Lying to Ourselves in Someone Else’s Language

I’ve been quite worried that – because of the lack of libraries – people haven’t been aware of the evolution of the English language. People still write quite stiffly – in a very ‘Bronte sisters’ type of language – which is not the right costume for the Ghanaian experience. I try to tell people to look at slang in English novels…

People [should] stop apologizing for who we are and start to write language the way we speak it…”

Nii Ayikwei Parkes, DUST Magazine June 2010

Ghana speaks at least 79 languages. However, the tongue we teach our children and write our laws in is one we inherited from the last of our colonial masters:

English.

The official language of 52 other countries, English is robust, dynamic and international and much is (deservedly) made of how speaking it gives Ghanaians an edge in our increasingly competitive world.

At what cost though?

You see, language is a lot more than just a sophisticated form of communication. Every language contains a culture’s DNA and says something about the people who speak it. People change though. They grow.

Ghanaians today do not have the same values, practices and priorities our grandparents had, much less our distant ancestors. As a people change, so does their language. Old words die out or change meaning while new words are created to communicate new concepts and the new times in which those words exist.

Take the word ‘funky‘, for example. It originally referred to something having a smelly odour (“what is that funky smell?”) It has since gone from describing the type of music popularized by James Brown and George Clinton to a loose description of any music that makes you clap your hands or tap your feet.

Even music-related slang like ‘Bling‘ and ‘Bootylicious‘ have officially been added to the modern English dictionary. My point is, the language is  growing…

… except in Ghana.

I can only think of kwashiorkor but apparently Ghana has contributed three words to the English language. Regardless, none of them are recent. How could they be? We don’t own English in Ghana. We did not invent it. Rather, we have been taught to put it in a straitjacket and worship it. As a result, we sometimes find it hard to communicate in modern English.

Why do you think our English plays, television programmes and adverts sound so forced… so fake… so pretentious? They rarely reflect the way we really speak, much less how we feel, what we think or what is going on in our life and times.

Why do you think companies are forced to adopt slang to connect to the Ghanaian masses, who reject English films en masse in favour of films in local languages? You think it’s just because of illiteracy? I doubt it. You’d be surprised how many fully literate fans Agya Koo probably has.

Dey there.

Ghanaian teachers go to great pains to try to stamp out Pidgin English. Nevertheless, if anyone tells you they went to secondary school in Ghana and cannot speak a word of Pidgin, chances are that they are lying to you. There is a reason for Pidgin’s refusal to fade away.

It is far more than just incorrect English. Pidgin English is our people’s attempt to reclaim a language that is foreign to them and shape it in their image, rather than be shaped in its image. Strange as it may sound, pidgin English represents us far more than English does. That is why it changes and grows. Just like we do. The same applies elsewhere in Africa (Kenya’s Sheng springs immediately to mind).

What I used to call “deft” back in Kwabotwe is now called “yawa“, borrowed from Nigerian pidgin, which has in turn been popularized through the spread of Nigerian films and songs here. The influence of Nigerian culture on Ghana – for better or worse – is a modern cultural phenomenon. It will probably pass, but when anthropologists and linguistics students one day examine the language from this time period, our use of English won’t tell them much more than that we were not particularly innovative or creative. Study pidgin on the other hand and it will show Nigeria’s influence on this time period, loud and clear. It will also show our ability to absorb and make something our own, a defining characteristic of any major civilisation.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling  for pidgin to replace English as our national tongue. Far from it. That said, we do need to start thinking about ways of injecting ourselves into English if we are going to make it a national language that reflects us.

I have a few suggestions.

1. Generate literature that reflects the way we really speak

Every Ghanaian speaks at least two languages. Three if you include Pidgin (which we should). We should confidently and creatively reflect this in our literature. It will make it real, honest and relatable. We should also stop thinking of anything in local languages as – for want of a better word – “bush”. It isn’t and it is the height of ignorance (and self-hate) to think of it that way. There should be a lot more mixing of our languages in our art and literature. Nigeria already has a radio station that is entirely in Pidgin, from the DJs right down to the news. By now, someone should have set up a radio station/directed a film in a local language and pidgin that has the kind of production values usually reserved for English ventures. How else is the bar ever going to be raised?

