Scholars estimate that anywhere from 700 to 3,000 different languages are spoken on the African continent. Of these, hundreds are considered endangered by linguists; many have already disappeared with little fanfare. But recent events demonstrate that a number of innovative initiatives are underway to promote the use of many lesser-known languages throughout Africa.
As a recent example, the Pan South African Language Board last week started work on the production of a siSwati language dictionary. Experts say the project will give much-needed assistance to teachers of the language; the project includes plans to create a system of mathematical notations in siSwati. MacMillan Publishers are helping to underwrite the program.
Meanwhile, in Kenya two weeks ago, a new television station was launched to serve the Rift Valley region, home to the Maasai, Samburu, Pokot and several other indigenous groups. It will air primarily Christian programs, and will broadcast to local communities in 10 indigenous languages, including Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Gusii, Pokot, and Saboat/Marakwet.
Another innovative effort was recently announced in South Africa: the translation and creation of business software into many of the country’s native languages. The Zuza Software Foundation is hiring specialists to translate Linux into Zulu and Xhosa, with plans for translations in nine other languages. Desktop applications are already available in Zulu, Xhosa and Venda. The foundation’s goal is to make it easier for local businesses to use and modify software programs, removing the necessity of learning English in order to use a computer. Project planners hope that the translations will also stimulate greater pride and interest in African languages.
The outlook for many of Africa’s oldest, and most complex, languages, however, is discouraging. Linguists are working with the few remaining speakers of languages such as N|u in South Africa and Ongota in Ethiopia to document and preserve their structures, and to reignite interest among younger generations. The extremely low number of younger speakers of these and other endangered languages means it is unlikely that they will still be spoken 50 years from now. The scholarly Endangered Languages Fund awarded a grant in 1999 to study Shabo and Ogonta, two Ethiopian endangered languages. Only 78 speakers of Ogonta were counted at the time. It is thought that only 20 speakers of N|u remain.
Critics characterize these efforts at bolstering ‘dying’ languages as futile, citing the pervasive influence of mass media in spreading ‘colonizing’ languages such as English, French and Arabic. But experts say that economic constraints and political considerations are the factors more directly responsible for language change and death. In Africa, many young people are forced to seek work in cities where more common languages such as Swahili, Hausa or Amharic are spoken. They learn these languages in order to survive, often at the expense of their first, lesser-known tongues.
Philosophers and linguists argue that the languages that are rapidly disappearing may hold wisdom and information that will be - much like the genetic or medicinal treasures lost when species become extinct - irretrievable. Indigenous communities’ ability to transmit their cultural heritage and traditional knowledge hinges to a great extent on the health of their language. These new projects offer a measure of hope that the use of some of these rich but lesser-used African tongues will be sustained, and perhaps expanded, in years to come.