Sat, 27 Oct 2007 Feature Article

How To Avoid Losing Our Mother Tongue

How To Avoid Losing Our Mother Tongue

A Ghana@50 Lecture 5.30 pm Tuesday 30 October British Council

Every year scores and scores of indigenous languages disapppear worldwide. I am less concerned about "worldwide" than I am about Ghana. It is said that there are some 72 different languages in Ghana. I suspect the true figure is higher than that. For Ghana at least, I prefer use of the term "Mother Tongue" to "dialect" or "vernacular", or even "language" because these terms are likely to omit important "languages" that have not been written in books like "the others". I say "important" because what is spoken in your African village or town where your mother was born, and where you yourself were brought up is very important. I call it Mother Tongue even when it may not be one of those officially recognised and written in textbooks.

For instance, I have observed the word "Akan" to be used indiscriminately to stand for 'Twi' or even 'Fante' yet I, a non-Akan, am quite capable of discerning differences (acoustically) between Berekum Twi, Asante Twi, Kwahu Twi, Tafo Twi, and what I have come to call 'Akrofi Twi' that is spoken around Akropong in the Akuapem region. Insisting that Twi be written one particular way can submerge one's mother tongue into a conventionalism that preserves the features of one language while hiding those of the similar language spoken in an adjacent tribe.

Nobody is to blame for the choice of one language to represent that of a whole group of similar languages when it comes, for instance, to translating the Bible from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or English. While logistics dictate the use of a representative language for literature translation, this can lead to the loss of written mother tongue, a situation I consider very serious.

Tonal Linguistics

Tools of conventional linguistics have hitherto been used for translating literature into African languages the vast majority of which are tonal. As a Ghanaian, my own unique definition of a tonal language is one whose vowel can impart at least six (yes 6) different meanings to a consonant. If by attaching the vowel 'a' to the consonat 't' to get the word "ta", then at least six different meanings can be derived from that word. I can easily demonstrate this in the lecture, using not the conventional linguistics tools, but those I have invented to provide such tonal dimensions as to make Krobo/Dangme-Ga words readily identifiable without resort to context. My parents and forefathers were expert at deciphering meaning from written words that had no indication whatever as to how they should pronounced. One glance at a sentence in Ga or Twi and my parents, using the context, would read the sentence aloud fluently with remarkable speed. Spanning three centuries, great strides were made in literature translation right back from the days of mid 19th Century Revs Johannes Zimmermann, J G Christaller, Andreas Riis, J G Widman, through late 19th Century Reverends Richter, Werz, Koelle, Reindorf, and Saba to last Century's Westerman, Wycliffe Bible Translators and later the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT). The fact that Ghanaians of an older generation read fluently in their own language the Bible and words of hymns reflects the magnificent work the translators have done. But why do we, the later generations, find it increasingly difficult to read material translated into out mother tongue. Why, oh why? Answer to this question, and the remedy, is in the forthcoming lecture.

A Ghana@50 Lecture and Guest of Honour

Title is: "Discovery of a Unique Feature of Tonal Linguistics - The Mid Pitch Arrest Phenomenon in Krobo/Dangme-Ga Mother Tongue of South East Ghana". The Lecture is chaired by Dr Letitia Obeng, FGA, President of the Ghana Academy of Arts & Sciences. The Guest of Honour is Nene Sakite II, BA (Economics) MA MBA, Konor of Manya Krobo. Both will be introduced by Professor Jonathan N Ayertey FGA of the University of Ghana. After the lecture, there will be a brief comment by Mrs Edna Soyannwo (nee Konotey-Ahulu) after which Nene Sakite II will make an announcement. Vote of thanks will be given by my brother-in-law Professor J S Djangmah, Chairman of the West African Examination Council.

Dr Felix I D Konotey-Ahulu is Dr Kwegyir Aggrey Disitinguished Professor of Human Genetics in the University of Cape Coast, and a Consultant Physician Genetic Counsellor (Haemoglobinopathy) in London.

[See or go to GOOGLE and type in 'Mid Pitch Arrest']