Forget Sheng, Kenyan English is the in Thing
About two months ago, former Attorney General Charles Njonjo was in the news chiding the Kikuyu community over their accents and mispronunciation of English words, effectively kicking off debate on language as a possible national identity. He cited the mixing up of their Rs and Ls and urged them to speak more Kiswahili in order to improve proficiency in their oral application of English. Hardly surprising of one many associate with the British aristocracy and who have nicknamed him Sir Charles. But linguist Prof Kimani Njogu is least bothered by Njonjo’s remarks and dismisses them as arrogance by a person he considers as not as learned as he would like the world to believe. “His Kikuyu accent is clearly marked in his English and I don’t think much of him in academic terms,’’ says the professor. Still, the use of English is of concern as it evolves, edging out Kiswahili, as a possible national language.
This wide usage of English in Kenya frustrates foreigners who have an interest in learning Kiswahili and other local languages during their stay in the country. “It is impossible to learn other languages because Kenyans speak English everywhere; at work, home and the social scene,’’ complained a Belgian tourist. However, English itself has evolved into sub dialects formed amongst the different regions where ‘mother tongue’ influences have created regionalised flavours in vocabulary, adjectives and nuances that are only understood among people of same communities or social groups. Mostly, the concoction has to do with alphabetical difficulties suffered by people of most ethnic communities across the social divide.
At a recent ODM party function, Ida Odinga was ecstatic to proclaim the launch of the “divers club” while she in reality meant “Divas club” — a fact that did not elude a TV presenter who went to town with it. The First Lady Lucy Kibaki also has her peculiar play on the language which gets comical. But Njogu is unperturbed by such variations and is instead encouraged by an emerging uniformity finding favour across the board that could form the basis for truly Kenyan type of English language.
He cites use of terms such as “Me, I did not see it’’ where double pronouns are being widely used as emphasis in the emerging variety. There is also a growing menu of vocabulary drawn from conventional English words that have been twisted to give them a new application. Words such as ‘bounce’ and ‘imagine’ are being used in a new expression of Kenya English. So is the crisscrossing between different languages in the course of a conversation that is now fashionable among many Kenyans. The advantage is that unlike sheng, this form of emerging English is widely understood even though the application may bother people from other cultures.
Njogu argues that language defines people and the way we speak can be an important factor in developing the Kenyan ingenuity and identity but has to develop more to evolve uniformity that can bear a national identity. “We should not make any apologies for the way we speak English and should be happy to speak it on our terms as long as we are understood,’’ said Njogu. The challenge is that with almost every community creating its own unique variety, the lack of uniformity complicates the development of a standard variety for all Kenyans. This would require a government decision on the type used for official government business or academic instruction.
Prof Okoth Okombo of Linguistics department at the University of Nairobi argues that often decisions on adaptation of a language variety as the medium of instruction or official use are political — it’s meant to serve the ruling class and this would apply here if the country were to choose one variety as the official medium. “Those in authority want to be able to control language for their own preservation in order to monitor speech and follow what is being said,’’ Okombo said. He points out that the masses will coin new phrases and vocabulary for identity and also to conspire against the ruling class especially in situations of class struggles or socio-politico conflicts.
A good example was the famous speech in the 1950s by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta who addressed a cheering rally of largely Kikuyu saying: “From demi na mathathi ithaka was ours and nobody can tunya us”. A loose translation of this is “from the beginning of time, the land was ours and nobody can take it away from us’’, which drew wild applause from his Kikuyu audience but left the white colonial officers in confusion over what has been said. The professor notes a peculiarity in that unlike most other countries where people are defined by their own local languages, in Kenya the debate is on how we speak a foreign language.
On its genesis, Okombo cites both an element of creativity and deficiency as the driving factors fuelling the growth of this emerging form. “It is partly a failing by people who do not want to strive to attain the highest levels of proficiency and instead seek shortcuts of local words in communication with their peers. But at the same time, it is a source of spontaneity for some that adds local flavour and a sense of ownership of the medium.”
