Published February 20 2020.
One major issue that caught the attention of Nigerian writers, historians, journalists and linguists amongst others in January 2020, was the adoption of 29 Nigerian coinages and words from, especially Yoruba and Hausa languages, into the Oxford English Dictionary. Words and colloquial, such as danfo, okada, buka, k-leg, to eat money, next tomorrow, chop-chop, gist, sef and 20 others were officially accepted for everyday use as part of the English language.
There was widespread ecstasy generally amongst many Nigerians – both the lettered and the unschooled masses were united in their celebration of this recognition, especially coming from our former colonial masters – because the British that gave us a lingua franca, now were accepting our own languages, our own native words to be part of English language, after several of us were caned by British-tutored Nigerian teachers for speaking “vernacular” in primary schools in those days. You will agree with me that the joy is not unfounded. Filipinos perhaps, felt a similar joy in 2015 when 40 Filipino-coined words and slangs were also added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Is it also not victory at last, even if in part, for Afrocentric scholars and writers who are foremost critics of the prejudiced nexus between language and power? Several of them have argued vehemently and vowed not to italicise coinages and words from their native languages in their critiques and creative writings. Although they have continued to write in the borrowed languages of French, English and Portuguese. This pseudo victory at least reinforces their stance, showcasing fruits from their activism.
This opening digression was inescapable for me from the dreadful topic of this write-up: Why Yoruba language may become extinct! This is because the Oxford English Dictionary’s action finally forced me to sit down and write this essay that has been pleading for my attention for several months now. Anyway, back to the issue. I could have generalised the topic by saying that several Nigerian languages may become extinct if we don’t make purposeful efforts to halt their adulteration, abuse, disuse and sometimes disdain by their native speakers. Yoruba language in this instance is a euphemism for conquered languages of the world, not just Nigerian or African. It represents languages, whose native speakers are the proletariats in the world order. From prehistoric times to modern days, power relations have always defined human relations; language has remained one of the major instruments of conquest. This is one disorder that the world has not been able to re-order and that may remain with humanity for centuries to come.
Now, you may say Yoruba language is not one of the languages listed as critically endangered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. Then, it means that you are not getting the point. The viewpoint I am expressing here is that the visible or invincible power of a person or a group of persons over others, determines the norm for all and what is acceptable as public interest, including the language that would be internationally used for socio-political and economic interactions, irrespective of interest of the peripheral groups in their mother tongues or any other issue.
Let’s go memory lane for clarity. Are you aware that the English language is not even native to the English people or the earliest inhabitants of the place known as Britain today? This may shock a number of people except scholars grounded in the history of English language. According to historians, the people of modern day Britain spoke what is known as Celtic language, which itself is a mixture of Indo-European languages. English language as known today to Her Majesty – the Queen, her subjects and ourselves – the emancipated natives of her former colonies, was introduced by “Germanic tribes” said to have invaded Britain sometimes in the 5th century. Although a small populace in the United Kingdom still speak Scottish and Irish languages, which are parts of the Celtic languages, English, the language of the invaders, has remained the flagship of the United Kingdom’s languages. The name England itself has its root from the Germanic tribes.
To further drive home the point that power relations determine accepted language and determine “who gets what, when and how”, as attributed to the political scientist, Harold Lasswell, let me also remind political historians that French was the official language of England for almost 300 years, from mid-11th century to mid-14th century. This was also imposed on England by the invading Normans and French army that defeated the then King Harold II of England, and thereafter forced the people to speak French for official interactions for three centuries.
That Bishop Ajayi Crowther interpreted the English bible into Yoruba language. That J. F. Odunjo’s popular “Iselogunise” Yoruba poem has remained evergreen and known across the globe? That Hubert Ogunde, Moses Olaiya, Idowu Philip, Kola Ogunmola and lot of others promoted Yoruba language through theatre and drama. That even Brazil in faraway South America recognises Yoruba language as one of its official languages. That the Yoruba language has also remained a major language in Nigeria, and it is being used in the Republic du Benin, Togo and even amongst infinitesimal populations of Yoruba people across the globe, may not prevent its extinction!
Recall we are using the Yoruba language as a euphemism for languages not directing world order, and therefore not considered as world power in this discourse. The point is art, literature and public outcries would not save any language from extinction, except its speakers are recognised for their economic power, military prowess, massive scientific innovation, giant strides in Information, Technology and Communication, medical contributions to well-being and wellness of humanity. Such languages may eventually give way.
That is why a German professor, who is very fluent in English language, may come to Nigeria and deliver his speech in German, and except that Nigerians and everyone else follow his/her discourse via the headphone translation devices. And our first class traditional rulers, right on their thrones, would talk to outsiders in English language, rather than also get interpreters to translate their discourse in English, while they speak their native language. That is why akara is known as beans cake amongst non-Yoruba people and not by its Yoruba known name, akara; and pizza is pizza worldwide. That is why our kids would want to learn Spanish, French and in recent times, Mandarin, in addition to English language to increase their access to global opportunities; and be unbothered if they are only able to speak diluted Yoruba language. They may even be less concerned with reading or writing their native language.
The English language itself has survived and continued on its victory lap over the Chinese Mandarin language spoken by 1.3 billion people, because of its continual adoption and adaptation of words and slangs from other languages that are gaining mileages and may compete with it. The adoption of the Nigerian colloquial and words into the English language is therefore not a victory for the Nigerian languages, but the use of linguistic assimilation method by powerful owners of English language to make it remain the language of today, tomorrow and next tomorrow. Records show that the English language has borrowed from about 250 other languages across the globe.
According to UNESCO, over 2,500 languages are vulnerable or already endangered in various degrees, some definitely, others critically. While the Yoruba and a number of other major languages in the underdeveloped countries may not be under serious threat now, their extinction will still come, even if it takes centuries, unless their owners and speakers start making impact in world affairs collectively as a people to the point that they also become dominant stakeholders in the world affairs, vis-à-vis, the world order.
Olaniyan is an Abuja-based writer and author of Lucidity of Absurdity (poetry)