2. Take Pidgin more seriously

If it isn’t already, Pidgin should be studied as it contains a lot of our post-colonial history. It should not be treated as incorrect English. It should be treated as another language in its own right. You don’t walk into an English class and speak French (unless it is a French word that has been absorbed into English, much like we are absorbing Nigerian words in Pidgin). In the same way, the idea would be that you can no longer walk into English class and speak Pidgin: it is a distinct language, not to be confused with English. That said, I think we could learn and study the two side by side. Separately at first and then comparatively. Seriously. We’d learn a lot more about ourselves than if we study the history of the English language.

3. Read (& write) modern English

Speaking of the English language, the best way to keep up with changes in English is to keep up with the culture. We need to read more. We need libraries, whether physically, online or on our mobile phones. We need to start reading more than just the Bible, the latest Otabil motivational masterpiece or our textbooks.

Books like Bridget Jones’ Diary are written in very different English to what we learned in ‘The Student’s Companion’ (I’m not one to advocate the burning of any book, but that Student’s Companion, man…)

Reading these books (alongside the old classics) and studying the differences between them will help us maintain our international edge (so we don’t arrive abroad, open our mouths and embarass ourselves). It will also give us an understanding of the fact that languages are not abosom – spirits waiting to be worshipped. They are real. They are dynamic. They change.

So should we.

PS: this post is dedicated to Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, whom I now owe a meal at La Chaumiere based on the terms of our bet to publish at least one post every week. This should have been posted yesterday. It wasn’t.

My wallet now gently weeps.

25 Replies to “Lying to Ourselves in Someone Else’s Language”

  1. Spot on. I agree with it perfectly. Language is like wikipedia, we should make contributions to it rather than spend so much time trying to get the structures and all that correct. Sometimes I begin to believe that we want to be more English than the Queen. Speak to a Nigerian and you would marvel at the speed and way in which he/she expresses himself/herself. And that’s why their literary industry has outgrown ours. We sit and think in Shakespearean English, trying hard how to get our ‘thous’ and ‘thees’ correct.

    Regarding the English Ghanaian Movies, I hate them most. Especially, those ones that attempt to use poetic language. It makes me feel I am not of this land, that the next person you meet would shout; “From whence hath thou cometh forth”. I thought these were for stage plays and even that… Sometimes, clearly, you could feel the character is waiting for the other to finish so she/he could respond in his/her memorized lines. Take it or leave, though the storylines in the Twi movies could at times be difficult to follow, thousands watch because they don’t have to strain their ears to hear them speak.

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  2. Coincidence that in the middle of rounding up a draft of my thesis paper which touches on neocolonialism, I decided to come over here and read this new blog post? Because below is one of my findings and I think it very relevant to this your post, and it’s by Ngugi who now only writes in and holds speeches in Gikuyu, his native language (he began in 1981!!): “Ngugi argues that colonization was not simply a process of physical force. Rather, “the bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.” In Kenya, colonization propogated English as the language of education and as a result, orature in Kenyan indigenous languages whithered away. This was devastating to African literature because, as Ngugi writes, “language carries culture and culture carries (particularly through orature and literature) the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” Therefore, how can the African experience be expressed properly in another language?

    Ngugi is convinced that by adopting foreign languages lock, stock and barrel, Africans are committing a “linguicide”, which, in effect, has killed off their memories as a people, as a culture and as a society. Because erasure of memory is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves ensured that the assimilation process into colonial culture was complete. Ngugi calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies which have never fully acknowledged their loss — like a trauma victim who resorts to drugs to kill the pain.”

    Lovely post, and I enjoyed it!

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    1. Thanks Golda. How could I forget? I absolutely love the position he’s taken. I think it was from Wizard of the Crow onwards that he said that if anyone wants his novel in their language, they should translate it. Makes a lot of sense.

      Historically speaking, what has happened to us has happened to us and we live in ‘interesting times’ as a result. However, as unchartered as these waters are, too often we just float along without actually taking stock of what is going on around us. I’m definitely inspired by people like Ngugi (and yourself) who do pause to give those things deeper thought.

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  3. Great post Kobby. Many excellent points well made. And I shall pass on your question re pidgin radio stations to GCRN!

    I was amazed that in the Ghanaian census there was a question about languages spoken that gave a list of ‘foreign’ languages and yet offered only ‘Ghanaian language’! What a missed opportunity to delve into language in this country!

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  4. Great post, well said. I’m always amazed by ye ole English used in Ghana. Words that were ousted from use by the English themselves are still being used today in Ghana. Come on Ghana, let’s embrace modernity and evolve with the times…

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  5. Ah, Kobby…you try too much!

