“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:
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.
… 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.
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.