Archives for June 9, 2011

Even more

I admit that I am not the best second language speaker I know.

I am the only strictly second language speaker I know. Perhaps that says more about the extent of my knowledge than anything else.

I suspect that some of my linguistic woes are rooted in this knowledge.

There was a time when I had thought, foolishly it turns out, that justified true belief was about something external, something in the world. In this time, let us call it the times, it was quite true that the language of my ancestors could not speak that which is. It was not the fault of the external world that just was. It was the fault of the language. Geared as it is towards something else, the language of my ancestors is unsuited to expressing a world that just is. It is so static, a world that just is. The language of my ancestors is, of course, not unique in this respect. Many respected languages started their careers inadequate to the task of expressing a world that just is. As one of the most respected philosophers of the times saw, language has to be taught.

I am not sure what first language speakers teach their languages. I am overcome by embarrassment whenever I try following their lessons. They are so right.

You see, dear reader, I continue to teach my language what I have received from my ancestors: umntu ngumntu ngabantu. Let us call this received teaching ubuntu. Ubuntu, as I teach it to my language, holds that between an external world and umntu, the former emerges from the latter. It further holds that unless umntu is, the external world has neither meaning nor existence.

You can, I believe dear reader, now see the source of my linguistic woes. Imagine that you are wrong about, say, the nature of the external world. Even should you speak the language of angels (or God hahaha!) you would still be wrong.

I laugh at this notion, and teach my language to do the same.

Imagine, further, that I teach my language that only the world is capable of being wrong. What, then, would I teach it about umntu, and her relation to the world?

Of course I might have taught my language this lesson even had I been a first language speaker. But being strictly a second language speaker, I really cannot say.


more bantu

Bantu is a language.

We disagree about this, it and me.

I think Bantu is more than a language. Of course I am not so far gone as to deny its utilitarian value. Here, in the land of the free, the extremely limited use that I can put it to is apparent.

And so, against the run of history, I tie Bantu up with my innermost being. And where I could spread my wings and fly, should hold my hands out for more and, above all, should realize just how lucky I am, my head is instead filled with thoughts of Nongqawuse. What, I wonder again and again, words did she use to utter her false prophecy.

Bantu, on the other hand, insists that it is no more than a language.

After the first few months of going cold turkey of everything African, horrified at my craving for Mzantsi (so parochial!, that need) the language emerged as an indispensable crutch. Part of it, I realize, is its insistence that I do not need it. And so, just to spite it, I need it. The other is, embarrassingly, the fact that it is right. If only I could be brave, this could be my home. Then, if I chose, I could do more for Bantu in English, as so many of my continentmen are already doing.

It is people like me, backwards retrogrades, who hold everyone up.

I saw just how much I agree with Bantu when I was recounting an experience I had in Mzantsi to a progressive academic. Even such a simple telling (turns out it was simple only to me) quickly turned into a linguistic game. I lost that game.

The problem between the progressive and me, it emerged gradually, was language. I am classified as a second language English speaker, he a first language speaker. When speaking to each other the point of reference for words and their meaning was he. The meaning of my experiences must make sense to him, so that he can meaningfully translate them.

If I am to express my experiences correctly, I will have to learn to articulate them correctly. To articulate them correctly, I will have to learn to speak correctly. To speak correctly, I need no more than the right language.

And so, with that progressive as with retrogrades of every hue, I could not speak Bantu.