Linguistic Exclusion: War on Words

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A couple of months ago, I found myself smack bang in the middle of a debate on the injustices of colonialism and its persistent legacy and the impact thereof on post colonial Afrikan states and the Afrikans therein with a Caucasian man who identifies himself as “half Italian, half French”. My European counterpart was not only defending colonialism but he was also justifying it and I of course was challenging his assertions that colonialism was possibly one of the best things to have ever happened to Afrika but this debate is not the focus of this post; what happened during the debate is.

As we exchanged words and opinions, and in some instances rather heatedly I must admit, things took a sudden turn for the worst when I made (in hindsight) the mistake of referring to my opponent by the all too common familiar and most times endearing Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele term bhudi which means brother. I now consider this to have been a mistake as I believe I may have been too generous in my use of that South African vernacular familial term of acceptance and inclusion.

I now realise that it may have been overly presumptuous and naïve of me to think that this man who could not have been more than a couple of years older than me; who had spent the last fifteen years of his life in South Africa; was not only familiar with that word but also understood what it meant. It is a very common word after all. Now, had I said mfanami perhaps he’d have had the right to be offended or feel slighted or as he put it “insulted” but I used bhudi which is really a term of endearment, camaraderie and respect.

Nevertheless, despite the ugliness that ensued, I did manage to take away something from that experience and that is, his outburst spoke to an issue greater than our individual egos, opinions, perceptions and biases and spoke to the greater racial inequality and idea of white supremacy that still exists in the world today and more specifically in Southern Africa.

I, a brown Afrikan woman, had dared to deviate from the prescribed and accepted norms and standards of acceptable communication, even if for only a moment, and in doing so, I had offended my peer so much so that he felt deeply affronted as he did not appreciate this deviation that forced him to leave his comfort zone and site of privilege that is English and venture into mine that is a Nguni language. This event presented for him an improbable upset of the power dynamic that according to patriarchy and white supremacy, positions him above me and forced my fellow interlocutor to wade in waters that made him the one who was vulnerable – even though, if we’re to be honest, given the current structure of systemic male and white dominance, such a dynamic would be a mere illusion or superficial at best, however many brown vernacular words I may have thrown at him in that moment.

I have been lauded by white people and brown people alike for being “well spoken and articulate” in both my written and spoken English on innumerable occasions so my use of vernacular in that moment had nothing to do with an inability to convey my opinion logically and eloquently but let’s just say for a moment that had been the case, would I have been allowed to state my position in the language most comfortable to me and still be taken seriously? Of course not.

It is 2014 and people of colour still have to bend over backwards to accommodate whiteness as whiteness is the presumed and imposed transcendental norm or default setting for communication. It’s the determinant of any kind of “civilised and intellectual” interaction and our entire existence as a species.

It’s been my experience in South Africa that Afrikaans speaking South Africans who speak only speak two of the eleven official languages i.e. English and Afrikaans often ask why I have not learnt Afrikaans in the years I have been in the country, never mind the fact that I speak isiZulu, isiNdebele and I know basic isiXhosa in addition to English. Basically, I am conversant in four official South African languages as opposed to just the two. It does not make sense to them why I would prioritise any of the indigenous languages over the second imperial language of my host country because apparently it is not enough to be dexterous in multiple languages if that dexterity is in languages that are not situated in imperialist linguistic whiteness.

This is not exclusive to South Africa though but extends to other countries in the world, including the US. In 2008, Afrikan American philosopher, George Yancy found himself in a position where he was expected to defend/justify his use of Afrikan American Vernacular English (AAVE) a.k.a Ebonics in the book The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy at a conference convened by the American Philosophical Association to a white fellow philosopher. In an interview with C.S. Soong he recounts this experience and rightly attributes his colleague’s audacity to confront him for writing his chapter in the book in AAVE to the fact that the man thought that Yancy was “using an ersatz language, a child-like language, an inferior language, and that that language was incapable of communicating brilliant and profound philosophical ideas”.

The world has for a long time considered Ebonics to be ‘slang,’ ‘mutant,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘defective,’ ‘ungrammatical,’ or ‘broken English’ and such characterizations are not only incorrect but they are also very demeaning to say the least. Afrikan American actor and producer Bill Cosby is also guilty of completely dismissing brown vernaculars as illegitimate languages. A meme has made the cyber global rounds over the last several years which contains words he allegedly espoused during his speech in 2004 at a public event, championing respectability politics that are amongst other things, centred on language. This meme condemns the perpetual use of Ebonics in brown communities and justifies the continued oppression and marginalisation of people of colour in the US because of their refusal to do away with their “primitiveness” which, according to Cosby, lies, in part, in their vernacular. Of course, some have come out to say that Cosby did not actually say the things in that meme but the fact remains that someone did say it and what’s worse is a lot of people endorsed it, including brown people.

My greatest concern around linguistic exclusion, does not emerge from a place of how white people view and value us brown people and our linguistic identities but it instead emerges from a place of how we view and value ourselves in this seemingly never shifting paradigm. As brown people, we ourselves have generally become the guardians of linguistic whiteness, persecuting each other for “defiling” the master (pun intended) piece that is the European language system, British/American Standard English to be precise. We justify its dominance and attack any attempts to elevate our own languages or variations of the colonial languages imposed on us that exist on the continuum we have today – with Standard English as the acrolect and varieties closest to the original creole/pidgin as the basilect.

We also tend to laugh and shame each other for the different and diverse ways in which we express ourselves in Standard English as well as in our various forms of local Englishes. I cannot count the number of times I have heard South African radio personalities like T-bo Touch for instance repeatedly mock Nigerian Pidgin English, obviously without appreciating it for the powerful weapon of resistance that it and other pidgins and vernaculars have been in the past and can still be today. Nigerian musician and revolutionary, Fela Kuti understood this and this was evident when he declared to journalists in an interview “You cannot sing African music in proper English. Broken English has been completely broken into the African way of talking, our rhythm, our intonation.

Pidgin English is, much like AAVE, often referred to as “Brokin” English which suggests  that it’s “incorrect”, “impure” or “debased” however, many people, myself included, feel that the “Afrikanization” of language and by extension, communication, must not only be considered valid/ legitimate but also equal. Pro Ghanaian English linguistic scholars in Ghana advocate for such a recognition in their country as necessary and claim that the recognition of a variation of English would reflect the cultural distinctiveness of Ghana and I am inclined to agree with them. Besides, the language imposed on us cannot remain immune to resistance forever surely? As the late Chinua Achebe so eloquently put it “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use”.

In my opinion, a true recognition of brown vernaculars and Englishes will greatly aid the empowerment of our people as it will challenge the subtle politics of exclusion of Afrikans. Too often, we are undermined or dismissed because we cannot express ourselves fluently or effectively in the imposed British/American Standard English simply because our languages are not considered worthy or equal. Perhaps, it is because of that dismissal of our vernaculars and Englishes that some of us unapologetically choose to leave the site of white privilege that is English from time to time and resort to our Mother Tonguewhile at the same time refusing to be excluded, ignored or dismissed any longer because of it.

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