes people learn the language of foreigners in addition to their own; this happened in Greenland, a territory of Denmark, where Kalaallisut is learned alongside Danish. But often the community is pressured to give up their language and even their ethnic and cultural identity. This has been the case for ethnic Kurds in Turkey, who are prohibited by law from printing or officially teaching their language.
The Zimbabwean government also used this method – attempting to exterminate all Ndebele-speaking inhabitants – and punishing survivors by denying them genocide victim death certificates and access to basic government services. When was the last time you saw any form of development in your community? When was the last time you attended a job interview where you were interviewed by your people? Or your favorite language?
The feeling of giving a symbol of prestige to a particular language and presenting it as a symbol of civilization, of progress and the feeling of giving low prestige to an endangered language contribute to the loss of a language. Political prejudices also prove to be detrimental to the promotion of a language as they create discrimination between social groups and play a divisive role for socio-political reasons.
Shona has been given this status as a national, if not international, symbol. All national events are addressed in Shona; while Ndebele was relegated to the language of thugs, barbarians and ignoramuses. Our schools, our roads, our government offices, our hospitals are occupied by Shona-speaking foreigners who want to impose their ways on all of us.
When there is a lack of institutional support, such as the representation of a language in public domains, for example academia, administration, sports, entertainment and the media, the situation of language switching arises and speakers of an endangered language drift to the dominant language causing loss. of the language. We have had many instances where our parliamentarians have been booed when they speak Ndebele in parliament, forcing them to drift into the language of their colonizers and oppressors, the Shona.
When a community loses its language, it often loses much of its cultural identity at the same time. Although language loss can be voluntary or involuntary, it always involves some kind of pressure and is often felt as a loss of social identity or as a symbol of defeat. This does not mean that a group’s social identity is always lost when its language is lost; for example, the Chumash in California and the Manx on the Isle of Man lost their native language, but not their identity as Chumash or Manx. But language is a powerful symbol of group identity.
Much of the cultural, spiritual and intellectual life of a people is lived through language. These range from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory and technical vocabulary to daily greetings, farewells, conversation styles, humor, ways of speaking to children and terms for habits, behaviors and emotions. When a language is lost, it all has to be remade in the new language – with different words, sounds and grammar – if it is to be retained. Often traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group. For these and other reasons, it is often very important to the community itself that its language survive.
A community that wants to preserve or revive its language has several options. Perhaps the most dramatic story is that of modern Hebrew, which was revived as a native language after centuries of learning and studying only in its ancient written form. Irish has enjoyed considerable institutional and political support as the national language of Ireland, despite major advances in English. In New Zealand, Māori communities have established elder-run nursery schools run entirely in Māori, called kohanga reo, “language nests”. There, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii and elsewhere, this model is extended to elementary school and, in some cases, to high school. And in California, young adults have become language apprentices to older adult speakers in communities where only a few older speakers still live. A growing number of conferences, workshops and publications now offer support to individuals, schools and communities trying to preserve languages.
These can also work for us – running all of our institutions with our own staff. It makes no sense for an Ndebele speaker who knows nothing of the Shona language and culture to teach the early years of Mashonaland. But how many Shona teachers are there in our primary schools, teaching the lower grades? We should restore the pride and value of IsiNdebele. This involves the active support and participation of individuals from across the community, as well as the development of teachers and programs designed to meet current and future needs.
Because so many languages are threatened with extinction, including Isindebele, linguists try to learn as much as possible about them, so that even if the language disappears, all knowledge of the language will not disappear along with it. Researchers make videotapes, audiotapes, and written recordings of language use in formal and informal contexts, as well as 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 who wish to preserve their languages, offering both technical and practical assistance for language teaching, maintenance and revival. This help is based in part on the dictionaries and grammars that they write. But linguists can also help in other ways, 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 their own language, and they can take advantage of the latest technology to record and study languages.
We should restore the pride and value of IsiNdebele. This involves the active support and participation of individuals from across the community, as well as the development of teachers and programs designed to meet current and future needs.
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