Diary of an Accidental Linguist

I was speaking to a fellow linguist early this week and he said- I understand you have many dialects in your country… I interrupted him before he could formulate his question- No, languages- I said. O.. is all he said after that. I caused him to swallow his question before it reached his lips. Questions are important. They bring understanding. That one went like that.

So today FB spits out a memory of something I wrote 6 years ago–

“Western scholars have often labeled African languages mere dialects, sub-languages, clicks of tongues. True story- while doing my Theatre Arts studies years back, for the required foreign language proficiency I picked Swahili. My American professor said that’s not a real language. Nyakalanga strike me dead if I lie.”

His understanding of any African language had been that they were all dialects, undeveloped tongues inferior in composition.

I think that’s the point I became an accidental linguist.

I had to officially put up a case as to why an African language deserved the same space as Arabic, Mandarin, Russian… I did eventually do my foreign language test in Swahili, and the college had to find a Swahili-speaking professor in NY to administer it.

While there are dialects of African languages, there are also many complete languages with distinct linguistic components– syntax, morphology, phonetic, etc. And each is richly coded with indigenous knowledge and “lost” philosophies. If you know any three of them – polyglotism is quite common with Africans – it’s like a European knowing German, English and French. Nobody says that person knows European dialects.

Fun fact: African languages are some of the most ancient. The older a language, the more developed in thought and consciousness especially about humanity. It’s the reason linguists invest so much in saving disappearing language. It’s like saving centuries-old science formula developed by an ancient people who had already figured out intergalactic travel; only that modern people now need to decode that formula.

Decoding African languages is supercool. It is good for humanity. If only we can stop their rapid dilution. No one does the job of language preservation better than storytellers.

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