Feature Article of Thursday, 7 June 2012
Columnist: Baidoo, Philip Kobina
A couple of weeks ago I read a piece at this website entitled: ‘Is Twi Developed Enough to Become a National Language?’ The writer got me riveted by the title, besides the historical slant. However, he managed to consume his cake, yet contrived to keep it, and concluded categorically that Twi is not ready to become the national language. Though, I agree with his sentiments without reservation, on the other hand, it is his line of argument, which seems to be the Achilles’ heel that will prevent Twi from becoming the national language in the future. He was very much convinced that the beautiful Twi language is being destroyed by the infiltration of our colonial language.
Now, to say that a language is beautiful is basically a misnomer, because there is nothing beautiful about any language. Every language, according to the uninformed, is beautiful to all those who speak it. When you don’t understand any language it sounds like a ding when spoken. Anybody who does not speak the Akan language is called ‘?potoni’: literally meaning someone who speaks a mashed or formless language. The word barbarian was coined by the Romans to describe people who do not speak Latin i.e. they make ‘baah baah’ sound like a goat. I quite remember when I was a boy we used to make a lot of fun about the Chinese language. One of the jokes was that Chinese parents name their children after the sound generated by dropping a metal on the ground. Clearly, I believed with my friends then, that Chinese names were formed from unintelligible sounds. But for the people who speak Mandarin it is the most beautiful language in the world. The Arabs, for instance, think that the language of God is Arabic, and for that matter the Koran should be read in its original text – Arabic. If they don’t believe that the Arabic language is divine and beautiful they wouldn’t be that presumptuous. Nevertheless, I have some few friends who speak Arabic and it is as unintelligible to my ears like I used to describe the Chinese language when I was a child. The English are startlingly arrogant about speaking other people’s language. Because they believe English is the ultimate language in the world. The French get irate because English is the international language of choice for communication especially in aviation. The fact is everybody thinks that their language is the best, and with a little bit of analysis it’s obvious that the assertion is a no brainer and absolute tosh.
The purpose of a language is to communicate and once you are able to get your message across the job of a language is done. The word beauty he chose to wax lyrical about the Twi language should be replaced by rich. What is beautiful about a language that cannot describe or express certain concepts? A language can best be described as rich when its store of vocabulary is versatile and fluid enough to describe all human, terrestrial and cosmic phenomena with reasonable accuracy. Written language, besides phonetics, helps to standardise the spoken language. And once a language is written, in addition to a documented diction it does not lose it’s vocabulary as he claimed. For example, the Hebrew language almost died out completely, but because it was written with respectable cache of literature it was revived, and in 1948 became the national language of the modern state of Israel after being out of use for over a millennium, except evolving into dialects like Yiddish.
One of his main bones of contention in the piece was that our colonial masters mispronounced and misspelled our towns like Nkawkaw and many more. What he failed to acknowledge is that before the advent of our colonial masters the Twi was not written, and for that reason alone there was bound to be an undue influence from the providers of the alphabets. Even that aside, what he’s got to realise is that every unwritten language, in addition to written ones, evolve with time. When a language is written and it becomes standardised it doesn’t lose some of its consonants that are bit awkward to pronounce. Most human words develop out of phrases and they get truncated with time. You don’t want to spend the whole day pronouncing a town like Nkonkoawu instead of Nkawkaw as he alleged the latter’s original nake to be. That is why we have etymology in the study of languages to know the history behind words, names and towns. The English themselves had similar evolution in the development of their towns. For example, London Borough of Lewisham didn’t start as it is; it evolved into Lewisham from Levesham meaning the house among the meadows. I will cite another example – Amsterdam. The city is derived from the name of River Amstel. The river’s name is derived from Aeme stelle, Old Dutch for "area abounding with water". So the name of the city becomes Amstelredamme: a dam in the river Amstel. With time the city’s name evolves and becomes the Amsterdam as we know it today.
Similar progression takes place in the development of every language, for instance the crystallisation of proverbs. Most of the English proverbs we know today did not take their current rendition overnight. They existed in various versions before they were given their current enduring forms when they appeared in prints centuries in the past. What he was moaning about the corruption of Twi proverbs is nothing new; it is as old and perpetual as when man developed language to communicate.
The idea that Twi should be the national language is currently a non-starter because of the fear of Akan hegemony by other tribes, and perhaps, cannot be considered for a generation or two. For Twi to become the national language it will have to absorb a lot of vocabulary from the local dialects and according to Mr Stephen Atta Owusu it will destroy the beauty of the Twi language. National language means the medium of instruction in our schools and colleges. And for it to be worthwhile, it will need a rich store of world class literature, which the Twi doesn’t have currently – meaning a massive translation of foreign literature. According to Haralambos and Lambert in their voluminous pages of Themes and Perspective alleged that the limit of your language is the limit of your world. If the Twi language cannot describe certain concepts effectively like the language of modern computers, modern medicine etc.; it will be fool hardy to conceive such an idea. The only way we can inch closer to the notion of a national language with Twi is to incorporate a massive amount of foreign vocabulary and technical words. We don’t have to create and translate every word; we have to borrow and transliterate from other rich languages with impeccable vocabulary. The word denouement has got quite substantial substitutes in the English language. Nevertheless, it was added to the English language from French, because the context of its usage cannot be replicated in its entirety.
Most of the English scientific nomenclatures are either Latin or Greek in origin. The English never sat down at a round table to look for its equivalence in English. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the next hundred years the way things are going to play out. Probably by the time the Twi language is ready as a national language it wouldn’t be anything like we know it today.
Once Twi develops to the level of a national language a lot of the local dialects will die out and people don’t have to worry about such natural elimination. Someone complained bitterly about a year and half ago at this website about the dying out of the Ga language. There are very prominent languages that are no longer spoken today, for example Latin and that is part of life.
We cannot feel queasy about the infiltration of English into the Twi language and in the same breathe think about Twi as a national language. Twi needs English as human beings need air to get closer to national language status. The Twi language will have to develop to the level where all the important academic discipline, for example, economics can be taught in Twi. And moreover economic concepts like inflation can be expressed and understood by the ordinary man on the street. The Twi language as it stands right now has no choice it needs a lot of foreign input for it to become the national language the stakeholders want it to be. To translate the word wristwatch will definitely come up as a phrase. How are you going to translate a word like diode? The only possibility is outright borrow and once you begin to borrow the vast store of scientific nomenclature the Twi language will transform and sound beyond recognition. And should we time travel people 100 years into the future they will rush to the nearest newsstand to look for a Twi phrasebook. Mr Stephen Atta Owusu, the English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is not anything like what we speak and write today, and Mr Chaucer will need a phrasebook if he should appear now.
Philip Kobina Baidoo Jnr.