…Should language preservation matter to you?

A few weeks ago, I attended a work-related dinner event that has had me in thought since the moment it began. When first reading the calendar invitation, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The invitation simply stated that selected strangers from various backgrounds were invited to come together, eat dinner…and simply talk. Yes, just talk. With days before the mid-term elections, I assumed that the conversations would all be legal and policy based. I even secretly feared that the event would be filled with surface level conversation, with the words “diversity” and “inclusion” thrown around frivolously. I’m always nervous with these types of events because I wonder how selection is made, and if wide-range diversity of appearance, experiences, and thought are truly as present as it should be.

Despite my slight reservations, I knew that I would gain something from the event, even if it was something small. Besides, a trusted colleague at work invited me. To my surprise, the structure of the event was not only set up differently than I envisioned, but was more fulfilling and thought provoking than I imagined. While there were some clichéd elements, the conversations with strangers were deep-rooted, emotional, and contained themes far beyond public policy reform.

The moment I knew I was in for a treat was during the cocktail hour. I can be little shy until I warm up to people, so I was posted…sipping on my wine…observing. Surprisingly, I ran into a student from my alma mater. To be honest, I didn’t even remember sis’ name, but at times, a familiar face can be helpful. I hadn’t seen her since a music course we took 5 years ago. After reminiscing, she discussed that she’s been to previous events hosted by this same organization, and introduced me to a gentleman she met from a previous event of theirs. He had such a soft-spoken voice, bright eyes, and an amazing personality. He looked like he could be in his 70s, but we all know Black doesn’t crack, so who knows how old he actually is. His voice and the story of how they met caught my attention, so I decided to let my guard down.

As a Nigerian American myself, I could tell that the gentleman had an African accent from the east, but I couldn’t pin point where. It eventually came out in conversation. “I’ve lived in Canada for some time before living here, but my goal is to either retire back in Tanzania or in Canada.” Tanzania. I have an affinity for cultural exchanges and linguistics, so I couldn’t resist asking questions. These same questions are exactly what led me to this discussion of language preservation. At some point within our conversation, he asked me what languages do I speak, and I happily asked him the same. He mentioned that along with English, he speaks one of the native Tanzanian languages of his region, and Swahili. He’s observed that since the fall of colonization, the Tanzanian government has tried to rigorously enforce the use of Swahili as the main form of communication for people, no matter what ethnic group you’re from. He seemed so happy about this, so I smiled naturally. He loved the concept of people coming together, no matter what ethnic or regional group they were from. I love this too, of course. I adore seeing people come together on some sort of common ground, as opposed to tearing one another a part. Nonetheless, I also understand that blackness is not a monolith, either. And that’s okay too.

Can there honestly be a common ground where individual regions are praised for their language and cultural variations, while still coming together? Not only within African regions, but across the diaspora? Why does it appear that it has to be one or the other? Am I being too idealistic? I couldn’t mute my thoughts, so then and there, I asked him. I asked the gentleman if he had any fear of his native language being forgotten about as time progressed. His response and the level of peace he had made me think. He stated, “over time, languages are always changing, and that’s life. Some of the phrases we are saying today are not ones that our parents’ parents’ parents used.” Which is also true. As a Yoruba speaker, I was taught that in Yoruba the phrase ‘thank you’ is stated as ‘e se/o se’ depending on the age group addressed. I won’t be surprised that if overtime, people are solely spelling thank you as ‘oshey’ due to the strong influence of popular culture. A thing to note though is that while the spelling may be different, it doesn’t take away from the language still existing and being used. This slightly differs from the conversation I had with the gentleman. The polemicist in me simply worries that the approach of requiring people to all speak one language, which has its benefits, don’t get me wrong, could cause rich history and important information to be forgotten.

Is language, historical, and cultural preservation something you worry about? Do you worry about your current or future children speaking Yoruba, Amharic, Twi, or a native language or dialect from your homeland? Could you care less? Do you also believe that history and language can be appreciated and preserved, while also embracing changes over time? This conversation could develop in so many directions. Do feel free to continue it with your friends and family. I definitely am looking forward to learning more about this gentleman’s native language and Tanzania in general. There definitely is beauty in languages and cultures merging and shifting, as we can see with so many communities of the African diaspora. Ebonics is just one example of many. Nonetheless, you won’t necessarily hear Black folks from the Tri-State area speaking the same way as Black folks from Houston, Texas or New Orleans, Louisiana. Each area has its own rich dialect, and that in itself is beautiful to me.

 

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