Language defines who we are


I VISITED the heart of the land of the Afrikaner community in South Africa.
They are a proud people, proud of their history and their heritage. 
What started as Dutch slang soon became the symbol of identity.
By 1925 Afrikaans was recognised as the language of the Dutch settlers in South Africa.
It soon created a distinct identity that set them apart from other colonial settlers.
Afrikaans grew to the symbol of a language reinforced when the first Afrikaner Bible was produced in 1933.
Afrikaans soon became the language of the labour bureaus, the police, and the prisons and authority.
It became apartheid’s symbol of black oppression.
In 1976, 15 000 students began an uprising in revolt of the Afrikaner language which left 172 teenagers dead after being shot by police.
The revolt touched almost every city and village in South Africa that year, reaching far beyond the language issue into a cultural war.
Strikes closed businesses and industry, and in Soweto, the government-instituted Bantu Council was forced to resign.
That is the power of language whose symbolic meaning of words can be so powerful that people are willing to risk their lives for them or take the lives of others. 
Language is what makes us human.
The diversity of our languages represents the richness of our expressiveness, each individual.
This is how language, culture and identity intersect.
Today Zimbabweans are renowned for being able to mimic the British language to perfection.
We mock those Africans with a strong accent affiliated to their languages.
Other worldly tribes will speak in broken foreign languages and will not apologise.
We stutter and stammer through our own language without shame.
We can hardly count in our mother tongues.
This is an echo of our own struggle, where are our languages as we laugh at the likes of Cde Joseph Chinotimba?
The inability to converse in the mother tongue becomes a symbol of privilege and class.
We take our children to the elite schools that teach our children to cower in shame when they speak their own languages.
The mother who is not fluent in English struggles to communicate with her child with whom she wants to enforce the international language.
In our snobbery, nyika irikuenda!
We fail to make the connection between the coloniser and his language.
We write the struggle of our colonial past with the pen of the oppressor.
In the words of Ngugi, the bullet was the means of the physical subjugation while language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.
We chant, write about Hunhu/Ubuntu and Pan-Africanism and yet in our subconscious we have accepted ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature,’ in our culture and in our politics.
The loss of language is a loss of that link to the past.
Language deepens cultural and historical meaning.
Language is more than mere communication.
It is the centre of identity, a heritage, a cultural institution; Ndiyo nyika yacho, ndihwo hunhu hwacho.
Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose and path.
One must know where one came from to know where one is going.
The loss of language undermines a people’s sense of identity and belonging.
We are making the Englishman’s task easier as we fight among ourselves fighting to speak like him.
And yet the Englishman is content with his own language.
When are we ever going to learn as a people that our language defines who we are?


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