ACCORDING to Crystal Davies, a language conservationist “Languages often hold the only record of a people’s history, including their songs, stories, and ancient traditions. In particular, many indigenous cultures contain a wealth of information about the local environment and its floral and faunal resources, based upon thousands of years of close interaction, experience, and problem-solving.
With the extinction of a language, therefore, mankind also loses access to local understanding of plants, animals, and ecosystems, some of which have important medicinal value, and many of which remain undocumented by science. Thus, the survival of threatened languages, and the indigenous knowledge contained within, is an important aspect of maintaining biological diversity.”
As a teacher in a school, in Lagos Nigeria, I once asked my class if anyone could name the various ethnic groups that make up Nigeria. James Green stood up before anyone could beat him to it. And with a sense of pride, he reeled out “Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba”. He was greeted with cheers from his mates. And with a sense of fulfillment, he sat.
When I asked which of those tribes he belonged, he thought for a while, rolled his eyes up and down, and replied with a tone of defeat “I don’t know sir”. How sad.
James belonged to the Okrika ethnic group in Rivers State, sadly enough, he didn’t even know this. He only understands and speaks English as his mother tongue, even his name ‘James Green’, contributed in further distancing his little mind from his cultural identity; his parents ofcourse failed to transmit to him, a clear cultural and linguistic identity, which is one of the fastest ways to kill a culture. In this way, Nigeria has lost a good number of her indigenous languages, and many more, according to the National Geographic Society, are on the brink of disappearance.
If the predictions by language conservationists are anything to go by, “Languages are now becoming extinct faster than birds, mammals, fish or plants. Of the estimated 7,000 unique languages spoken in the world today, nearly half are likely to disappear this century, with an average of one lost every two weeks.” It is most likely then that in less than 50 years from now, even some major Nigerian languages, if not encouraged, can become extinct, and lecturers in our Universities would have cause to excite their students with great lectures in a course on, say, ‘ancient’Igbo or “ancient” Yoruba languages, and of which they would speak thus , with nostalgia, ‘They once flourished in the distant past but have now become extinct’.
This is a disheartening possibility for anyone who cares about our indigenous languages, the history and unrecorded knowledge they carry within them.
There is a major reason why everyone should be concerned; the reason is in a new study by The Living Tongue Institute of Languages which shows that already about six Nigerian languages in Bauchi State alone have already gone into extinction and with them, their repositories of knowledge and history of the people.
Bauchi State in North East Nigeria is home to the once famous Yankari games reserve. It is also the home to over 60 ethnic groups—ethnic groups which most people, out of convenience or historical laziness, continue to lump together as Hausa-Fulani. Before the Jihad of 1804 and the subsequent conquest of that area, it was and is still peopled by among others the Hausa, Fulani Ajawa, Gamo-Ningi, Kubi and Mawa, Lere, Shau and Ziriya. Others include the Bure, Bole, Daza and Deno in Darazo Local Council Area. There is also the Dugiri, Dass, and Giiwo who are found in Alkaleri Local Council Area and so on.
These tribes flourished in their uniqueness, preserving their heritage, tradition, knowledge of medicine, folklore and their God given distinctiveness which were all embedded in their languages. They were part of the colours of the cultural rainbow with which the Creator decorated the world. However, the coming of the Jihadist, followed closely by the European colonialists changed all that. Soon the Hausa language became the language of commerce and administration, followed closely by the English Language which sought to upstage the Hausa language as an official language.
At the receiving end of this dual linguistic onslaught however, were the indigenous ethnic nationalities of the Bauchi area. Unfortunately, the indigenes themselves took things for granted and Hausa gradually replaced their indigenous languages, not just at the regional level, but also at the family level, soon, like a terminal disease, their second language began to eat away their mother tongue, with subtle but devastating effects; values which bore much weight in their original tongue was lost, proverbs and anecdotes through which high moral standard were sustained fizzled away, and like most Igbo speakers of today, the Bauchi tribes of “yester years” would have thought to themselves, ‘it doesn’t matter, so long as we can communicate’ .
By way of a gradual but grinding process, most of the 58 tribal and linguistic groups became subdued, while seven have completely lost their sense of unique identity, their languages, their culture and entire heritage. Seven language groups died a tragic death. The Living Tongue Institute of Languages (in 2007) in partnership with the National Geographic Society listed among the dead languages of the world, Ajawa, Gamo-Ningi, Kubi and Mawa, Lere, Shau and Ziriya, all in present day Bauchi state of Nigeria.
These tribes whose descendants still exist could now be likened to bats, an animal that is neither a bird nor a mammal- without any clear identity. Members of these tribes who appear to be totally absorbed into the Hausa group, now speak Hausa and English fluently, yet they are neither Hausas nor Britons. They know who they are not, but they are not certain who they are, because the proof of any distinct group identity lies in their language and culture, both of which members of these once vibrant ethnic groups have totally lost. It is indeed a great disaster for one not to know where he is coming from.
The fate that befell Ajawa, Gamo-Ningi, Kubi and Mawa, Lere, Shau and Ziriya is clearly staring other languages in the face, except the government and well meaning Nigerians wake up to their responsibilities. Except an attempt is made to reverse the decline in the use of mother tongue, even the so-called major languages may soon disappear. It is already happening gradually, particularly with the Igbo language. Igbo and Yoruba parents who would rather speak English and in some cases other languages to their children, at the detriment of their mother tongue, therefore denying their children the right to their heritage, must realize that they are not just doing a great dis service to their children but to humanity. This of course is not to suggest that children should not learn languages other than theirs. Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o the author of “Weep Not Child” said: “ If you know all the languages of the world and you do know your language, that is enslavement, on the other hand, if you know your language and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”
•Greg. C. Ugbaja, a member of Subakwa Igbo, an Igbo language group, works for the International Centre for Journalist (ICFJ).
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