A paper prepared
at the Fifth
Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society held at PTI Conference
Effurun, Delta State, Nigeria, and Ibru Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Nigeria,
October 29-31, 2004.
This paper examines the problem of language endangerment that threatens the three constituent languages of Urhobo culture, namely, Urhobo, Okpe and Uvwie. These languages are in various degrees of endangerment; they are all presently grabbling with survival. We seek to address the factors responsible for the shrinkage of the three languages. We observe the relationship between the contraction of these languages and the problem of underdevelopment and lack of unity in Urhoboland. Finally, this paper discusses strategies for the reinvigoration of the languages.
Language endangerment is synonymous with language shift. Vic Webb and Kembo Sure (2001: 40) define language shift as “a process in which speakers of one language begin to use a second language for more and more functions until they eventually use only the second language.” In most cases, an endangered language dies when the last speaker eventually dies.
URHOBO LANGUAGE COMPLEX
Urhobo, Okpe and Uvwie are
members of the
South Western Edoid family of lanuagues. South Western Edoid is a
subset of the
Edoid family of languages which is a member of the Kwa branch of the
Congo family of languages. A substantial number of the Edoid
languages are spoken in
Elugbe (1986: 3) postulates that the Edoid lanaguages “fall into four primary subgroups of Delta Edoid, South Western Edoid, North Central Edoid, where
<>Elugbe (1986) adds that the SWE is further sub-divided into five regional groupings. They are Erohwa (Eruwa), Isoko, Urhobo (Sobo), Okpe and Uvwie (Ephron or Effurun); while the Okpe and Uvwie are regarded as part of Urhobo, the Erohwa are regarded as part of the Isoko ethnic nationality. On the cultural and linguistic relationship between Urhobo on the one hand and Okpe and Uvwie on the other, Elugbe (1986: 9) asserts thus:<> “although the Okpe and Uvwie will call themselves Urhobo clans and speak the central Agharho dialect of Urhobo which has become a lingua franca in the Urhobo area, they rightly insist that they have their own languages.” Aweto (2002) estimates that the population of Urhoboland was 1.2 million in 1991 and it is now about 1.5 million.
REGIONS OF THE WORLD PRONE TO LANGUAGE ENDANGERMENT
The rapid disappearance of
of the world is now a source of concern to linguists. Threatened
languages are found mostly in
The main cause of the
indigenous languages in these regions is the political, social,
linguistic domination of the indigenes by migrant majorities who are
Anglophone. While English is the superstrate language in
Bradley D and Bradley M(2002: xl) give an insight into the state of endangered languages in the nearest future when they observe: “Various scholars have estimated that up to 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear during the 21st century unless- and maybe many perhaps even if- we do something now.”
The prognosis of African linguists on the future of African languages is very bleak. Egbokhare (2004: 13) observes this premonition thus:
There is a grim
prediction that in the next 50 – 100 years, 90 percent of the languages
African languages are marginalized because Africans believe that their languages are not socially and economically useful to them. What is more, in this modern age of technological development and information technology, African languages are increasingly becoming a handicap, if not a liability (Egbokhare 2004:13). Linguists are now reinvigorating some of these dying languages .
CAUSES OF LANGUAGE ENDANGERMENT IN URHOBOLAND
Several factors are responsible for the shrinkage of the languages in Urhobo culture. The salient ones are discussed below.
One of the reasons for the contraction of languages in Urhobo culture is the polyglossic situation in Urhobo land. Urhobo languages have open social networks; they have contact with other indigenous languages that envelope them. The ethnic groups that encircle Urhobo land are the Binis in the North, the Itsekiris and the Ijaws in the South, the Isokos and the Ukwanis in the East and the Itsekiris in the West. Language and cultural contacts and inter-ethnic marriages between members of the neighbouring ethnic groups have led to a shrinkage in the use of the languages in Urhobo land. This is due to the assimilatory effects of the neighbouring languages.
The Western variety or
variety of Nigerian Pidgin has also endangered the languages in Urhobo
Delta Central and Delta South senatorial districts as well as the
Delta region are complexly multilingual and multicultural. Nigerian
the language of wider communication in the two senatorial districts of
Ideally, Nigerian Pidgin is supposed to be a language of inter-ethnic communication in Urhoboland. However, it has now penetrated the orbit of homes in Urhoboland. It is now being used as a language of intra-ethnic communication in urban centers like Warri, Sapele, Effurun and Ughelli and other semi urban centers like Abraka, Oghara, Agbarho and Eku. Nigerian Pidgin has already acquired a number of native speakers. The elaboration in the use and creolization of the language is a cause of the contraction of the indigenous languages in Urhoboland. Nigerian Pidgin is now the mother- tongue of many children in urban centres. It is now the only language used by semi- literate and illitrate Urhobos in homes in urban centers. It is the language of intergenerational transmission from parents to their children in these homes. To the Urhobos, Nigerian Pidgin is socially viable to its users while the Urhobo languages are socially unviable.
Apart from Nigerian
Pidgin, English is also
a cause of language endangerment in Urhobo land. English is
It is pertinent to state here that standard Nigerian English has now undergone nativisation and indigenisation because it is now a blend of British and Nigerian cultures. Bamgbose (1995: 21) was quite accurate in his observation that “English language has undergone modification in the Nigerian environment. It has been pidgnised, nativized, acculturated and twisted to express unaccustomed concepts and mode of interaction.”
In Urhoboland as well as
Another reason for the
endangerment of the
languages in Urhobo culture is the flawed language policy in
With a population of about 1.2 million people, the Urhobo ethnic nationality is supposed to be categorized as a majority language. Vic Webb and Kembo Sure (2000: 41) buttress this fact when they state that “The concept majority and minority are often understood in quantitative terms, that is , a language with a million speakers is regarded as a major language.” This flawed language policy is a reason for the shrinkage of the languages in Urhoboland.
