Language Starts With Love
My language is dying.
Sadly, I don’t even speak it that well.
Kafa No’no has fewer than 1 million speakers. I’ve heard some linguists say this is a relatively stable population number, but still, I didn’t realize just how small it was until recently, when I learned it is even smaller than one of my friend’s languages, Ndebele, which he called “dying” at several million speakers.
Recently I was at a get-together of MIT ASAs (the MIT African Students’ Association) that were in town for the summer. I cooked Ethiopian dishes (I definitely messed up the misir wot, but they still enjoyed it) and we got to talking about languages. Victor, from Tanzania, said he could not speak his grandparents’ language, Chaga, and it is also dying. Only old people speak it now. I asked why he didn’t learn it himself, to save it, and he said he would only have his parents or grandparents to speak it to. I joked with him, saying, if he taught it to me I would speak it with him. But at least Kiswahili, spoken all over Tanzania, was not in danger.
Kudzaishe, from Zimbabwe, said his language, chiShona, was not in danger of dying, simply because Shona people are so stubborn about Shona. They go to South Africa and even continue speaking it there; they always speak with each other; they have pride and love enough to speak and speak and speak. But another Zimbabwean language, isiNdebele, spoken by Bothabo, was thought of as “dying”, too.
(Note: what many Westerners may not realize is Xhosa, Shona, Ndebele — these are technically the names of groups of people. “chiShona”, “isiNdebele”, “Kiswahili” — these are the endonyms of each language, the name of the language in the language itself.)
We talked also about dilution. I asked how to count to ten — and was shocked when this turned out to be difficult for some. Everyone used English for numbers — even in Shona. English seemed to eat everything in its path. In Kafa No’no, we still count with our own tongue: ika, guta, keja…but if I thought about it, our language got diluted too — with Amharic and English both.
Back in elementary school, I got a lot of amusement from this viral Chinese video my mother showed me:
In it, some animated characters “rap” over the beat from Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”. They rap in “Nanjingese”, or rather Nanjing Hua (南京话), a dialect of Mandarin that’s, of course, spoken in Nanjing. Lots of slang and local phrases are used. It’s a silly song — it’s literally about eating wonton soup — but contains references to all kinds of Nanjing city inside jokes. My mother said the creators made it in response to feeling like their dialect, Nanjing Hua, was dying too. So if they made a fun, viral video, maybe people would watch it and hear it and laugh at it, and Nanjing Hua would be “cool”enough to survive.
It’s much harder to track speakers of dialects than properly separate languages (and there’s a whole other discussion as to what “counts” as a separate language, though Nanjing Hua is definitely still understandable by Mandarin speakers) so I have no idea if this “worked” — are their fewer Nanjing Hua speakers today than before? Mandarin, at least, is in no danger of dying, and neither is Kiswahili or chiShona, but still there are many, many languages and dialects in grave conditions, being diluted and eaten and mixed.
I was always fascinated by my mother, and how she talked to my grandma and her sister. She and her sister were both born in Shanghai, and then they grew up in Nanjing. My grandmother has a strong Shanghai accent. So, when we visit her at my aunt’s house in Ontario, my mother and my aunt speak to grandma in Shanghai Hua, then they speak to each other in Nanjing Hua, and then they would yell at us kids in Mandarin. And of course, “us kids”, born in Canada and America, spoke to each other in a mix of English and Mandarin — “Chinglish”, if you will.
The older of my two cousins, Coye (“可以”), is now 15 and has started to develop an interest in Shanghainese, and repeats phrases she hears from her mom and our grandma. It’s hard, in an immigrant family, to keep any language alive in your children, and it makes sense that Mandarin, the most useful one, was chosen. But I see in her a drive to speak more, to keep these small, precious things alive, similar to the one I had when I was 14 or 15 and learned Kafa No’no and became more fluent in Mandarin.
One of the Shona speakers, Kudzaishe, said, even though there were many mixed English-Shona slang words, this could be thought of as a natural evolution of the language. “I mean, it’s a living language,” he said, “of course it will change over time.”
I started to have a lot of questions. What languages count as “dying”, and why? Why are some people proud and push forward their languages (Shona, Kiswahili) and some are more shy or willing to assimilate (Ndebele, Chaga). I want to say that Kafa people are proud and simply small in numbers, but if I thought about it harder, I’d heard of people who grew up in Bonga (the capital of Kafa) and only spoke Amharic. My father would always give a hard time to people like that who somehow made their way into our Colorado community.
What is it that gives you love and pride for your language, your people, your country? What is this intangible thing, and how could one inject it into groups of people that let their languages lie their, dying?
Do we just need more music videos about wonton soup?
Holding all these thoughts in my head, and having no answers to them, I just did what I normally do, which is write. It came out in the form of some (bad) internet poetry on my tumblr blog.
Our cultures are dying
Our languages are dying
Some of our people
Don’t love themselves anymore.
I don’t know where this poison comes from
Or how it spreads
But I know it hurts to see the loss of pride
The loss of
Someone planted something in your head
To tell you speaking Chaga wasn’t proper
They slapped you in school
When Kiswahili slipped out
At least the Shona people
Have the strength to shout on
And I don’t know how to fix it
I am from here but not born here
I try to pick up pieces of You,
I try to sew together our
Broken things making
I speak my broken Kafa No’no
But at least I try
The only way is to find
To fall in love with your motherland
To fall in love with each other
To speak and speak and speak
To have your children, and speak to them
Words in our languages
Love and pride.
(Thanks to MIT Ethiopian-Eritrean Students’ Association for the Amharic translation for “pride”, my dad for the Kafa No’no translation.)