Extinction of languages in East Africa worries Unesco

Thursday November 18 2010

Maasais in East Africa have managed to preserve their culture despite external pressures from the modern world

Nominated MP Millie Odhiambo prides herself as being among the few descendants of the threatened ethnic tribe Abasuba.

Her Suba father married her Nilotic Luo mother many years ago when inter-marriages between the two communities were at their peak. Yet none of them can communicate in Suba the way they do in Dholuo, English or Kiswahili.

“It was only my grandfather’s first brother who could speak the language fluently, but my siblings and I only speak Luo; we were never taught Suba,” says Ms Odhiambo.

The legislator is not alone, as many Kenyans of Suba descent can neither speak the language nor practice the culture.

According to the latest United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) atlas on the world’s languages in danger, Suba is one of those on the brink of extinction. Though widespread during the colonial and pre-colonial times, the language is now confined to a few pockets in Nyanza, namely the two Islands of Lake Victoria Mfangano and Rusinga and parts of Gwasi.

By 1992 it had roughly 100,000 speakers in the whole of the country and Unesco fears the numbers might have declined even further with deaths, as it was only the old who spoke the language.


Prof Herman Batibo of African Linguistics University of Botswana, concurs with Unesco’s study, saying in his book Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences and Challenges: “African policy makers, and now that Africa can no longer blame it on any foreign influence or force, should be at the forefront of (saving endangered languages)...”

The Unesco atlas ranks Kenya top in East Africa, in the list of countries with the highest number of extinct languages. Six languages are already classified as extinct and seven others under threat.

Uganda has three extinct languages and three under threat. Though Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi are still categorised as safe, chances are they might soon join the list.

Over the centuries, obscure dialects and isolated communities have come and gone, partly due to conquest or environmental disaster. But linguists like Prof Batibo stress that something vital gets lost with the death of each oral language.

According to Unesco, out of the approximately 6,000 existing languages in the world, more than 200 have become extinct during the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.

Interestingly, over half of the 6,000 are spoken by only 0.2 per cent of all the earth’s inhabitants; in other words, approximately 80 per cent of the world’s population speaks just 83 languages.

The proportion is expected to grow even further, as globalisation and urbanisation encourage migrants and rural areas to learn the dominant tongue instead of their own.

Unesco adds that about 199 languages have fewer than ten speakers and 178 others have 10 to 50.

Ms Odhiambo says her family lineage from her grandfather upwards had Suba names like Ndidi, Magazine, Wamusa, but further down the lineage, Luo names dominate, a sign that Suba was giving way to the dominant Luo language.

“I came to know about it after reading some of the documentation my grandfather made. He once helped organise a meeting to discuss concern among elders that their ancestors’ tribe was losing its identity,” says Ms Odhiambo.

The MP learnt a bit of the language out of self-interest, having missed it during her childhood. “I took it upon myself to learn a few Suba words to like ‘good morning’, ‘I am beautiful’ among others,” she adds.

One of the languages listed as extinct in Kenya, is the Yaaku dialect, also known as Mukogodo. Though there are people  in the western part of Mt Kenya’s Laikpia District still identifying themselves as the Yaaku, they do not speak the Cushitic language, which was long abandoned for the dominant Nilotic Maasai language.

The other is the Lorkoti, a dialect of the Maa cluster (Nilotic) or part of the Nilo-Saharan. Despite the fact that there is still an ethnic group called Lorokoti in the Leroghi Plateau, all appear to speak a different Maa dialect, that is Samburu.

The report also cites Kinare, formerly spoken around the eastern slopes of Rift Valley, as another dialect that no longer exists.

According to the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages, the remnants currently speak Kikuyu.

In fact, a study by German professor Franz Rottland in the late 1970s and early 80s found a few old men from Kinare in 1976, married with Kikuyu women and integrated in the Kikuyu culture, “whose parents had lived in the forests around Kinare as honey-gathering Ogiek.”

Sogoo, also referred as Okiek, is  also no longer in existence. According to Unesco, there were around 60 Sogoo speakers in the 1970s, but with time, they adopted Maasai customs, leading to the extinction of the  language.

The other extinct language is the Elmolo, which was widely spoken in parts of Rift Valley, mainly along the shores of Lake Turkana and neighbouring semi-arid desert area. The Elmolo now speak Samburu, a nilotic language.

And Kore, the dialect that was widespread in Lamu in pre-colonial times is also classified as extinct.

Why people stop speaking their mother tongue

There are numerous reasons behind the death of languages.

According to Anahit Minasyan of Unesco’s endangered languages programme, language endangerment may be external as well as internal, with attitudes and choices of the speakers playing a major role.

External forces include military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, while internal forces are mainly related to negative attitude towards its own language.

Minasyan cites a framework developed by an Ad Hoc Expert Committee on Endangered Languages, put together by Unesco that can help one determine the survivability of a language.

“Language generally disappears when its speakers disappear or when they shift to speaking another language — often, a larger language by a more powerful group,” says the report by the Ad Hoc Group.

The committee also singles out inter-generational language transmission, or the teaching of a language, to the younger generation, by adults as one of the most important acts that determines the continuity of dialects.

The Maasai, for example, are cited as one of the tribes that have managed to ward of external influence and pressure to preserve their language and culture.

Though cities have been cited as cultural melting pots, they often bring along the loss of traditional ways of life and a strong pressure to speak a dominant language that is perceived necessary for civic participation and economic advancement.

In Kenya’s case, for example, children born in upper and middle income families in cities and towns are more likely to learn English and Kiswahili, or even German, before their mother tongue.