[lg policy] Zimbabwe: Minority Languages Vital

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 11 14:13:28 UTC 2010

Zimbabwe: Minority Languages Vital
Innocent Maja
10 March 2010


Harare — Zimbabwe is going through a constitution-making process.
There has been little discussion on what minority languages are and
whether or not they should be protected in the envisaged new
constitution. Yet minority languages remain marginalised and language
issues have become one of the causes of conflict in Africa. Before
engaging in any meaningful discussion regarding whether minority
languages should be protected by the new constitution, it is important
to first answer the question "are languages important at all?" A
review of literature in law, politics, sociology, anthropology and
linguistics reveals that language is important in at least six ways:

Firstly, language is a medium of communication, mirrors one's identity
and is an integral part of culture. Ngugi wa Thiongo refers to
language as the soul of culture.

Put differently, a person's language is a vehicle of their particular
culture. Mumpande contends cogently that this is clearly shown in
proverbs and riddles.

The former, for example, has dual meanings: a literal meaning and a
metaphoric or cultural significance. When literally translated into
another language, a proverb frequently loses its meaning and flavour.
He further argues that "a community without a language is like a
person without a soul."

Makoni and Trudell observe that in sub-Saharan Africa, language
functions as one of the most obvious markers of culture. Webb and
Kembo-Sure further note that in Africa, "people are often identified
culturally primarily (and even solely) on the basis of the language
they speak".

Examples include the Tonga, Ndebele and Shona in Zimbabwe and the
Xhosa and Zulu in South Africa. Serpell notes that the Zambian
languages are intimately bound up with many of the society's
traditional practices, and enshrine multiplex and subtle ways the
epistemological foundations of indigenous moral values.

In this sense, linguistic diversity becomes symbolic of cultural
diversity, and the maintenance or revitalisation of language signals
ongoing or renewed validity of the culture associated with that
language. Accordingly, linguistic diversity becomes symbolic of
cultural diversity, and the maintenance or revitalisation of language
signals ongoing or renewed validity of the culture associated with
that language.

Secondly, language is a means of expression and allows a person to
participate in community activities. It can be used as a medium of
fostering a democratic culture.

In this sense, language policy plays a vital role in the process of
democratic transition. According to the African Commission on Human
and Peoples' Rights, language is an integral part of the structure of
culture; it in fact constitutes its pillar and means of expression par
excellence. Its usage enriches the individual and enables him to take
an active part in the community and its activities.

To deprive a man of such participation amounts to depriving him of his identity.

Thirdly, languages are also valuable as collective human
accomplishments and on-going manifestations of human creativity and
originality. This is buttressed by the argument for language
preservation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organisation that the world's languages represent an
extraordinary wealth of human creativity.

They contain and express the total "pool of ideas" nurtured over time
through heritage, local traditions and customs communicated through
local languages.

Fourthly, language can be a source of power, social mobility and
opportunities. Williams and Snipper emphasise that in some quarters,
language is a form of power.

The linguistic situation of a country's society usually reflects its
power structure, as language is an effective instrument of societal
control. According to Makoni and Trudell "it is undeniably true that
communities of speakers of smaller languages tend also to be the less
politically empowered communities".

Many contend that language loss is not only, perhaps not even
primarily, a linguistic issue -- it has much more to do with power,
prejudice, (unequal) competition and, in many cases, overt
discrimination and subordination . . . Language death seldom occurs in
communities of wealth and privilege, but rather to the dispossessed
and disempowered.

This normally leads to situations where majority or minority
communities within African states become vociferous in support of
their own identity and desire to ensure that their language, customs
and traditions are not lost. In this regard, language becomes an
almost inevitable point of contention between communities.

Fifth, linguistic loss is sometimes seen as a symbol of a more general
crisis of biodiversity, especially indigenous languages that are seen
as containing within them a wealth of ecological information that will
be lost as the language is lost.

This ecolinguistic school of thought regards saving endangered
languages as an important part of the larger challenge of preserving
biodiversity. In Keebe's words, "the loss of a language is the
permanent, irrevocable loss of a certain vision of the world,
comparable to the loss of an animal or a plant".

Nettle and Romaine further argue that "losing a language, irrespective
of the number of speakers of that language, deprives humanity of a
part of our universal human heritage insofar as the language embodies
a unique worldview and knowledge of local ecosystems."

The biodiversity analogy has engendered the use of metaphors such as
"language survival and death" and even more emotively, "killer
languages" and "linguistic genocide." Makoni and Trudell contend that
this terminology highlights an ethical judgement that language loss is
morally wrong, regardless of the particular conditions of its social
uses, and that linguistic diversity is inherently good.

Sixth, language has served both as a reason (or pretext) for brutal
conflict, and as a touchstone of tolerance. Language can serve, in all
spheres of social life, to bring people together or to divide them.
Language rights can serve to unite societies, whereas violations of
language rights can trigger and inflame conflict.

Based on the foregoing analysis, it is my contention that minority
languages are important and they should be afforded reasonable
protection of the law both in the new constitution and various
statutes in Zimbabwe. We will build on this argument in subsequent

Innocent Maja is the senior partner of a law firm Maja and Associates
and is also an executive director of the centre for minority rights
and development.


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