The non-implementation of
Policy on Education (1977), revised in (1981), is a cause of language
endangerment in Urhobo culture.The policy states that children should
either in the mother tongue or the language of immediate
from pre-primary to primary 3 (Bamghose 1992). If this language policy
implemented, Urhobos would be literate in their mother tongue.
16) observes the adverse effect of the non-implementation of this
policy on Nigerian children thus: “Researches have shown that a child
faster when taught in his/her mother tongue rather than a foreign
(Bamghose 1992). Experiments in
Egbokhare adds that the high drop-out rate, and half baked products emerging from our schools can be traced to the non-implementation of the language policy. Egbokhare (2004: 17) concludes with a quotation of Dr. Meville Alexander thus:
An English-only or even an English-mainly policy necessarily condemns most people, and thus the country as a whole, to a permanent state of mediocrity since people are unable to be spontaneous, creative and self confident if they cannot use their first languages.
Due to the “English-mainly” policy, Urhobo parents do not encourage their children to learn and speak the languages in Urhobo land. This has led to a shrinkage in the languages.
Linguists have identified five levels of endangerment that an endangered language undergoes. They are: potentially endangered; endangered; seriously endangered; moribund; and extinct. These degrees of endangerment are used below to discuss the degree of endangerment of each of the three languages in Urhoboland. A random sampling undertaken by the researcher shows that Uvwie is the most endangered out of the three languages due to its urban setting and language exogancy. The language is endangered by Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English. It is now moribund.
Okpe language is seriously endangered in Sapele but it is potentially endangered in other parts of the speech community due to the predominant rural dwelling of the Okpes. It is endangered by Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English. Urhobo is seriously endangered in urban centres; however, it is potentially endangered in the rural areas. The language is endangered by Nigerian Pidgin and English.
ADVERSE EFFECTS OF LANGUAGE ENDANGERMENT IN URHOBOLAND
The languages of Urhobo culture are the main symbol of the people as an ethnic nationality. The languages give their speakers positive self image. The gradual death of these languages is therefore a sign of the disintegration of the unity of the Urhobo nation. Once the languages which bind the Urhobos together die, the basis of their unity and group identity will be undermined.
The gradual death of Urhobo languages is also eroding some of the traditional practices like knowledge of traditional medicinal plants. The folklore and folk tales of the people are being gradually eroded and they may well go into oblivion once the languages go into extinction. Since the Urhobo languages are experiencing language contraction, the precious cultural practices of the people are also shrinking.
A grim picture of the adverse effect of these languages on its speakers if it goes into extinction is captured by the Centre for Endangered Languages in its universal declaration of linguistic rights in Barcelonia (1996: 10) thus:
Language is the key to the heart of a people. If we lose the key, we lose the people. A lost language is a lost tribe, a lost tribe is a lost culture, a lost culture is a lost civilization. A lost civilization is invaluable knowledge lost… the whole vast archives of knowledge and experience in them will be consigned to oblivion.
So, the Urhobos should maintain their languages in order to avoid the pathetic effects of language death on its speakers. Although the languages in Urhoboland do not play the type of economic role that English plays in Urhoboland, the languages do give their speakers numerous advantages over monolinguals.
STRATEGIES FOR REINVIGORATION OF LANGUAGES IN URHOBOLAND
Linguists are now
language revival in many regions of the world. Bradley
that the revival of Hebrew language during the past fifty years is the
remarkable case of language resurgence in the world. He
that the resurgence of Welsh in
The first strategy for the revification of the languages is for the speakers of the languages to change their attitude from the present negative posture to a positive one. Bamgbose (1992: 29) buttresses this fact when he states: “When all is said and done the fate of an endangered language may well be in the hands of the owners of the language themselves and in their will to make it survive.”
Once the speakers can identify the unique qualities of these languages to them, interest in them will be revived. With the revival, intergenerational transmission of the languages from parents to their children will also be revived.
Right now, the speakers of the three languages that constitute the Urhobo culture are not aware that their languages are contracting. This is a major problem for the speakers of an endangered language. The fact that there are young Urhobos who have already experienced language loss and there is also a large army of semi-speakers shows that the languages are tottering inanely to their linguistic graves. Linguists within these speech communities should enlighten the Urhobos on the impending death of their languages and its concomitant cataclysmic effect. This enlightenment will help revitalize the languages.
Anther strategy that can be adopted to stimulate interest of speakers in these languages is to encourage multilingualism among the speakers. An educated Urhobo speaker should be fluent in Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English language while an educated Okpe should be competent in Urhobo, Nigerian Pidgin and English. The same situation should also obtain for the Uvwie speaker. Being fluent in English, for example, does not entail the abandonment of an indigenous language and Nigerian Pidgin. Each of the languages mentioned above has its unique function. Although the languages in Urhobo culture have little or no economic values they have their unique cultural values. These cultural values should be made to stimulate the interest of the younger generation towards reviving these languages.
Finally, the Agbarho
dialect of Urhobo
language, which is a linqua
“People tend to learn the languages that are socially and economically useful to them. This is the linguistic version of the law of maximum return.”
The educational usefulness of the languages will reinvigorate interest in them. The adoption will also halt the falling standard of education in Urhoboland. It will also halt the high illiteracy rate in Urhobo land.
The recognition of
language loss in Urhobo
land is delayed because the speakers are not conscious of it yet.
already conscious of it. They now categorize the present generation of
as the “miguo generation” because they have a modicum knowledge of the
languages. The endangerment of these languages is a premonition
Urhobos are in serious danger of erasure as a people. It is our
if the strategies for the reinvigoration of the languages discussed
favourably considered by the Urhobo people, their languages can be salvaged and empowered again.
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