A language is many things; it is a vessel of knowledge, a means of communication, it is also a means of non-communication because it excludes anyone who doesn’t speak it.
At a point in history we were so few that all of us could speak the same language; we since spread to inhabit the world, we lost the ability to communicate.
The Bible says that after humans built the tower of Babel, God was so angry he caused men to speak different languages so they would never unite in such disobedience again.
I was having dinner with old friends the other day in Oxford and this subject arose; half the table was Anglophone and the rest Francophone, as ever the topic of “which language was best” eventually emerged.
The table divided along linguistic lines and it eventually became a debate about which empire was greater the French or British. I found myself defending the British with all my gusto, while my Malian friend defended the French.
This was like two rape victims defending their rapists; it showed how complete our colonialism was, that we defended our oppressors without reserve.
I eventually pointed out this irony to my Malian friend; that he came from a great civilization and yet was defending a defunct empire that existed only in Sarkozy’s mind, and I was doing the same.
I realised that these languages are the prism through which the African sees and interprets the modern world; some of us were “lucky” to be colonised by the British who also colonised the Americans, who happen to rule the world right now.
In culture we have a divide because America promotes “soft power” in that it uses its music, films, sports and other popular arts to colonise the world mentally while other cultures like French cannot compete with this cultural onslaught.
When one tries to form friendships across Anglo-Franco lines one finds that the cultural contexts are not connected; for example songs cannot easily translate across linguistic barriers.
Watching TVR I often used to count how many times “La malade d’amore” would come on without warning, you’d be watching anything and it randomly pops up.
I have tried to learn French for nearly 20 years, but like most English speakers I have never had the incentive to really learn it because most French speakers want to speak to me in English.
I remember my first French lesson, the teacher was telling me that the table was feminine but a chair was masculine; I thought this was utterly insane; surely a table is a table and didn’t have the necessary organs to be classed as either gender.
It is very hard for an English speaker to speak French without understanding the French mindset; your accent has to be just right, your inflections and emphasis, just so.
English, I would argue is more liberal in its outlook, listen to the following sentences. “Today the food is one-one” I said to my friend “More it, it’s not enough” and I replied “No moring, it is one-one.”
As a child in Uganda we had invented our own version of English, much like the Sheng of Kenya, which was a mixture of Swahili and English; even if you spoke both languages, you never knew the right blend.
So the problem is that we Africans grew up in a world where we spoke one language at home, often a tribal language and another in the modern world.
So we have a divide between the modern world and ourselves and when we did deal with the modern world it was in another man’s language and context.
The Japanese have a similar problem, their culture was largely agrarian because they withdrew from the world for 300 years during the Tokugawa Shogunate and emerged in the 20th century with a will to make up for the time lost.
They had a rapid industrialisation period of around 20-30 years when they went from an ancient culture to a global superpower by the 1930’s.
This rapid development meant that their language was not able to evolve as quickly as their society did and this meant that most of their words for modern words are borrowed.
I often debated with my father the merits of keeping an African language so we can encounter the modern information age on our own terms but he often points to Tanzania under “Ujama” who kept Swahili and it didn’t help them succeed but I point out that the problems were deeper than language.
The funniest thing I heard last year was Radio Rwanda describing in Kinyarwanda the events around “The large Hadron collider” “The scientist have created a tunnel which will help them experiment by colliding small particles at each other and see what happens” now my Kinyarwanda is not up to standard but it said “Aba bahanga bamaze gucyukura umwobo kubafashya mu mushakashatsi, ngo bagyiye guterana utubuye duto hanyuma barebe ikizaba” but loosely translated “These geniuses have dug a hole and are going to throw little stones at each other and see what happens.”
So a language is a vessel of knowledge, the brilliant Professor Noam Chomsky believes that everything is a matter of language. Indeed, when you go to learn medicine, you are learning the language of medicine; you have to know what an aneurism is and how it relates to the brain, or what a subdural haematoma is and how it affects health in general.
Our language is very rich in terms of agriculture and cattle-keeping because that was where our body of knowledge was based, but put that language in the modern world and we find that like the Japanese we have to borrow words for English/French, which in turn borrowed from Latin, which borrowed from Greek.
Getting your car fixed in Rwanda is an eye-opener; the mechanic said I needed a “vidange” I was perplexed “Don’t you speak Kinyarwanda? Vidange!” every part of the car had a French name and I found he had to point at the part and I’d say: clutch or alternator.
We should protect our language, one thing that “Umuseso” is guilty of is bastardising the Rwandese language because half the words are French or English.
Language is a living thing, the more you restrict it, the more it evolves; Kinyarwanda has a long history of absorbing words but most of those words were absorbed from other Bantu languages but other words are harder to assimilate.
Like the word “koboyi” meaning “Cowboy” – it means someone you don’t mess with. Academy Francais tries valiantly, but pointlessly to defend their version of the French language, for example the word “Parking” is banned even though it comes from a French word originally.
The internet is really anglicising French “le web” instead of Etoile and so many other words are creeping in use. Rwanda is switching for French to English but this is difficult because people will have to change how they think.
For example Chomsky points out that when a dog barks the Frenchman will hear “waah-waah” and the Englishman “woof-woof” they heard the same sound but interpreted it differently.
It shows how language and culture make us interpret our surroundings differently. However, the things we have in common far outweigh what we our differences, the fact that our cultures survived colonialism is a credit to our determination.
My father tried to have us baptised with African names but the priests refused; we have to have a western name or nothing. You could be baptised Peace but not Amahoro, you could be baptised Blessing but not Mugisha and so on.
After we are done with this fascination with modernity we will revert to what we know and revive one of the greatest cultures in the East and Central African region – Urwanda