The BBC has recently announced plans to attempt to begin to fill the ‘independent media void’ in African countries, where there is widely believed to be censorship, by delivering news in local languages. Despite the wide historical colonisation of Africa and the resulting prominence of European languages across the continent, a huge variety of local dialects are still widely spoken across social divides. The BBC’s plan involves 15 new language services across Africa and Asia, which has begun with the introduction of news websites in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language), Afaan Oromo (the language of Ethiopia’s main ethnic group) and Tigriyna (the main working language of Eritrea).
One of these services is BBC Pidgin, which has already been launched as a digital platform in Nigeria. Pidgin is a widely spoken language in West Africa, and developed during the 17th and 18th centuries from a mix of English and local languages. The language was used as a trading language, and combines nautical vocabulary with the grammar and language composition of local dialects, stripped down to the basics. It has no standardised written form, so is primarily an oral language, and as such is an interesting source of exploration for any potential linguistics students. History students too, might look into the attempted colonial suppression of this language along with other local languages; historically the cultural hierarchy placed with those with better English language skills at the top, and to this day English is the language of white-collar employment across African countries. Despite the colonisers’ best attempts, Pidgin is still a thriving language, with a prominent place in film in the increasingly popular Nollywood film scene and as a driving force of Afrobeat music, even branching out into opera. The sounds also lend themselves to poetry, alongside the similarly rooted Caribbean creole and patois. For example, Benjamin Zephaniah’s Dis Poetry is littered with words and sounds that can be found in all three languages.
This poem also speaks to the value of these languages to a particular cultural identity. HSPS and Anthropology applicants should consider the anthropological importance of preserving local dialects and languages and how they link to cultural history and identity of those who speak them. The language of N|uu, considered to be the original language of South Africa, has been declared a critically endangered language by the UN, with only three fluent speakers remaining. One of these speakers is intent on preserving her language and has worked with linguistics experts to create an alphabet and grammar for the previously unwritten language so that she is able to teach it to the next generation. Matthias Brezinger of the Centre for African Language Diversity in Capetown, South Africa, has highlighted the importance of preserving these originally oral languages, due to the wealth of unique knowledge contained within them, for example methods of survival, which will be lost if the language dies out.