[lg policy] Of widow’s might and the law taking its place!

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jan 29 10:19:42 EST 2018

 Of widow’s might and the law taking its place!
By *Kole Omotoso*
28 January 2018   |   3:40 am
widow’s might and the law taking its place!>

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The state and condition of use of English in English speaking Africa has
become problematic. Language as the instrument of thought needs to be
clear, simple, plain and consistent. That African thoughts in the English
speaking parts of the continent have become unclear, difficult, obtuse and
inconsistent has to do with the use of English. So, should the local
African languages jump in and save African thoughts for Africa?

Unfortunately, the African languages are not there to save the day. Given
the African unconscious language policy of learning one language and
forgetting the previous one African languages have been lost by their
previous speakers. This situation has led to the those who speak English do
not speak any African language while those who speak African languages do
not speak English. There is therefore a state of a language-less vacuum.
Those who know should tell us if this is the same thing in French speaking,
Portuguese speaking and Swahili speaking rest of Africa.

English use in Nigeria is in a mess, and at a time when many English
graduates specialise in English grammar, English and linguistics and the
technical aspects of the English language. It would seem that the better
we’ve got at the technical aspect of English, the worse we’ve become in the
use of the machine called English language. Of course we know now that the
shift to linguistics and the mechanics of English is a dodge to avoid
reading anything in English!

The first Department of English was set up in 1948 at the University
College Ibadan. That programme as it was emphasised the massive consumption
of English Literature. First year was devoted to the English Novel, Poetry
and Dramatic writing. Second year was devoted to Shakespeare and the third
year was devoted to Literary Criticism. This diet produced some of the best
writers in Nigeria, which is to be expected. But it also produced an
average user of English who was competent and clear in the use of English.
It was the age of pen-friends and letter writing. There were even
professional letter writers such as Royanson in T.M. Aluko’s One Man, One

The shock to the English Departments across the continent started in East
Africa when Ngugi and others insisted that Africa must read its own
writing. That movement gave rise to English Literatures, multiple
Literatures across the board.

English in England Literature took a back stage and fewer and fewer
speakers and writers of English quoted from the source. Fewer and fewer
readers bothered about English Literature from England. No longer were
speakers and writers of English familiar with

“And still they gazed and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew!”
This is not to say that the new did not delight.
“God Almighty bless my soul
How many chicken did I stole?
Ten last night
Ten the night before
And I’m going out tonight
To steal some more!”

>From here onwards, disaster struck because the empire, as they say in the
lingo, the empire struck back. Bad English is also good for the Revolution.
The result today is unclear, obtuse, difficult and ungrammatical English.

What about the unconscious subtractive African Language learning policy? In
Nigeria kindergarten babies are taught a subject called “Etiquette”. In
English and it includes learning how to eat with knife and fork at age two
and thereabouts. They are not taught “Omoluabi” precepts and concepts but
English etiquette. Some parents are happy. Other parents are not so happy
that their children are not learning to speak Yoruba or whatever other
language available. So, we learn English and subtract our previous
language. In other climes and other places of pride their conscious
language policy is additive, you add a new language to the new one learnt.

The next shock to the English language, at least in Nigeria was the switch
to linguistics and the mechanics of the English language. Suddenly, it was
discovered that you did not have to read those fat novels and thread
through those lines of poetry or care much about waiting or not waiting for
godot to get degrees of masters and doctorates. Everybody and their uncle
moved to linguistics and some aspects of language mechanics.

There were consequences. Literature was ignored and finally left out of
English departments. There was a reported argument where a final year
English student at one of our public universities spoke about Things Fall
Apart by Chinua Achebe being a play. A visiting professor marked this as
wrong and penalised the student. The most senior members of the department
rose in defence of the student saying that it was not a serious mistake,
just a small oversight which can be overlooked! The visiting professor
insisted that it would be a tragic day for English in Nigeria when a
graduate of English cannot distinguish between a novel and a play. The
department would have none of that and stood by the student and
cancellation of the penalty against him.

As if the legal profession knew what was happening in the country, that is,
that teachers were no longer reading literary texts and so students were no
longer reading naively, plays and poems, insisted that prospective law
students must score credit in English Literature to study Law at the
university. After all you need to read tomes in the profession of law and
if you have not learnt to do so through reading literature how else would
you learn it?

English programmes need to be re-designed in Nigerian universities to
recapture the reading of English Literatures, the reading of novels, plays
and poems. Such re-designing must now include English and its various
grammars and phonetics, English Literatures that would include African
Literatures, United States of America Literatures, Asian Literatures,
Caribbean Literatures, Latin American Literatures. All these can further
divide into different countries Literatures in English and in English
translations. In addition, Creative writing needs to be added as part and
parcel of the English department, not as some esoteric aspect cocooned in a
separate enclave. Under this creative writing would be different types of
creative uses of the English language consequent on reading English
literature that would teach that it is the widow’s mite and that the law
must take its course!


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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