Ghanaian languages must be promoted now

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Apr 28 13:32:58 UTC 2007

Promotion of Ghanian languages must be prioritised now
Ayuure Kapini Atafori , 21/04/2007

Surprising it may not be for many to know that language is the soul of
every culture of a people. Since time immemorial, archaeologists,
anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and, especially
linguists, have established the natural centrality of language in culture.

 Edward Burnett Tylor and other anthropologists accept that language is
inseparable from culture. In fact, it is an essential part of culture.
Language, like culture, is diverse, cumulative and dynamic. Based on the
affinity between language and culture, an 18th century German philosopher,
L W Herder, held the view that people use language as the key to find what
makes culture what it is.

Though Herder's opinion may be a bit exaggerative, it is quite impossible
to conceive of the origin or development of a culture apart from language;
for it is that part of culture which enables human beings to make their
own experiences and learning continuous as well as to participate
vicariously in the experiences and practices of other persons. According
to the American linguist Edward Sapir, language is a guide to social

Sapir assumes that human beings do not live in the objective world alone,
nor in the world of social activity because they are very much at the
mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression
for their society. A language is a cultural system which more or less
faithfully reflects the structuring of reality which is peculiar to the
group that speaks it. Thus, linguistic systems inter-penetrate all other
systems within a culture.

Language is the principal source of the emergence and perpetuation of
culture. It is a vital source of people"s collective culture: their past
present and future experiences and identity. People who, therefore, speak
the same language are more likely to share common beliefs, values and
interests than those who do not share a language. It is an empirical
reality that people express sympathetic sentiments towards others who
speak the same language.

Language is also an essential source of a peoples collective
consciousness, since there are certain experiences which may be only
comprehensible to people who speak the same language. Linguists find a
close and dynamic relationship between language and thought. For, it is in
language that custom, tradition, ethics, poetry, history, religion and
rituals are incarnated.

The universality of language makes it unique to some elements of culture.
A language universal is property shared by all languages in the world.
Some of the generalisations are that every human community has a language;
every spoken language has vocal-auditory channel; and every human language
is learnable.

Languages in Ghana

No matter the volume and intensity of the arguments about the relationship
between culture and language, and linguistic universality, it is
significant that Ghanaian languages have played, and continue to play, an
important role in the daily live of the people.

Ghanaian languages can be defined as languages that are indigenous to
Ghana. Though the number is not exact, about 70 ethnic groups exist in
Ghana. These groups are compressed into four major language groups: Akan,
Mole-Dagbani, Ewe and Guan. Despite English being the official language of
the country and being spoken by a majority of the population, it is not,
like Hausa, and French, a Ghanaian language.

Florence Dolphyne, a Professor and former head of the Linguistics
Department of University of Ghana, is sure that there a difficulty in
ascertaining the exact number of indigenous languages in Ghana. This, she
says, creates a linguistic problem in the country.

In a 1979 paper, "Linguistics and Its relevance to Ghana", Prof Dolphyne
surmises that there are 42 local languages in the country. Kingsley
Andoh-Kumi, former head of the Department of Ghanaian Languages at the
University of Cape Coast, quotes N Denny (1963) as having estimated that
between 47 and 62 languages are identifiable in Ghana. Edward Hall
itemises 44 indigenous languages while Kropp Dakubu identifies between 45
and 50 languages.

Andoh-Kumi concurs with Dolphyne on the difficulty of defining and
counting local languages, and puts it: "The identification of language
communities and the determination of the number of speakers of the various
languages can be problematic. The problem is complicated by the fact that
some of the languages have several names, and the names are sometimes
confusing. Another problem is attitude".

Making reference to Dolphyne, he explicates that speakers of minority
languages or dialects may want to identify themselves with some larger or
more prestigious groups, while others may consider their languages
superior and therefore may be unwilling to associate with minority ones.

Ghanaian languages, like living organisms, have families. They belong to
the two main sub-groups of the larger Niger-Congo language family, namely
the Gur and Kwa. The languages of northern Ghana, except Gonja, come from
the Gur or "voltaic" family while those spoken in mainly in the forest
South originate from the Kwa family.

