Language Loss: Breytenbach & Ngũgĩ

What is lost when one’s language is lost? Let others speak.

1. These words introduce §87 of the South African Constitutional Court’s 2019 ruling (Case CCT 311/17) on Stellenbosh University’s latest language policy. Once predominantly Afrikaans, the university became dual medium (Afrikaans/English) in 2014. Two years later, it committed itself to offering all its courses in English, while continuing to support Afrikaans at the undergraduate level. Writing in Afrikaans, Justice Johan Froneman concurred with the court’s ruling in favour of the new policy, but because he felt its broader consequences had to be faced squarely, he added a separate statement posing this question. In his concluding remarks, he imagines an alternative future in which the university might change its mind again, promoting ‘the progressive institutionalisation of isiXhosa, Afrikaans or English as their choice of medium of instruction on an equal basis’ (§96).

2. The first of the others Froneman lets speak is the renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Using Wikipedia’s mangled rendering – corrected here – he cites a key statement from the opening of Decolonising the Mind (1986): 

Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication. Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world. (p. 15-16)

Ngugi

3. The second is the equally renowned South African writer Breyten Breytenbach. Here Froneman quotes from the expert affidavit Breytenbach submitted in support of the plaintiffs who were contesting the university’s change in policy. Again, the original is in Afrikaans, but I use the court’s own translation with some alternative suggestions.

Language is humanity and humanity is language. Afrikaans is the living and changing and change-making [andersmakende; other-making] outcome of diverging and at times conflicting [botsende; colliding] histories. These diverse origins characterised by adaptation, conquest, subjugation, oppression, survival, resistance, transformation – descended from European dialects, Malay, Portuguese, seafarer language, Khoi languages, Arabic Afrikaans, the Qur’an and the Bible, the courts and churches and kitchens and hospitals and vineyards and factories of our country – have made Afrikaans a unique hybridisation that finds unity as a Creole language which is the verbalisation [verwoording; coming-into-words] of the complex world in which we move.

Breyten

4. Underlining his central concerns, Froneman then comments: ‘Without your own language, culture is lost, a sense of self is lost. And once that happens, diversity is lost. We will lose the belief set out in the Preamble of the Constitution “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”’ (§88). By implication, for Froneman, Ngũgĩ and Breytenbach offer comparable and equally compelling answers to his guiding question: language loss not only threatens to destroy a linguistic community’s shared culture or an individual’s sense of self but to undermine the ideal of diversity as such.

5. Yet what stands out most in these two quotations, particularly when read alongside each other in this context, is the difference in the way Ngũgĩ and Breytenbach conceptualize language. For Ngũgĩ, the underlying metaphor is vehicular – ‘language carries culture’ – and the key issue is specificity – what it carries is the community’s ‘specific form and character’, its ‘specific history’, its ‘specific relationship to the world.’ Breytenbach, by contrast, highlights movement: language is ‘the living and changing and other-making’ outcome of a complex, often fraught history and of the equally ‘complex world in which we move.’ Saving a language from extinction is therefore primarily an act of conservation for Ngũgĩ: it is about preserving a relatively static ‘body of values’, perhaps even a ‘worldview’ (see the Humboldt post). Whereas, for Breytenbach, it is about keeping a particular, open-ended experiment in self-, community- and world-making alive.

6. These differences no doubt reflect the contrasting circumstances out of which their thinking emerged. For Ngũgĩ, the challenge was to reinvigorate Gĩkũyũ (currently around 7 million speakers) and other African languages, pushing back against the imposition of English in colonial Kenya and its subsequent entrenchment by state educational authorities in the post-colonial era. For Breytenbach, the task was to wrest Afrikaans (also around 7 million speakers) from the apartheid-era language planners and educationalists who wanted to shore up the supremacy of the volk – white Afrikaans-speakers as a racialised ethnolinguistic people – by championing a purist version of what they called the taaleie – the idealized, essentially metaphysical ‘genius’ or ‘spirit’ (eie) of the language (taal).

6.1 This is why Breytenbach has in the past often played on the punning and homophonic Afrikaans words ‘eie‘ (genius), ‘eier‘ (egg) and ‘eie‘ (own). In a testy exchange with his fellow mainly white Afrikaans writers in 1968, he asked: ‘Do you think that work done in the Afrikaans language can offer something to the world? That it should be sensitive and open to questions and problems which are clearly all the more international and intercultural? Or rather, that you must deliver something which is ‘own’ [eie]? (And do you believe as well that that own egg [eier] must necessarily be separate and different from any other bloke’s own?)’ – see The Literature Police (2009), p. 261.

7. In his understanding of language, then, Breytenbach is more like Joyce and Tagore (see Third and Fourth Proposition), than Ngũgĩ. He is also closer to the leading South African linguist and activist Neville Alexander – a former political prisoner too, like Breytenbach and Ngũgĩ. ‘It is essential that we conceptualise the existing and evolving language communities as tributaries of a Gariep nation,’ Alexander wrote in 2001, ‘constituted by many other tributaries that originate in linguistic, religious and other cultural and regional catchment areas’ (see Artefacts of Writing (2017), p. 218). By invoking the Khoekhoe or Nama name for South Africa’s longest river – the Gariep (or !Garib) was renamed the Orange in the colonial era – Alexander was challenging the popular, but chromatically dubious, post-apartheid idea of the ‘rainbow nation’. Current estimates put the number of Khoekhoe/Nama speakers today at around 200,000.

 

One thought on “Language Loss: Breytenbach & Ngũgĩ”

  1. “For Ngũgĩ, the challenge was to reinvigorate Gĩkũyũ (currently around 7 million speakers) and other African languages, pushing back against the imposition of English in colonial Kenya and its subsequent entrenchment by state educational authorities in the post-colonial era.”
    In India too, English is understood by nationalists and often the lay person (as well as academics) to have been ‘imposed’ from above, produced, as I like to call it, from Macaulay’s magic hat. In fact, as I’ve shown in The Literary Thing, English was often empowering for modern regional vernaculars, a life force in the creation of powerful regional literatures. (In Bengal as well as France, Literature with a capital L was first conceived from the 1850s onward.) It was, in fact, the market and ‘liberalization’ in 1991 and the globalization that followed which reduced these rich modern literatures to second class status, not colonialism, against which the modern Indian languages fought powerfully with tools wrested from the colonila curricula.

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