One needs to applaud Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) which on Thursday (February 01) launched the ’28 Days of Language Activism’ campaign that aims to promote mother-tongue or indigenous languages in South Africa.
With a theme: #SpeakitLiveit, it seeks to cultivate a culture of reading in all our languages, in particular mother tongue languages.
This campaign comes at a time when mother tongue languages are facing numerous challenges – ranging from mutilation at the expense of other languages, like English – to, in severe cases, threat of extinction.
The campaign launch coincided with World Read Aloud Day that urges parents and caregivers to read aloud and share stories with children.
Such activism initiatives will therefore help revitalise and preserve endangered indigenous languages or broadly African languages, and therefore contribute to African Renaissance.
By definition, Renaissance means rebirth or renewal. It is the breaking with a stultifying past and inspiring the search by individuals and nations to expand the frontiers of knowledge, transforming all aspects of life.
The African Renaissance is first and foremost a process that must be owned by Africa/Africans. It is imperative to empower people rather than marginalise them to make African Renaissance a success.
My main concern is seeing black languages being undermined and sacrificed to accommodate other languages, especially English.
My question is: how can we as Africans be proud we are Africans if we are forced to let non-speakers of black languages dictate to us how to speak and write our language?
Even the Chief Executive Officer of PanSALB, Dr Rakwena Reginald Mpho Monareng (in his address at the launch) was quick to demystify the myth that indigenous languages lack content to produce enough books or tackle subjects like mathematics, arguing that there is enough vocabulary to produce books in mother tongue languages.
It is imperative for black people to realise that a good education is not only about English. We should also be proud of our indigenous languages.
Let’s take Kulula.com (a South African no-frills airline), as example: the word ‘kulula’ is an isiZulu word which means easy.
As its slogan says, Kulula is all about simplicity, no-frills, and taking it easy… but the problem is the way Zulu people are forced to incorrectly pronounce their own language; this word is pronounced incorrectly in order to accommodate English speakers at the expense of the speakers of the Zulu language. Such wrong pronounciation distorts the phonetics of this word, whereby it ends up being pronounced ‘Khulula’ which has a totally different meaning to ‘kulula’ presumably the word intended by the airline.
In isiZulu, ‘kulula‘ is pronounced in a softer tone than the English ‘k’ – something between a “k”and a “g” – and means easy. ‘khulula‘ on the other hand is pronounced as an aspirated sound, rather like the “c” in the English word ‘cook’ with a very different meaning: either, to release one from prison, or to untie someone of shackles.
With this incorrect pronounciation, the airline is associating itself with something they never intended to, and if they had perhaps consulted the speakers of this language, they would probably have arrived at the desired understanding,
If one looks at the previous National Lottery’s motto that was awarded to Gidani in 2007, “Tata ma chance, tata ma millions”, one will quickly realises that the advertising agency responsible for coining this lacked the cultural understanding of black people, especially the language.
The word tata has different meaning from the one this company is trying convey. The word tata means father in Xhosa language.
Instead they must have used the word thatha, an isiZulu word which means “take” as I believe we must take chances to take millions. Such cheap political or advertising correctness belittles our languages by accommodating other languages.
In no way will you find the English language being altered or sacrificed to accommodate other languages.
Such language abuse has been witnessed in the past, but never expected in this “new” South Africa.
Other example of language mutilation is that of “Umgeni” River: The correct word is Umngeni from the word Ngena, which means “enter” as this river flows into the sea.
The exclusion of the letter “n” was to accommodate non-isiZulu speakers at our expense as it was seen to be difficult for them to pronounce this word, just like in the word tata, which rhymes easily with the English word “take”.
Sadly because of this omission a state-owned entity water management organisation, Umgeni Water, is still incorrectly written as Umgeni.
Apartheid was not only about economics but also human dignity
My plea to black executives in influential positions is to identify other aspects of life that apartheid also took away, because apartheid was not only about economics, but also human dignity.
Language is an important component in the communication continuum, and it is therefore important to take good care of it.
According to Lovemore Mbigi, a race relations expert, African genius lies in people care or Ubuntu.
This Ubuntu should be the foundation of our own cultural business renaissance. To me, the spirit of Ubuntu embraces also the language one speaks.
The above examples show us the white-domination of the advertising industry, and the lack of cultural understanding of black people.
This incorrect use of black languages makes no business sense, as this fails to correctly address the target market.
The fall of apartheid saw a move of black children from township schools to white schools. Such a shift has also led to some of these black children, as well as their parents, prioritising English at the expense of indigenous languages, or pretending they are unable to speak any of the African languages – as if that were a luxury.
But the inability of these children to speak their mother tongue is going to affect them later when pursuing some careers which require African languages, to perform duties. It is therefore imperative for black people to realise that a good education is not just about English. Such slave mentality is going to deny Africans their identity and worse, ultimately wipe out indigenous language.
Sadly there is an indigenous language known as N|uu that is spoken by San community which is at risk of disappearing.
This language is reported to be having only three fluent speakers and for this reason, the United Nations has recognised N|uu as ‘critically endangered.’
However, we have seen a positive move by some influential South African blacks who have been dropping their English names in preference for African ones.
Even in India, the people there have decided to go back to the original name of their capital city Mumbai, dropping the anglicised Bombay, as well Calcutta changed its name to Kolkata.
The Indians also felt that the anglicised version was simply out-dated, as the country has been free from colonial rule for more than half a century.
This shows that other countries with similar language mutilations have taken it upon themselves to correct the language injustices of the past colonialist era.
Technology can be used to promote indigenous languages
We as South Africans must show that we have long been liberated from apartheid and colonialism, and therefore strive to save our indigenous languages from extinction.
One solution is to use technology as a tool to preserve our language. Most of the time technology and tradition are seen as opposites and always thought of as not compatible with each other.
Despite the fact that technology usually puts some cultures at risk, the same technology can be used to promote indigenous languages.
The Ghana based NGO, Kasahorow Foundation, has taken upon itself to make learning and usage of African languages easier in the digital age.
Through its website and app the foundation promotes and develops indigenous African languages.
We as South Africans and Africans at large can follow suit and create Blogs, Apps, Twitter pages just to name a few to promote our indigenous languages.
South Africans must deliberately converse in mother tongue languages (I am well aware that some people do engage in indigenous languages on social media but is not enough), on social media platforms.
The government must also play its part by creating funding projects or incentives to emerging indigenous authors.