The Gur languages include Bimoba, Buli, Dagaare, Dagbani, Kasem, Gurene,
Mampruni, Mo, Nankane, Sissala and Vagla. The Kwa group of languages are
Akan (Akuapem, Twi, Fante, etc.) Ahanta, Aowin, Dangbe, Ewe, Ga, Guan
(Gonja, Efutu, Krach, Larteh, Nkonya, etc.) and Nzema, among others.
Dolphyne notes that another problem with the study of Ghanaian languages
has to do with whether to identify what a linguistic community speaks is a
distinct language or only a dialect of a larger language.

She explains: "This problem is due to several factors, one of which is the
fact that very often while different dialects of a language have their
individual names, the language itself may not have a name."

Thus, the language whose dialects are Akuapem, Asante (Twi), Fante and
Agona did not have a name until in the late 1950s when Akan was adopted as
the generic name for these dialects. On the opposite side of the coin,
dialects of the language group have been referred to as the language. For
instance, groups of people say they speak Guang instead of Efutu, Gonja or
Larteh as if Guang is a single language.

National language policy

Realising the importance of local languages, past governments selected ten
languages out of the lot for use at all levels of education, and for media
use. These are Akan, Dagaare, Dagbani, Dangbe, Ewe, Ga, Gurune, Kasem and
Nzema. In the past and at present, limited materials like story books,
text-books, newspapers and radio and TV programmes have been developed in
these languages for educational purposes and for mass communication.

Ghanaian languages are used extensively for various purposes. Much as they
are used for functions such as entertainment, education, trading and
business, and for the mass media and religion, they serve as a vehicle of
written and oral communication; are used to propagate knowledge and
experience; and are used to interpret and transmit culture. The local
languages are also employed to foster inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic
co-operation, solidarity and unity, while other groups use them for
self-expression and for persuading others, ceremonial, ritual; and phatic
communication purposes.

In the light of the significance of Ghanaian languages, how do we promote
them? These languages can be promoted through various ways which are not
easy to implement. A major step in that direction is the formulation and
implementation of a sound language policy for the whole country.

The policy must lay emphasis on the important role local languages play in
nation-building and socio-economic development. For example, one language
could be chosen as a second official language. It should also underscore
the importance of the languages by devising a national formal and informal
education policy that positively changes the mentality of the populace
towards native languages.

An effective national language policy must be anchored on the
establishment or upgrading of institutions responsible for the study and
development of indigenous languages. Many of our languages have no
orthography or scripts, and so they remain unwritten and undeveloped.
Institutions such as the Bureau of Ghanaian Languages, Ajumako Institute
of Languages and Local Languages and Linguistics departments at the
universities, and the Institute of African Studies, could be assisted to
harness the potentials of the languages. The Ghana Institute of
Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation has been doing an excellent
job in developing some languages, particularly in the North.

Another means of promoting local languages is the implementation of a
co-ordinated and unified policy on the study of the languages at in our
educational system. This could be done through the use of local languages
as a medium of instruction for the first four years of school. These
languages could also be enriched when they are studied as subjects in the
curriculum at all level of the educational pyramid. They get a booster
when they are printed in text-books, and provided to pupils and students.
The training of teachers to handle the languages will go a long way to
help the promotion of such languages.

The development of accurate and widely accepted orthographies for local
languages will immensely promote their growth, use and popularity. Due to
our strong pristine oral tradition, our languages were not in written form
until the European Christian missionaries came to develop scripts for them
for religious purposes. Currently, the promotion of the languages is
hampered by controversies over orthography. Hence, the need for consensus
on what the standard orthography and pronunciation is so that proficiency
in the spelling adopted for a particular language could spread widely.

The application of the languages in the mass media is recommendable for
the promotion of Ghanaian languages. Thus, the production and
dissemination of radio and TV programmes in the languages will be
worthwhile. The production of films, newspapers, magazines, novel and
other books in the languages will assist to promote them. Encouraging the
use of the languages in the performing arts is useful for promoting them.

Other ways of promotion of the languages include the use of language
museums, libraries and archives, and exhibition of popular linguistic
characteristics as well as local language competitions.

Today, Ghanaian languages are of practical importance and pertinence to
the people due to the dominance of a foreign language, English, which has
been superimposed on the then colonized people of the Gold Coast. To let
these languages to continue to have modern functionality and relevance,
Government must prioritise their promotion and use.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list