INTRODUCTION By African Holocaust society One of the challenges with African languages is that with the arrival of both modernity and the colonial languages,... DEATH OF AFRICAN LANGUAGES


By African Holocaust society

One of the challenges with African languages is that with the arrival of both modernity and the colonial languages, the natural inventory system within the languages died. New words came from the colonial source, as opposed to the languages own ability to invent new words for this new rapidly changing modern world. When was the last time an African language invented a new indigenous word as opposed to take a word from English or French?

Some are happy to complain that African languages are not represented, but how many buy books in their native African languages? Or even support books/films by African authors, period? How then can we expect the books in Swahili to fall out of the sky? Arabic, English, etc are not only dominant because of conquest, but because of the personal investment those language speakers make in seeing those languages represented. They are institutionalized, they have scripts,they are necessary in commerce and law. While Swahili, Amharic and Hausa hold on to some power in terms of their necessity within their geo-political zone the same is not true for most other languages like Zulu, which are not essential for doing most things in South Africa. You do not need Zulu to do business, to go on TV, or for anything in finance. And you definitely do not need it to get a job-on the contrary the less of it you speak the more employable you are perceived to be. It holds no prestige within the society and that is largely because it has not been integrated into the economic fabric of the society which is still controlled by first language English speakers, followed by Afrikaans. 

To undertake a language is to undertake a culture — Kimani Nehusi

Language as a tool for articulating an African reality.

English dominance

While controversial we need to discuss the effectiveness of an African language today to articulate our African reality vs a European colonial language. And the argument goes like this. IF no one is developing our African language how would they be able to articulate a contemporary African worldview? It is not a sentimental debate. you see some of us think that there is some divine inherent thing in an African language that makes it work with our African worldview. But how did that come about if not through using the language? It did not fall from the sky. Now conversely if we are not using our languages in 2019 to express contemporary issues (like agency, identity, evolution, development paradigms) how can we expect African languages to still have power over the languages we are using 24/7 to speak about our reality? We must recall the evolution of say English in discussing Pan-Africanism has a far greater investment than Zulu and Hausa or even Swahili and Amharic.

In conclusion the effectiveness of any language depends on how it is used by those who use it. Makes no difference where it came from. And if we are serious about preserving the relevance of our languages then we must speak them properly in all areas of people activity. How to do that is another serious challenge for which we have no solution for.



Death of African languages is a Middle Class trend especially, but not only limited to Ghana, but also to a lesser extent most places with burgeoning Westernized middle classes. English, and French are prestige languages and therefore a social sign of status. Even harder to measure is the quality of the African languages being passed down the generations.Sure they speak Swahili and Zulu, but what quality of Swahili and Zulu? 40% of the words are loanwords from English.


One perplexing problem is that of languages. On one had Language is our culture, we need to speak and think in an African language. On the other side the language associated with development is English and French, the language that will help students become successful in Africa is English, the language we are using to talk to you right now is English. Hence English is important and p
eople need to master it. However, if mastering it means using less African languages in the public /intellectual space, then that is a serious compromise — how do we balance these two competing realities? Home usage is not intellectual or academic usage, it does not refine and develop the language as a tool of instruction. The language dies and loses its ability to articulate the full contents of reality.


by Paliani Gomani Chinguwo

In his article Whither To Local Languages that appeared in the Malawi Nation newspaper of 7th January 2008 George Kamba writes, “Most parents and guardians…believe that for their children to be called educated in formal schools they have to speak and write in English…Let us not forget that English is part of colonial legacy.” Further to this, it is assumed that technological and scientific advancement is intrinsically tied to the usage of foreign languages which are erroneously regarded to be technically superior to any other African language. It is in this vein that some Africans more especially the educated elite hold that for Africa to advance in the globalised world, one prerequisite among others is the adherence to the foreign languages particularly English. Thus despite the fact that the vast majority of the African people cannot effectively communicate in such foreign languages.

Why is the usage of foreign languages in Africa a colonial legacy as George Kamba puts it? One may ask. In his Steve Biko Memorial Lecture entitled Consciousness And African Renaissance which he presented at the University of Cape Town in September 2003, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued that a person without a consciousness of his/her being in the world is lost and can easily be guided by another to wherever the guide wants to take him/her, even to his/her own peril or extinction. Since memory which is part and parcel of consciousness lies in language, colonialism in essence meant the subjugation of the colonised to the memory of the colonialists. One means that was used to achieve this was the naming system. In this regard the memory of the colonialists was implanted on our landscape through language by re-naming it. For instance a place called Tswane was renamed Pretoria, Egoli became Johannesburg. The gigantic water falls along the Zambezi river which was formerly known as Mosi-oa-tunya meaning ‘smoke that thunders’ became Victoria Falls. The Great East African lake formerly called Namlolwe by the Luo people became Lake Victoria. Through language the memory of the colonialists was also stamped on our bodies. Thus African names like Sangwani, Chikawachi, Sekanawo, Atupele which were considered to be ‘heathen’ by the colonialists were replaced by such names as William, Smith, Gloria, Rose and the like. As such our bodies in terms of self identity through our own languages to a certain extent remain branded by the memory of those that at one time colonised our land.

