by Dámilọ́lá Akínsànyà
A couple of years ago, I spoke at an oratory competition while I was just a sophomore at the University of Ìbàdàn. My speech, which was well received, ended with a rapturous ovation from the audience and in my ecstatic head; I had bet that I would be the winner of the day. But I wasn’t! The judge pronounced their winner and justified the decision on the ground that she spoke with “British accent.” Of course, the young lady spoke with some “foreign” finesse that could pass as great in rhis part of the world but I could not grapple with one thing since then. Pardon my vanity but do I have to speak like a British when I am just a young Nigerian boy from a remote town in Abẹ́òkúta?
Let me start with this trite headline; “Nigeria is a multilingual nation with more than 500 languages spoken in different parts of the country.” Bearing the headline in mind, we will, together, cast a cursory glance at the attitudes of Nigerians to their indigenous languages and of course, the undeniable implications. I want to make this clear; English is not a foreign language in Nigeria if we go by our colonial connection with England but a child is not as dumb as not to know his mother’s suckle from a stranger’s. If today, a Nigerian touches down at Heathrow and speaks English with divine finesse, he will still not be regarded as a primary speaker of the language. At best, he is just another fine product of the colonialist’s scheme.
Attitude to our Indigenous Languages
Nigeria is a developing nation with a teeming population of poor citizens- English language being recognised as the civilized tongue-with which most transactions are concluded and a way out of the poverty zone. The language is, in reality, a sine qua non for economic empowerment. That sadly, is the status quo. The uglier revelation is that it has become entrenched as the civilised language; with native languages taking the back seat, simply put-inferior. The question is how did we get here? What went wrong? Well, this piece was not written to find where to rest the blame, so I will not go down that path.
Sometime in 2018, I came across a speech delivered by Kọ́lá Túbòsún (a linguist and Technology enthusiast) at Kyung Hee University in Korea who has devoted a great deal of time and effort to advancing the Yoruba language. Kọ́lá Túbòsún’s speech was both confrontational as well as instructive on the issue.
I really must commend Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún as I found the piece as quite thought-provoking. First, he rightly and sufficiently pointed out the denigrating attitude of Nigerians to their own local languages. He gave insights into how the Yorùbá language has over time lost its essence from generation to generations.
However, we must note that Nigeria differs from South Korea greatly. This is simply down to the heterogeneity of the country across ethnic and lingual lines; which explains why we have several languages, dead, dying and alive. This brings to mind, Gbénga Adésínà’s poem “Painter of Water.” The poem gives an insight into the dearth of proficient speakers of most Nigerian languages and why this is so, for a country with a plethora of tongues. The poem explains the status of our languages, how they have been relegated to the past and which, though still exist, are nothing but mere relics of the past.
The Great Hypocrisy
In his speech, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún suggested that Nigerian Presidents should learn to speak their native languages when they find themselves on international scenes. This, as some have reasoned, may not be advisable in the light of national interest. The reasons are obvious- a President may spend a full tenure of 8 years and to go by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s suggestion, the President’s indigenous language will be the only voice of the country to the world for the whole of his tenure at the expense of the many other languages spoken in the country. While I may accept the above as a legitimate excuse, what I will never be able to grasp is why the Ọọ̀ni of Ifẹ̀, a prominent and arguably the most important traditional ruler of the Yorùbá race will deem it wiser to express himself in English and not Yorùbá, the tongue of his forbears at local and international functions. For culture’s sake, what is our problem? Perhaps that was not enough blow on our heritage, the Aláàfin of Ọ̀yọ́ in commiseration of his 80th birthday decided to make a documentary of himself and chose the English language as his medium of speech.
What our Royal Majesties are saying in essence is that they are not aiming to communicate with their own people or that our own language is inferior and not an effective tool of communication.
The former or the latter; you are right to believe both. If our fathers have already issued imperial condemnation on our languages, what can we the subjects do? That will serve as a prerogative for Yorùbá TV presenters (like the case of one in Ìbàdàn) who can’t seem to correctly pronounce the words, Ìbàdàn and Ìyágankú. In all modesty, we all, myself included, share in this hypocrisy.
Why did I write this piece in English and not Yorùbá? Has this not negated the very essence of my narrative? Permit me to answer in the negative. It is neither my fault nor that of my generation that a foreign language has subjected my mother’s tongue to a trammel of shame. It is an inherited shame, one which, if no heed is paid, will be passed down to generations to come. So the great hypocrisy is not the sight of the Oọ̀ni of Ifẹ̀ speaking English with admirable proficiency, the Aláàfin’s British-esque documentary oration. It is none or both, it is both or all, I don’t know! We all share in the hypocrisy!
Matter-of-factly, the Yorùbá language (and the many other native languages in Nigeria have been reduced to a peripheral language), one which is largely only spoken in fringes, not deeply and hardly used in literature. In fact, the situation today is that Yorùbá literature has gone extinct since the field is considered a not so lucrative plain. Even Yorùbá newspapers which used to be a common sight back in the day have now vanished; the few media houses (that are) still in the business of publishing in Yorùbá do not use tone marks in their articles which then begs the question; why? If you will not write with àmì ohùn (tone marks), why write in Yorùbá at all? The probable answer to this is that they feel their readers may find reading difficult that way. To think in this manner recaps the whole essence of this narrative!
Just recently, I came across a song released by one of Nigeria’s brightest musical acts, Tẹ́níolá Àpáta. The song titled “ùyọ̀ meyọ́” had more surprises for me than I initially thought. First, I found the title quite weird and probably not sellable. My reason for this is not far-fetched; I have never come across those words before neither as slangs or an industry thingy. But the instance I listened to the song, I developed a genial connection with the message it carried. What was more? I got to realise that the lyrics are actually Yorùbá words in the Oǹdó dialects.
Upon this new discovery my love and respect for the song rose. Here’s a song written by a Nigerian based in Georgia, United States sung in not just the Yorùbá language but in the Oǹdó dialect. The bright side is that the song enjoyed wider acceptance than would have been expected for a song sung in a “strange tongue.” This is progress!
When these songs get to the international scene which they would, people will be curious to know what these musicians say in their songs. The curiosity will impress in their minds the consciousness that somewhere under the sun, there is a language as Yorùbá, Ibo, Oǹdó, Ìjẹ̀bú, and the likes, spoken in some faraway parts of the globe.
In the end, we are all still hypocrites!
Image Credit: David Osagie