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Nigeria’s local languages as endangered species

Babatope Babalobi

Twenty-nine Nigerian minor languages had become extinct, while another 29 minor languages are in danger of extinction.

Three Nigeria’s major languages −Yoruba, Igbo and Ishekiriare− also endangered, according to studies by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and views expressed by language teachers and linguists.

In 2006, UNESCO reportedly predicted the Igbo language spoken in the South-Eastern Nigeria by over 20million people may become extinct in the next 50 years.

In 2017, Dahunsi Akinyemi, a language teacher and author of Ede Yoruba Ko Gbodo Ku (Yoruba Language Must Not Die),  posited that the Yoruba language could die out in 20 years or less, lamenting that many Yoruba children cannot pronouce ‘Mo fe jeun’ (I want to eat) in their mother tongue.

A study by Oti (2014) points to the extinction of Ishekiri language in the next 50 years, while the Linguistic Association of Nigeria (LAN) apparently said unless proactive steps were taken, more than 50 minority languages in the country might become extinct in a few years.

The nine local languages that had become extinct as listed by National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) are Ajawa, spoken in present-day Bauchi, Basa-Gumna of Niger state, Auyokawa used to be spoken in Jigawa State, and Gamo-Ningi- aKainji dialect in Bauchi State.

Others are Homa of Adamawa State, Kubi of Bauchi State, Kpati formerly spoken in Taraba State, Odut used to be spoken in Odukpani area of Cross River State, and Teshenawa formerly spoken in Jigawa State.

Roger Blench in ‘Atlas of Nigerian Languages’ 2012, listed 12 languages (including two in the NCAC’s list) as extinct.

These are Ashaganna: Fali of Baissaspoken by a few individuals on the Falinga Plateau in southern Taraba State; Shirawa; Auyokawa; Kpati; Taura; Bassa-Kontagora (only 10 speakers of Bassa-Kontagora were alive in 1987; Lufu; Ajanci, a north Bauchi language; Akpondu, had no competent speakers in 1987; Buta-Ningi, an East Kainji language, had no remaining speakers in 1990; and Holma, had only 4 aged speakers in 1987.

About 29 local languages in Nigeria are endangered, according to UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, that tracks all world languages based on five criteria: safe, vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered, and extinct.

Nigeria’s ‘Vulnerable’ language spoken by most children, but restricted to certain domains are Bade, Reshe, Gera, and Reshe language.

‘Definitely endangered’’ ─children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home are Polci cluster, and Duguza language.

“Critically” endangered languages in Nigeria that the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently are Akum, Bakpinka, Defaka, Dulbu, Gyem, Ilue, Jilbe, Kiong, Kudu-Camo, Luri, Mvanip, Sambe, Somyev, and Yangkam language.

“Severely” endangered languages that are spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.

These include Gurdu-Mbaaru, Fyem, Geji cluster, Gura, Gurdu-Mbaaru, Hya, Kona, Ndunda and Ngwaba language.

Nigeria is multilingual, though the exact number of local or indigenous languages spread over its about 250 ethnic groups, is not known.

However, it is variously estimated at between 350 and 550.

Nigeria has major and minor languages, intertwined by dialects.

According to Ethnologue, an annual publication on the world’s languages, 517 different languages are spoken in Nigeria.

Nigeria multilingual diversity reflects in the heterogeneity of the languages spoken in most of the states, as only few states such as Kano, Anambra, Imo, Oyo, Osun and Ekiti are predominantly monolingual.

Hausa, lgbo, Yoruba are the three major languages spoken predominantly in the North, South-East, and South-West respectively.

Other major languages are Fulani/Fulfulde, Kanuri, Efik/lbibio; Tiv, ljaw, Edo, Ishekiri, Urhobo, Idoma, Igala, Isoko, Fulani, andEkweres.

Each of the major languages have distinctive dialects ─Yoruba dialects include Ijesa, Ijebu, Egba, Awori, Ekiti, Ondo, Akoko, Ikale, Owo and Oyo.

The Igbos have an extreme dialect diversity ranging from the central/standard Igbo (Igbo Izugbe) to other forms ─Owerri (Isuama), Umuahia (Ohuhu) dialects, Awka, Anambra, Onicha, Udi, Nsukka, Orlu, and phereipheral Igboland dialects, such as IkwerreIzzi-Ezaa-Ikwo and Ika and Ukuanni.

Apart from these major local languages, there are three other languages widely spoken in Nigeria.

These are English, Arabic, and Pidgin. Christians may also wish to add a spiritual language ─Speaking in tongues, a fad in Pentecostal churches.

English was a leftover of British colonialism; Arabic was spread, particularly in the North through the Usman Dan Fodio Jihad of the 19th Century.

Pidgin is neither a local nor foreign language, but emerged as an adulteration of the English language by native speakers, while speaking in tongues is imported from the spirit realm!

English language majorly spoken throughout the South has achieved predominance as Nigeria’s official national language.

The relatively higher rate of illiteracy in the North has, however, hindered the onslaught of the English language as Hausa is still widely spoken in rural and urban communities, except in the multilingual Sabogari areas.

Many homes in Nigeria, particularly in the South, are English-speaking. In almost all urban homes in the South, children and adults don’t greet themselves in the native tongue.

‘Good morning’ has replaced ‘E kaaro’ in Yoruba; ‘Ina Kwana’ in Hausa; and ‘Ututuoma’ in Igbo.

It is ridiculous that most new-generation Yoruba children, particularly those in urban areas cannot phonetically pronounce their Yoruba names or states of origin correctly. Asking new generation children to speak the local dialect is stretching a joke too far.

English language has its own advantages. Apart from being a global language, it is also unifying in a multilingual culture.

However, no serious people or nation relegates its mother tongue in preference for a foreign language.

Oti (2014) listed causes of local language regression in Nigeria to include mixed linguistic ecology of urban towns forcing residents of different linguistic background to speak a common language such as Pidgin or English, and  interlingua marriages forcing parents to speak a common language rather than indigenous languages to their children.

The future of Nigeria local languages lies with the speakers. There is an option of selling our language birthright for a mess of English pottage in the manner of biblical Esau. There is the second option of reviving it and preserving its heritage.

If parents refuse to speak their native languages to their children, of course, the next generation will not speak it to their offspring.

This will lead to extinction of these local languages within the next two to three generations.

As Uzochukwu (2001) submitted, we cannot achieve economic prosperity and technological breakthrough in a foreign language.

What is the way forward towards reclaiming local languages in the linguistic space? (The Sun)

Babalobi is a Doctorate researcher, Department of Health, University of Bath, United Kingdom.

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