BY Chuma Uwechia
The picture is grim and worrisome. But, unfortunately, a lot of people and governments seem not bothered that most indigenous languages are either endangered or have gone extinct. The United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) predicts that “half of the 7000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the century”. It is estimated that one language dies out every 14 days. According to Wikipedia, an endangered language is “a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language.
Language loss occurs when the language has no more native speakers, and becomes a ‘dead language’. An extinct language is a “language that no longer has any speakers, or that is no longer in current use. Extinct languages are sometimes contrasted with dead languages, which are still known and used in special contexts in written form, but not as ordinary languages for everyday communication”. When a language goes extinct, humanity loses not only “cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages”.
Igbo language is obviously one of those endangered languages. Spoken by about 25 million people, Igbo is the principal native language of southeastern people and it has more than 20 different dialects. It is also recognized as a minority language in Equatorial Guinea. Igbo language is one of the many tribal languages that UNESCO predicted in 2012 will become extinct by 2025 if nothing is done to check their fast declining use.
Is this prediction a genuine warning to be taken seriously or another one of those doomsday prophesies that will never come to pass? This article explores the possibility that this prediction may happen and the factual basis behind it.
Ndigbo has been described as a stoic, remarkable, ubiquitous and progressive tribe. They are egalitarian, resourceful, resilient, and adventurous and can be found in every nook and corner of the world, from the pinnacles of most major global industries to the leadership of the command structure of the United States of America military.
Academically and intellectually, they are well-endowed and celebrated at all levels of the world’s ivory towers, Ivy League schools and centers of excellence. And, they are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. But this important sub group will soon have no distinct indigenous language if the UNESCO prediction comes true. As is always the case, the death of a people’s language invariably heralds and precedes the extinction of the group. So how did this supposedly successful tribe fall into this dilemma and how can the trend be reversed?
Before delving further into this language predicament, it is instructive to recall that some other previously successful civilizations like the Maya, noted for their enviable level of architectural and city development, had indeed gone extinct, although from different causation – just to affirm that the frightening UNESCO prediction for Igbo language can become a reality. Certainly, the declining use of Igbo language can be traced to the beginning of British colonization and the subjugation of Igbo culture and language to English culture. Then, the tools of colonization and compliance by the invaders were gun and gunboat diplomacy, religion, and western education.
But the most effective of these tools were the deadly and damaging combination of religion and education. Through these two tools, the colonizers successfully indoctrinated Ndigbo to despise their way of life as primitive and satanic, and to covet the colonizer’s way of life as the ultimate form of civilization and godliness.
Admittedly, whilst there are certain aspects of Igbo culture that need reform, the same goes for the received English culture. For instance, it is a well-known fact that religious leaders compelled Igbo parents to choose only English baptismal names for their infants and enforced such names as their first name; consequently relegating the baby’s original and primary Igbo name to middle name as if there is something wrong with Igbo names.
A majority of the English names are taken because they are either the name of a Christian saint or a noble English gentleman and have no real connection to the baby. But quite unlike English names, there is real meaning behind every Igbo name, because they capture the circumstances of one’s birth and consequently reflects a person’s true personality. There is always a story behind every Igbo name.
As a direct consequence of colonization, the invading British citizens enthroned English language as the official language of Nigeria, which covered all the Igbo speaking people in eastern Nigeria. English is used today at all educational levels and for transacting all government businesses relegating Igbo and all local languages to the background. Most primary and secondary schools do not offer Igbo language as a subject on their curriculum thereby setting the stage for the early and slow death of the language. Speaking “vernacular” in class at most secondary schools is a punishable offence. At the university level, Igbo faculty undergraduates were looked down upon, derided as unprogressive and on graduation earn lower salary than English graduates, thus scaring off future prospective candidates.
English way of life subsequently became the trend and imitating the colonizers’ accent became an obsession and a mark of upwards mobility, which separated Igbo elites from the poor and uneducated tribesmen. Those considered elites stopped raising their children in their native Igbo language or mother tongue but resorted to English language only. And, they ensured that their children got educated in exclusive private Nigerian schools or in England. Even the poor and uneducated villagers refused to be outdone and took English nicknames like the “Duke of Wellington” or “Mayor of Canterbury”.
*Uwechia is a New York based attorney.