He cites Mzee Kenyatta who sounded often constrained in reading his official speech in English but more robust in his off-the-cuff speech in which he crisscrossed the languages. “He appeared to throw off his guard and language restrictions as to proclaim “let’s get real”, said the professor. Still, he would like too hear proficiency and uniformity in the way we speak English that is acceptable internationally. Okombo blames the discrepancies in our language to the teaching modules, saying that the character in our spoken English is a result of those that taught us. “We tend to adapt to their way of speaking and the variety is a product of variations in the type of teachers at the formative stages,” he said.
But this has not always been the case and he cites the first generation of the elite that had a uniformity that was free of any mother tongue interference and largely pure in form. He cites President Kibaki as a good example of the uniform and good standard of English spoken by the graduates of his time. The reason then was that teaching was considered a noble profession and attracted quality people. But this was eroded over time and generally the quality of English in the country is largely to do with the calibre of people in the teaching profession,” he said. He notes a paradox that more and more Kenyans are carrying their ethnic influences into their English together with all the five vowels of Kiswahili to create a delicate mix. “Initially, the written form was not affected by the oral but now I see more of that intrusion,” said Okombo.
At one time the quality of oral English was also indication of where one went to school but the variations are now being noted even in high cost private schools. At a cocktail, I once encountered a guest of European extraction and got talking. It turned out that he had just arrived in Nairobi to take up a job as a headteacher at one of the high cost private primary schools. A day earlier, he had held a meeting with the parents committee to hear their concerns about standards in the school where one parent expressed hope that now that the school had a Briton for English classes, the pupils would be able to speak the language with a proper British accent.
At this point he recoiled and his mouth felt dry. He had lived in Kitui for 30 years and was afraid that the officials would detect the heavy Kamba accent from his long association with that community. But he survived that day but was almost certain that it may not be for long. The issue of English has been raised in academic circles and there was once a suggestion to introduce spoken language as an examinable subject. This was, however, ruled out by the Education ministry, saying that it would give undue advantage to some people. This was interpreted to mean children of the rich who went to better schools.
Localisation of English is not confined to Kenya and many cultures have twisted the language in search of the convenience of their own heritage. I remember sitting in a train at Lille in France when the announcement came through: “The train shall be leaving in a few times.” I laughed and asked a French passenger why they do not learn proper English. “Because we are French,” he replied. Prof Njogu argues that Kenyans can still have three levels of communication to incorporate the varieties of English.
The first would be for local communication, for peers and for international dialogue. “There is no conflict between the three and facilitate spontaneity in the way that we interact,” said Njogu. He argues that the emerging Kenyan English may be the middle ground. The emphasis on English is based on the decline in Kiswahili which was once intended as a national language for everyday communication. But Okombo describes Kenya as a case of double tragedy where both English and Kiswahili are faced with similar difficulties in teaching and social application. “It is as difficult for a child in rural Kenya to learn English as it is for him to learn Kiswahili.”
He is emphatic that there is nothing culturally wrong with the way the language has been localised but adds that it would be important to emphasise on standard English that is universally acceptable for career purposes. There are more opportunities for professionals at international forums and the ability to be understood is essential in making a point and pushing agendas.“It’s a reality when people are courting an international audience that the way one speaks is as important as what they say.”
By John Kariuki | John.email@example.com | The Star
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Your statement ......"unlike most other countries where people are defined by their own local languages, in Kenya the debate is on how we speak a foreign language".......... is so true that it hurts. Trying to speak English with foreign accents and not teaching our children their mother-tongue to a point where they cannot communicate with their own illiterate grannies is absurd.
Reminds me how I used to enjoy Wangari Maathai at the podium... with her Kikuyu accent addressing international fora with pride and confidence....she knew her stuff and the Kikuyu-accent did not hinder her from communicating to international audiences.
Let us uphold our roots......mkosa kabila ni mtumwa.
corrected....mkosa mila ni mtumwa......