One day, perhaps on a bleak morning, a man will pluck out his dead tongue and throw it into the garbage bin. I have been watching this man for a long time, for ages, from my glazed window, in street corners; I have been watching this man killing his tongue slowly, in that cold dispassionate manner of a serial killer, and I know that one day, finally, he will pluck the now useless tongue and throw it away.
So you would begin to wonder what this tongue is; what its importance is in the scheme of things. This tongue is our means of making speech, our means of getting back to our primordial origins, our link to our individual differences. We, every one of us, are killing our tongue. We are smothering it with the smoke of our pretensions. We have squashed it into an imaginary—though inadvertent—electric seat and we are bringing the instruments of torture and abandonment to bear upon it and, soon, it will be dead.
Our tongue is our mother, the tongue that begat us. The tongue of our land, our beloved Igbo land, our mother tongue and, brothers and sisters, we are killing it slowly. It has been a long process, this dying tongue; a long perilous journey that saw it ail and depreciate, like the slow, excruciating death of one with consumption. It is lying in coma now. But before all these, it was vibrant; it was the epitome of beauty. Our speech, our life.
When I started school and learnt to read I became fascinated with the Igbo language. It was a language beautified by the daily poetry we make through igo ofo and the proverbs with which we sweeten our talk, the very oil with which we eat words. I learnt to read and started reading Igbo. I started with what is called the Beginners’ Igbo, Mbido Igbo. But I soon graduated to reading Igbo novels, starting with Pita Nwanas Omenuko, that classic of Igbo literature, the first ever Igbo novel, written in 1933. I advanced into seeking out Igbo novels on my own, pushed and goaded by a visceral hunger that was insatiable, and I discovered what I regard as the greatest Igbo novel: Okpa Aku Eri Eri by Uche Odilora. That was in JSS2, when I was fourteen. I read Tony Ubesie, who wrote many great novels, Chinedum Ofomata, Tagbo Nzeako, Pita Nwana, F.C. Ogbalu, Nwaka and the others. E.N. Achara was particularly good with romances like Ala Bingo and mythopoeic stories of ancient tradition and journeys of self-discovery in such novels as Dinta. There were even novels that appear gothic and incredibly terrifying such as Ekwutosi. Time passed; and I was seduced by Igbo literature; I embraced it; I loved it with the passion of a lover.
Chinedum Ofomata—in spite of my partiality for Odiloras Okpa Aku Eri Eri, that lovely tale of a miserly teacher—is whom I regard perhaps, certainly arguably, considering Ubesies formidable presence within the canon, as the greatest Igbo novelist. His Onwu Egbughi Onye Uwa, which, back in 2011, is unfortunately the last Igbo novel I read, confirms this notion. At over 420 pages, it is a monumental achievement even for an Igbo novelist. And so I have always dreamt—and still dream—of translating it into English together with Okpa Aku Eri Eri.
But now few people can speak Igbo, and even fewer people can read and write this beautiful language. It is like a solitary candle burning in the middle of a cold, dark, impersonal room, shedding its wax, its linguistic power, minute by minute, day by day, like translucent drops of teary diamonds, like dry trees in a furious spell of harmattan. And, having watched it these past years, I know, I know, it is dying.
Many things have caused the gradual death of our tongue. So many families, living in the cities, prefer to speak only English language to their children and sadly they grow up with only one language. Elite families have long been known to detest native languages, which they pejoratively call ‘vernacular’, and would rather train their children to speak European languages. This country’s pseudo-middle class, whose warped opinion about the superiority of a language does not take into consideration, or rather, is blatantly ignorant of, the linguistic notion that no language is greater than the other, have followed the deplorable trajectory of training children to speak only English. In most instances, children of such misguided pseudo-middle class upbringing fail to articulate their English properly, speaking an atrocious version of an English that is neither pidgin nor good English. This is surprising, one must admit, considering that that is the only language they know. The middle class private school I attended for my primary education had some obnoxious ideas about language that I now find ridiculous. The teacher would tell the class monitor to write down the names of anyone who spoke Igbo. The offender was supposed to pay a fine of ten naira or subject his buttocks to a sound thrashing from the teacher’s ever-ready cane. This is sad. People who are supposed to guide children to better understand their language, their tongue, are the ones smothering it. They may think it is a mark of elitism, a sort of badge of honour, which makes you belong. They have forgotten that we, as a people, as Africans, are polyglots and linguists by default. And, by so doing, they have shot our tongue in strategic places and now it is dying.
So now you find that many people of my generation and many before us do not know the beauty of our language nor understand its importance. They manage to speak English and pidgin, and their linguistic flair ends there. But it is not by chance that Achebe retained the rhythms of Igbo speech in his work nor is it by any fantastical instance of serendipity or mere happenstance that Adichie infuses certain Igbo expressions in her own works. There is just so much you could say in English, there are certain feelings, emotions, terms, words, or phrasal meanings peculiar to our culture that you couldn’t pass across properly in English, if you really want to.
I am not Ngugi, Obi Wali, Chinweizu, and the rest who wanted a linguistic decolonisation of Africa. I disagree, on principle, with this position. And I concede that English has its undeniable merits or I would not be using it in this essay. I value the language and its nuances. But is that enough reason to leave our beloved mother in the cold? The socio-cultural construct that defines contemporary society and the milieu in which we live does not just demand a mastery of one language only. The native and colonial tongues should complement each other.
And so my generation has degenerated into this sea of linguistic estrangement from their ancestral home. And anyone who—as you have seen—loses his tongue loses his identity.
I grew up in a home with a father who loved English words, their ability to bend to new formations and meaning, the pliant, flexible opportunity they give for the advancement of language; but he was sane enough to also underline the importance of Igbo in the life of his growing children. Now I have grown up long enough to know that a careless man will one day abandon—throw away—his linguistic mother, his tongue.
About the author
Chimezie Chika’s works has been published in the Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, Aerodrome, among others. In 2013 he was a finalist for the Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition. In 2015 he participated in the Writivism Writing Workshop. He currently divides his time between Onitsha and Owerri, Nigeria. He holds a degree in Literature.