    Re Pidgin: Very true; remember how we used to marvel at Achebe’s style in novels like Anthills of the Savannah. The pidgin used for the local characters was raw in a way that allowed you to live the novel. Own the character.

    One of the things that made Mr. B Kwakye’s “Clothes of Nakedness” pale in comparison. One of the main characters in the story, a poor taxi driver living in the ghettos of Nima, had very little education; but the incredibly cultured English that character and his family were using made it real hard to relate to that character. Illiterate drunks at a bar speaking the Queen’s language so brilliantly is not the usual in these parts I’m sure. And the bar called “Kill me quick”? Why not keep “Ku mi preko”? Could never get why the book was so local yet so foreign.

    Definitely, our movies, plays et al should be able to properly reflect the people they intend to portray. Definitely!

    Yet, that fear remains that in our quest to keep our “African-ness”, we may lose a necessary skill for communicating with the global society. Fear has been that if pidgin is dominant in our literature et al, it would eventually dominate our language and kill off proper language rules. People wouldn’t be able to switch between the two. See it happening often these days. One guy asking a question at AITI iWeek, said something like: “generally, computer hardware and them nibbies”; we had a good laugh. But it’s what’s happening. Pidgin has become so pervasive that we learn it really early and easily, oft to the detriment of proper English.

    But the sad truth is, a lot of people are speaking pidgin because it’s harder for them to speak proper English; not because they have a sense of keeping the African culture thriving. Pidgin has been reduced to nothing more than an escape from the ‘chains’ of real ‘brofo’. As much as we love “the shortcut” in these parts, we adopt pidgin because learning to communicate in English proper is a pain. We are always looking for the easy way chale. So brothers be speaking pidgin like crazy, yet you’d see them looking like some failed rapper who just came home from Brooklyn. Then they go like, “me I get swagger like that.” And like our celebrities say on TV, I’d add at this point :”you know?”

    Yet inability to communicate in proper English, sad as it is, could be a problem for a lot of us as we progress through life. I believe that before we engage with pidgin, we must first have a mastery of sorts of the proper. I love me my pidgin, but at some point pidgin could lose me a job you know? It would have been so much better if we all engaged in suggestion number 3. But my Ghanaian brothers and sisters meehn…squad no go read Daily Graphic sef! Funtime and P&P we dey like! Wahala!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve just articulated perfectly the same argument my mother makes, Mr. G!

      I totally agree that we need to stay competitive, both locally and internationally.

      That said, even if (by some miracle) pidgin died off and we (by another miracle) mastered modern English, the end result will be the same. We would – as a people – use our mastery to start adapting it to our own ends and change the language. Even if slightly. It is inevitable. For good reason.

      For decades, teachers have tried (and failed on a somewhat epic level) to kill off pidgin or at the very least, keep it on the fringes of language through prohibition.

      Yet it stays and continues to grow.

      Prohibition hasn’t and won’t work because it does not tackle the root problem, which is that a people must own the language they express themselves in.

      It’s different where you are an individual learning French to apply for a job. That you don’t need to own. As important as employment is though, Ghana is about more than finding jobs, both locally and internationally. Our language needs to serve more than just allowing us to communicate to foreigners.

      If we truly master English as an entire nation, we will use that mastery to then alter the language. This is what the Americans have done, changing the spellings of certain words (color vs. colour), altering the meanings of certain words (funk), dropping some words altogether (tally-ho, anyone?) and creating one words altogether (bling, yo, bootylicious).

      Of course, they get away with it because they run the planet. But there are other less obvious reasons too: they have created viable and recognized outlets for the expression of new language (especially in the arts) and eventually certain words are allowed to jump out of the artistic underground and into the mainstream.

      Similarly pidgin flourishes in the way people talk and in our arts scene. BUT it is not allowed to jump into the main language. So it continues to grow as an increasingly separate language.

      As such, I reckon that as counterintuitive as it may sound, the solution is to bring it in from the cold. Don’t open the floodgates. But try and find outlets for convergence. Prohibition doesn’t address the root problem.

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      1. Greetings Kobby,

        I just wanted to add that ALL of your examples (bling, yo, bootylicious) were contributed by the African-descendents in the USA, as well!! Which would constitute an actual example of the point you are making about Ghanians doing the same thing…It is an ‘Africanism,’ an ‘Africanizing of the English language;’ and the ‘Oyinbo/Whites’ love it, too — even if they don’t love us that much :-)!!

