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Opinions of Thursday, 18 February 2010

Columnist: Kuyini, Ahmed Bawa

Let Us Save the Ga Language

In the latter part of the 1990s I took a trotro from Accra to Medina with my elder brother (Dr. Abdulai Kuyini, now at the Political Science Department, University of Ghana, Legon). While in the mini-bus, my brother made an important observation. He drew my attention to the fact that many of the “Driver-mates” no longer communicated to passengers in Ga; a departure from what used to be. Our discussions of the implications this development led me to become more conscious of this shift from Ga to Twi or Pidgin-English and I wondered what will happen to the Ga language in a few decades.

When I was growing up in Northern Ghana, it was really fashionable to be able to speak Ga - a beautiful and melodic language of coastal Ghana. My brother was better at the language than I was, and whenever I had the chance to visit Accra, I would try my best to pick up a few words. Although I never really managed to speak Ga, it remained a goal for some time and I was very certain that I would someday reach that goal. In the last few years, I have become convinced that there is perhaps no chance for me to achieve the dream because the expansion of Accra has meant that the Ga-speaking enclaves are rapidly being adulterated by other languages. It is therefore more difficult now for one to immerse him/herself in the language in many suburbs.

The Ga language is swamped by other languages and it is only a matter of time before it disappears like many other smaller languages. For example Ahanta is almost vanished. According to UNESCO, about half of the world’s 6,500 living languages would die out by the end of this century. This, UNESCO says is likely because only 11 of the world’s languages are spoken by more than half the earth’s population. Further, 95 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by only five per cent of its population. The implications are clear, in that those languages used by only a few people are in danger.

The NY Times’ report of 18 September 2007 said that “Some endangered languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television”. The areas of imminent language extinctions are: Northern Australia, Central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, Eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and Southwest United States. In Australia, nearly all of the 231 spoken aboriginal tongues are endangered.

On the home front, I have noticed that just in our lifetime some smaller dialects among the Mole-Dagbani groups have been mainstreamed or absorbed by bigger groups. The Akan dialects in Brong-Ahafo and Eastern, Ashanti and Central are getting less distinguishable and it is more likely that Fante as a dialect may not exist in the next 100 years. These are all Akan dialects, but Ga, as part of another subgroup is a unique language.

The ability of a language to survive over time is dependent upon the numbers of people who speak it and the absence of a dominant language group that may swamp it. Hundreds of years ago the Ga people moved from the hinterland closer to the sea. This voluntary distancing of themselves from the Twi hinterland may have saved it for about a 1000+ years. BUT NOW they cannot run any further. The Ga language is on the verge of being swamped completely by other Ghanaian languages- mainly Twi. Perhaps the demise of the Ga language began with their acceptance of European settlement and consequent designation of their capital as the centre of the British Gold Coast. No sooner than this was accepted than did they begin to see ‘alien people’ who did not speak the language, settling among them. All this time, it remained the majority language and so survived. This is now history. The Ga language may be part of the predicted 50% of the world languages which will disappear in the next hundred years. It is important though to note that the imminent disappearance of Ga is only coming a little early. Many other Ghanaian languages will follow. Only Akan will survive any longer than the English language in our country………Even Akan may disappear because Ghanaians pride themselves of their ability to speak the English Language better than the Queen of England. Now tell me who is going to learn Akan or Dagomba in 2090?

Putting aside the long term projections, I believe the issue now is Ga. I am not that pessimistic and reckon all is not bleak. There is still time to do something. What exactly? I am not very sure. But something needs to be done to preserve the Ga language by Government and all those who care about linguistic diversity. Public schools should teach the Language in some form and TV & Radio programs employed to give it more prominence. In this way the next generation of children will provide the language with some hope for the future. The task is huge but not impossible. There are certainly people with better ideas out there. Lets take up the challenge.

Dr. Ahmed Bawa Kuyini (For Cevs-Ghana, Tamale)