Tag Archives: Lingua franca

A Comeback For Africa’s Homegrown Languages?

A schoolroom in Rwanda (Photo: Dan Petrescu for EFA FTI/Wikimedia Commons)

A schoolroom in Rwanda (Photo: Dan Petrescu for EFA FTI/Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s podcast, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I talk language and Africa. We also consider food idioms, banana skins and robberies gone wrong.

  • Televised debates for Ghana’s upcoming presidential election have all been conducted in English, despite the fact that English is understood by an estimated 20% of Ghanaians. Critics say the debates penalize candidates with poor English, effectively turning them into linguistic beauty contests. Now there are calls for future campaigns to include debates in the Twi language/dialect, which is far more widely spoken than English.
  • Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has co-written a thesaurus for his mother tongue, Nkore-Kiga (also known as Runyankore/Rukiga). Museveni says Ugandans favour English, along with Arabic and Swahili, over their neglected indigenous tongues.
  • Gabon is the latest Francophone country in Africa to consider switching its allegiance to English. If it does, it would follow Rwanda, which in 2009 switched its language of instruction in schools from French to English. The future for French in Africa looks uncertain at best.
  • South Africans are debating what to call President Zuma’s newly refurbished home. The US media would call the multi-acre, multi-building home a ‘compound,’ but that word has unfortunate connotations from the Apartheid period. Calling it ‘Zumaville,’ as it’s popularly known, may imply corruption, so the South African Broadcasting Corporation is directing its reporters and presenters to refer to this place as the president’s ‘residence.’
  • Having the peach, eating cold rice, other food-based idioms from around the world. Some of the best of these can be found in Adam Jacot de Boinod’s wonderful Tingo books.


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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

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