        PS: I just read about Ghanian English Professor and acclaimed writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, walking out of an event to celebrate her influence on Ghanian women because the event’s program spelled her middle name with two T(s) (Atta) instead of one! How would you interpret that, Kobby — a demand for respect for the indigenous or not?? ….. Thanks again, and Ase ooo!!

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    2. I guess I’m late …but i couldn’t agree with you more Ebenezer. The language the common person on the streets of Accra speaks in The Clothes of Nakedness got me wondering how a school dropout like Baba could speak such impeccable English. I particularly feel the language is so verbose wrought with Kojo Ansah’s forced philosophizing.

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  6. BFF, what can I say? What I loved most about this post is not so much what you say (although I do agree that our use of English needs to evolve) but how you say it. You exemplify how the English Language can be adapted to be our own. In your writing I ‘hear’ English spoken by Black Londoners, Pidgin English and of course ‘very proper’ English (whatever that may be).

    I also love your use of colons, short sentences and imagery.

    Plus I won the bet!!! Yay!!! Din dins when I get back. Mwah

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    1. Ha! I knew you’d like that part. Thanks for the kind words on my writing. It sort of proves Gwumah’s point actually. Master English first and then you can insert other forms of English into it.

      I suspect the peculiarities of my upbringing set me apart though.

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  7. I have a special attachment to this post.I used to argue a lot with my mum concerning how often I spoke pidgin over the phone…She felt it would eventually affect my English. The teenage rebel in me at the time yearned to prove a point…I went on to create a Facebook group-“PIDGIN NO DEY AFFECT MY FLUENCY IN ENGLISH”…and felt totally justified.

    Like you,I’d love to pick up a book,or write(hopefully) a ghanaian novel where the dialogue is just as authentic as it is in real life-ghanaian life.

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    1. Nice group idea!

      Im very curious though – and this goes to the heart of the matter: in your personal experience, how was it possible for your pidgin not to affect your English.

      As Gwumah so perfectly put it, there is an increasing creeping of pidgin (and even TXT MSG language) into the Ghanaian mainstream. To the detriment of English.

      Articulate how you – as a Ghanaian – could master the two separately, and you may just solve the whole problem.

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  8. That’s pretty easy.I speak fluent Twi and Ga(certain strangers to the english language),yet my English seldom betrays this….for all the noise made about pidgin,it’s still probably just a first cousin of English.For me,it just felt like speaking a variety of english…If you can speak English and another language say,French or Latin or Portuguese fluently and distinctly,I think it really should be easier for you to juggle The Queen’s English and Pidgin English.

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  9. Luv the piece man, especially where you say ‘pidgin English is far more than just incorrect English’–veeery true.

    Yes I also agree that we would all be better off the day we realize that we can write in nauseatingly informal English and still churn out good books, even classics, instead of waiting for our authors to emerge with English language Phds before being taken seriously.

    Case in point, ‘Catcher in the rye’ by J. D. Salinger which is considered as part of teenage males’ rite of passage into manhood in some circles, was written in the most shockingly amateurish looking English I’ve ever seen but it served a purpose since we were being narrated a story by vocabulary deficient teenager. I bet you that were the same book written by some of our own it would have been a literally disaster and not the masterpiece it is.

    [duKe]

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  10. chale I like this post. actually did a self-evaluation of myself and I realised I’ve been trying too hard to sound English. English is has become a universal language but the manner of expressing ourselves through it shouldn’t be so too. culture shapes our way of expressing ourselves so we all got to speak the english the way we we feel we can be better understood. now that does mean go massacre the language oooo. just express yourself articulately. but just be sure you are expressing yourself.

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  11. How has this post existed for 5 years without my knowledge?! I’m in my final year of a French & Linguistics BA and pidgin is a major part of why I chose to study linguistics. It has so much history, potential and structural beauty. I HATE that women are blasted or slighted when we (try to) speak it; that it’s seen to only be appropriate for men; that women are seen as bush or less educated/literate when they speak it.

    I wrote a poem (Wana Blɛ – http://wp.me/p2RdbH-4f) on how Ghanaians own (and to a great extent, we do) our spoken English. Our accent and certain syntax features (how we sometimes copy sentence structures directly from our local languages) are incredible and peculiar to us. I just wish it’d translate more into us taking more literary freedoms, but alas…

    Finally, everyone should join the #Lexivism movement and be a neologist/lexivist! I’m all here for it.

    Thanks for the post, Kobby.

    Liked by 1 person

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