Sustaining Nigerian Culture through Languages

By Ozioma Okey-Kalu
Lecturer, English Unit, GNS Department
Federal School of Statistics, Enugu

A lot of people still don’t understand why I always say that we need to retain our culture in Nigeria by developing our indigenous languages and modifying the English language we speak here. Some do remind me that I am an English scholar and should, therefore, propagate the use of the English language, especially the Standard British English, in Nigeria. But I never hesitated to remind them that I am only a Nigerian that speaks the English language.

Nobody is debating the importance of English in Nigeria. No one is overlooking its prestigious position among the other languages existing in the country. And I don’t think any Nigerian indigenous language can compete with the English language; at least when we view it from the sociolinguistic perspective.

But as we consider the importance of English in Nigeria, let us bear in mind that the language we speak determines our reality. I will try to explain this claim by adopting the Linguistic Relativity Theory.

Linguistic Relativity Theory

The theory I will adopt here is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis on Linguistic Relativity, which was postulated by Edward Sapir (1884 – 1939) and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941).

This theory tries to explain the intricate relationship between language and culture. It explains that the language we speak limits our experiences just as our experiences limit our language. Put simply, as culture conditions language, so does language condition culture. You see the world through your language; the language you speak restricts what you know and believe in. You only express concepts that exist in your environment or that you have come in contact with. Hence, what you know and what you do are the things that are contained in your language word-stock.

To understand this better, you may need to know that culture isn’t just “the people’s way of life” as we were taught in primary and secondary schools. No, culture is more than that. Culture is a total reality of an individual or a group of individuals. Culture is what an individual knows – what he sees, does, believes in, eats, builds and so on – and what he knows how to do. When you talk of someone’s culture, you are talking about the entire knowledge that the person has.

The Relationship between Language and Culture

A lot people wonder how language can affect someone’s culture, even though they know that language is an aspect of culture. So, the question here is, how does language and culture relate? Or better, how does language determine culture?

Now, let me ask this. If you haven’t been to West Africa, will you know what “harmattan” is? Do you know that this term has not found its way into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 9th edition, despite its frequent use in the English language spoken in Nigeria? Even the dictionary in my laptop underlines it as a misspelt. The reason for this is because those who compiled those dictionaries have not experienced harmattan in their localities and therefore do not have it in their reality – they don’t know the concept and therefore they don’t know the term.

Another good example is the names for some of our foods, which do not have English equivalents. For example, “udara”, “icheku”, “oha”, “uziza”, “ogbono” and so many others, are all fruits and foods local to the South-East Nigeria but do not have any English names. This can also be found in arts, such as dances like “atilogu”; religious beliefs, such as believe in personal god “chi”; objects, such as a man’s special building called “obi” and so on. All these concepts and more cannot be expressed in the English language because they are foreign to the language.

That aside, let me come down to an example using our indigenous languages. What do you call “diamond”, “winter”, “waltz”, “camel” and “cheese” in Igbo? I’ve asked several people this question but no one could provide the answer. The reason is simple – diamond, winter, waltz, camel and cheese are all foreign to the Igbo’s. As a result, the language has no name for them. The only way the Igbo’s could identify these objects is by borrowing the names the owners call them.

Language you speak tells who are and where you come from. When you talk about things that exist in Igbo land using the Igbo names for them, we will know that you are either Igbo, or that you have imbibed the Igbo culture (as a result of contact). In other words, you can only express what you have experienced.

Now to look at how language can affect someone’s reality, we can see how borrowing some expressions from native speakers of English have affected our reality. For example, taboo words are found very offensive among the Igbo’s and are therefore substituted with euphemistic equivalents. But today, youngsters have copied expressions such as “arse”, “butts”, “boobs”, “pricks”, “fuck you”, “I’ll be damned”, “what the hell”, and so many other offensive languages foreign to Nigeria. And this affects our culture because some of our youngsters have forgotten the African tradition that requires that people talk cautiously and show respect for elders.

It is a common knowledge that language and culture are closely related, but it is unfortunate that it is hard to explain this relationship. But let’s say it this way: language is an aspect of culture because it is also the knowledge of a group of people. Language is used to explain what people know and believe in. Language is the potent tool for passing on culture. It is the only medium for expressing your experiences in your locality. Take people’s language away from them, and you will take away their culture. And when you take someone’s culture from him, know it that you have taken away his being.

How to Sustain Culture in a Multilingual Nigeria

One of the challenges Nigeria faces is multilingualism. This phenomenon is the reason we don’t have a national language right now. Yes, Nigeria does not have a language with which it is known. You can’t call Nigeria an English-speaking country, because it is not. Nor can you call it a Yoruba-speaking country, a Hausa-speaking country, and the rest of them. Therefore, Nigeria is truly facing language challenges. But I believe we can confidently answer a country with about 500 languages and still be able to maintain the status quo.

Despite the multilingual nature of the country, I still believe that the English language can exist side by side, amicably, with all the Nigerian indigenous languages. Nigeria cannot do without English, that is a known fact, but we cannot throw away our own languages to pick up that which couldn’t perform all the communicative functions in the country. We need to find ways through which these languages can find their rightful places in Nigeria.

Among the things to be done, I’ll suggest the following:

1. Indigenising the English Language

This has been my research interest for a long time now – how to indigenise the English language used in Nigeria so that it can fully perform communicative functions. By indigenising a language, I mean modifying a foreign language so that it can perform basic communicative functions for its non-native speakers.

As we can see, English cannot express every experience we have in Nigeria. Sometimes we find it difficult to say exactly what we meant in English because the words to use are nonexistent in the language. That is why I suggest that we indigenise the English language used within Nigeria through code-switching (switching between languages in a communication event), code-mixing (mixing different languages at minor constituent levels), lexical borrowing (borrowing names for non-existent concepts into the target language) and transliteration (word-for-word translation).

My researches have shown that it is possible that indigenising the English language may affect international intelligibility. But I believe that we can start off with that used in Nigeria first and then worry about the international variety.

However, Nigerian creative artists should be encouraged to employ these devices in their works and help in making them universally accepted. Some Nigerian artists, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, employ them a lot and that is why their works easily depict Nigerian culture.

2. Developing Indigenous Languages

Nigeria is known to have about 500 indigenous languages, and more are still being discovered. But the unfortunate thing here is that most of these languages have not been developed. Only a few of them have developed their orthography. And even some of those that have developed written form do not exist in any literature. This is to say that if the speakers of these undeveloped languages die out, the languages will die with them.

This is a call to every Nigerian linguist to find ways to capture all these existing languages. Their sound system, grammar, word formation, and writing system should all be developed. If possible, dictionaries for the languages should be compiled and their users encouraged to publish books and articles in them. The only way to ensure the survival of any language is by storing it in literature.

3. Developing Curriculums on Indigenous Languages

This may sound outrageous but I believe it’s doable. I’ve suggested this in every related article I wrote. These indigenous languages should be made subjects of study in schools within their locality. As it is now, only the “major” Nigerian indigenous languages are studied in Nigerian primary and secondary schools while the “minor” ones were ignored. If you ask me, I’ll say that the reason behind this is because the people concerned want the easy way out.

There’s need to capture all these languages, at least the ones that have developed orthography, in school curriculums. And when the time for external exams, like WAEC and NECO, comes, they should also be among the subjects to write alongside other Nigerian native languages and the English language.

Sustaining our culture is maintaining who we are. The only we can do this is through language. There is no culture without language. And there is no language without culture. In other words, there is no man without culture and language. Let’s protect what is ours.