Reflections on Language

Damon Young, editor in chief over at VSB, has curated a list of things Bougie Black People (BBPs) love. Among the litany are unnecessary hashtags, Solange and full beards and Jesse Williams. (I think it’s fair to say that ALL Black people love Jesse, bougie and otherwise.)

If there were a published list of things loved by progressive (read: dadabee) Ghanaian women, Nana Ama Agyemang’s podcast ‘Unfiltered’ would certainly be chief among them. It will be a while before the industry catches up and begins to reward this canon of work with awards and recognition, so let me be one of the first to say that ‘Unfiltered’ is award-winning, way before it has won any awards. The show is consistently well produced, is delivered on time and features some of the brightest female minds in Ghana today. Oh, and my cousin Poetra Asantewa is the voice behind No Panties, the podcast’s musical score.

Nana Ama closes each episode of Unfiltered with a question for her co-hosts for the day.

“What have you been reflecting on?” she asks.

The responses have been humorous and sobering, with women confessing to reflecting on anything from grief to Ghana’s wrecked economy/individual buying power measured in procured balls of kenkey. I often ask myself what my response would be if I ever had the opportunity to appear on the show. I generally come up blank, since I spend most of my days mulling over the backlog of writing I have yet to attack or ways to keep my kids away from the TV and focused on their books. None of this is particularly interesting to anyone but me and the people who take school fees from us. However this week, I found myself in a discussion that has refused to release me from its grip. It was about language, and I’ve found myself reflecting on it deeply.

A friend of mine was looking for a name for a new venture she’s undertaking. She wanted a Twi word for something avant garde, svelte, funky…You know? I told her that I was not the person from whom to seek advice, since my Twi is dismal and getting worse by the year. I can barely ask for water, let alone conjure up an adjective that would excite the imagination. She assured me that I could not be that far gone, and I assured her that I most certainly could.

“In fact, I think that you will find that many Twi speakers are unable to convey their thoughts in pure, poetic Twi. We speak so much Twi-glish in Ghana these days that we’ve almost ‘un-interpreted’ our language for ourselves. Our language is so diluted now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same could be said for Ga, Fante and the dozens of other languages spoken throughout the country.”

For instance, I told her about a Twitter friend of mine whose Akuapem name translates as “a glow”. When she wrote about her name – her early disdain for it and eventual struggle to embrace it – I connected with that. As Ghanaians, we’re all indoctrinated to understand that our Ghanaian names have meaning…however Western/Anglo names give you access, a certain privilege that meaning can’t. I believe the same can be said for language.

Anyone who’s spent anytime in an academic environment will tell you how speaking English, and the more fluently the better, provides a certain distinction among your peers. Perhaps you may be called upon to read in front of the class more often, perhaps you’ll be given a seat in government and eventually become president because you communicate well; in English. The same deference is not afforded to the pupil or professional who has mastered a local language – any local language – to the same degree. Indeed, there are some who have written entire theses about the impossibility of expressing oneself completely in a Ghanaian language, because they do not provide the “breadth and depth of thought” in order to do so. And yet a word for ‘glow’ exists. Someone had to be looking up at and studying the properties of the moon in order to create a word for the halo around it. Naturally, other words would be created to describe the modern societies we lived in, prior to the invasion of the European.

What are the Twi words for luminescent, philosopher, glabrous or entrepreneur? Is ‘kpakpakpa’ now the official vernacular for entrepreneurship, or will the original word (which I’m certain existed) be lost forever? Do we even care?

Former palace of the Asantehene before it was ransacked and burnt by the British in 1874
Former palace of the Asantehene before it was ransacked and burnt by the British in 1874

Long before English infiltrated our linguistics, we had architects, blacksmiths, mathematicians and apothecaries. Much of the knowledge about to build, maintain and advance our society has been lost, along with the language to define it. Perhaps this is why Ghana finds itself constantly in a position to beg for development loans and favors from other nations who’ve done a better job at preserving their traditions, like the Indians and the Chinese. We’ve lost the ability to define ourselves, which is why a statue of Ghandi is sitting up at on a university campus and not one of the many heroes who resisted colonial oppression and subjugation, Yaa Asantewaa aside.

Image credit: mg.co.za
Image credit: mg.co.za

I understand that language changes with time and events. The English spoken in the 15th century is not the same language spoken today. It is only natural that African languages would follow the same trend. But since we’ve failed to preserve the old, I do worry that we are not creating new words to express ourselves fully and uniquely in this modern age. We are increasingly becoming reliant on English to define our thoughts, to our own detriment. We give more honor foreign languages with our mouths and minds, and there is no denying. Who will honor ours?

That’s what I’ve been reflecting on. What has captivated your thoughts and imagination recently?

 

*You can listen to Unfiltered on Soundcloud every week when you click HERE.