Not only that but the memory of the colonialists was also implanted on our own intellect through language. To a greater extent African writers, musicians, artists, technocrats, legislators and academics who ought to be generators and custodians of our knowledge and information greatly feel that knowledge and information in this modern day and age cannot be stored in any of the African languages. In his Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o then asked, “Is an African Renaissance possible when we, the keepers of memory have to work outside our own linguistic memory? Working within the prison house of European memory?” In his inaugural lecture entitled The Role of Language in National Development which was delivered at the University of Malawi (Chancellor College) in September 2002, Professor Alfred Mtenje stated:

In African context development in general cannot be realized without taking into consideration the use of the indigenous languages, the languages of the masses, the majority of whom are illiterate and have no access to foreign languages — Alfred Mtenje

He went on further to contend that it is a well known fact among linguists that no language is inferior to any other let alone incapable of incorporating modern science and technology.

Concurring with Professor Alfred Mtenje is Professor Kwesi K. Prah who in his paper Facing The Future which he presented at the 2nd Conference of African Languages in Education, Science and Technology at the University of Pretoria in July 2002 argued that all languages are capable of developing if necessary resources are provided for this purpose. He further cited Afrikaans as a very good example of one language which has been developed from a status of a non scientific to a completely technical language over a short period of time. Besides linguistic research has proved that whatever term i.e. technical, scientific or otherwise expressed in English can equally be said in any other language including of course any African language. For instance the Bible has been successfully translated into hundreds of African languages, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been exhaustively described in a Senegalese language called Wolof, various technical and scientific terminologies have been developed in Swahili (Tanzania), Oshindongo (Namibia) among others.

Empirical evidence also suggests that no country has ever achieved sustainable development while using a foreign language. Contrary to a fallacy that is generally held, English is a minority language on mainland Europe and Asia where some of the most technologically advanced nations like Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Nordic countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Israel and others conduct their entire education system in their own national languages. It is also important to draw lessons from the pages of history which bear witness that the European Renaissance that spanned roughly from the 14th Century through the 17th century, was essentially a process of disengagement from hegemonic Latin language, the discovery and development of European nation’s own tongues. Subsequently this led to a massive and sustained translation and transfer of knowledge from Latin and Greek into the emerging European vernaculars. For instance the Bible was first translated from Latin into English in 1383 by John Wycliffe and associates though amidst fierce resistance that cost the lives of the readers of that particular version who were burned at stake with their copies hanging from their necks. Later one English scholar called William Tyndale was tried of heresy, condemned, strangled on 6th October 1536 and his body burned at stake after translating the Bible from Greek to English.

In the final analysis, the view that African languages by their nature cannot adequately express scientific, intellectual and technical concepts has no valid basis. It is therefore no exaggeration to conclude that the wanton hatred and profound contempt of African languages by the Africans particularly the educated elite is a clear manifestation of the extent to which psychologically the Africans remain entangled in colonial fetters after over 40 years of political independence.


Kamba, G., Whither To Local Languages. Nation Newspaper (of Malawi), 7th January 2008.

Mtenje, A. The Role of Language in National Development. Paper presented at his Inaugural lecture at the University of Malawi (Chancellor College), September 2002.

Parmelee, A. (1956). A Guide Book To The Bible. From page 148 to 154.

Prah, K. Facing The Future. Paper presented at 2nd Conference of African Languages in Education, Science and Technology at the University of Pretoria, July 2002.

Thiong’o, N. Consciousness And African Renaissance. Lecture presented during the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, September 2003.

The author is a researcher at Malawi Congress of Trade Unions.



African Holocaust (Est. 2001) is a non-profit civil society dedicated to the progressive study of African history and culture. The society is composed of diverse array of African scholars and writers, who share the desire use critical thinking to represent and restore an authentic, reflexive, honest, inclusive and balanced study of the African experience, past and present.

No comments so far.

Be first to leave comment below.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*Use code 'AHS' and get 10% discount
Join the African Holocaust Newsletter
Stay Connected