Language as culture (Part 1)


ALL PEOPLE the world over have developed a language that is peculiar to them. This language becomes their trademark, as it were, and is an important unifying feature and marks them as different from other groups.

The main purpose of language is to enable people to interact with one another.

Constant interaction results in them influencing each other to do things in a particular way, for example what food they eat and preparing it.

In the course of time they develop similar behavioural patterns and beliefs, and they adopt a similar world view.

Together they develop and adopt ways which become their customs, traditions and mores.

Language is the number one agent that promotes and propagates the customs of a people.

In the Bible the City of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) — then famous for its tower — soon disintegrated as people’s language was split into many strange tongues.

The people of Babel lost their identity and in time developed languages unintelligible to each other.

They formed new and different communities and nations.

That is what language can do. It has power to integrate or disintegrate people.

If we look at the British Empire at its peak, we would see that whether we like it or not, their greatest achievement was the building of a vast global empire through the imposition of their language, a living legacy even after most countries regained their independence.

It is English that unifies those countries that have a multiplicity of their own local languages.

Some countries vehemently deny subservience to the British, but register this denial through the medium of English.

There is, for instance, in our country a strong linguistic colonialism.

Young people have completely and perhaps irreversibly fallen into the British language acquisition (or language preference) and it looks like they are losing their original language fast — so much so that even this series of articles is written in English (what a shame!) in order to make it relevant to young people and other “civilised” people who would otherwise not like to read it in Ndebele (more shame!).

Can anyone candidly blame British colonisation for substituting our language culture with their own?

We find glory in it. We have lost our African world view. Because of and due to our constant use of the English language we have adopted English mannerisms, English thinking patterns, behavioural systems and what not.

We have lost our African world view as well as our Africanness and we see life the Western way. All this is to say that we will never escape from this bondage of language (customs), or is there need to get out of it?

Code-mixing occurs so frequently: Akuthi sure brother! Lami ngirisive very disturbing news izolo ntambama. Kuthiwa unless we get strong support yeoutside countries ilizwe lethu leli will soon go to the dogs. Phela ieconomic situation just now is very grim, okokuthi zonke izinto, ngitsho zonke isystems will break down thina sisale sesistranded. Kodwa-ke well, undoda kuqina wahlabela wathi ithemba kalibulali. Leyo poet ithi hope lives eternal. We will always be hopeful loba sekunjani. Anywhere, kasime khonapho ndoda. I am running out of airtime. Cheers!

This conversation mixes Ndebele and English.

This way of talking to each other is fast becoming the standard spoken variety by far the majority of young people.


What should be done?

In this series of discussion we are going to argue for standard Ndebele as a way of effecting communication and a way of preserving and developing language as a unifying agent for national cohesion.

This implies that, like other nations, we do have various dialects and languages which must be preserved and actively promoted, but there is a need for a core language which will enable a Sotho to communicate easily with a Nambyan or a Tonga with a Venda.

The core language will serve as a catalyst for bringing our various groups and clans together.

Babel disintegrated rather than integrating. As our starting point, we demonstrated quite clearly that Ndebele nation means all Nguni, all Sotho, all Venda, all Kalanga, all Tonga and all Nambya as well as all permanent dwellers in Ndebeleland (koMthwakazi) including the Rozwi, Nyubi and others.

Together they form the Ndebele nation.

After all, there was never a Ndebele nation before integration with other ethnic and linguistic groups.

Therefore, we can safely define the term Ndebele as a conglomeration of those several ethnic groups and it is the language of the people (this nation) that we will consider further.