Prof said I was a lin­guist mas­querad­ing in lit­er­a­ture

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - WEEKEND - AUSTIN BUKENYA Prof Bukenya is a lead­ing East African scholar of English and Lit­er­a­ture. abub­wase@ya­

Ibe­lieve I told you the story. I asked the pro­fes­sor to pick up a set of my aca­demic tran­scripts from Dar es Salaam for me. He did and, ap­par­ently, he could not help steal­ing a glance at my grades. So, as he was hand­ing me the pack­age, he non­cha­lantly said to me, “Austin, you are a lin­guist mas­querad­ing in Lit­er­a­ture.”

Here was a clas­sic ex­am­ple of a dou­ble-edged com­pli­ment. I did not par­tic­u­larly rel­ish that bit about mas­querad­ing, and I will de­fend my­self against it some day. But I was gen­uinely flat­tered by be­ing recog­nised as a “lin­guist” by one of the most re­spected lin­guis­tic au­thor­i­ties of our times and climes. For the speaker was none other than our re­cently and dearly de­parted Prof Dun­can Okoth-okombo.

I will not eu­lo­gise this won­der­ful man and scholar, for three sim­ple rea­sons. First, so many of my friends and col­leagues seem to be de­part­ing that if I in­sist on talk­ing per­son­ally about them, my col­umn risks be­com­ing an obit­u­ary page. Se­condly, Prof Okothokombo was such a giant among us that there is no short­age of trib­utes paid to him by more knowl­edge­able and close col­leagues.

Thirdly and most im­por­tantly, I be­lieve that Prof would prob­a­bly have been hap­pier with me shar­ing ideas with you than re­gal­ing you with my per­sonal mem­o­ries of him. So, we will de­vote our time to­day to a close look at this “lin­guist” and “lin­guis­tics” thing that Prof be­lieved we had in com­mon, and what it has to do with us in our ev­ery­day lives.

A lin­guist, in the pop­u­lar mind, is a per­son who knows many lan­guages. I do not know if I qual­ify as a lin­guist on that score. I may claim rea­son­able pro­fi­ciency in Lu­ganda, English, Kiswahili, French and Latin. I can even say “keif al-hal” and a few other things in Ara­bic. But that does not make me a lin­guist. A speaker of many lan­guages is sim­ply a poly­glot.

A true lin­guist is a per­son who prac­tises lin­guis­tics, and lin­guis­tics is the sci­ence of lan­guage. That is pretty sim­ple, is it not? Lan­guage is the hu­man fa­cil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate through sys­tem­atic con­ven­tional vo­cal sym­bols. Lin­guis­tics, like physics, is a sci­ence in the sense that it stud­ies lan­guage ob­jec­tively and ex­per­i­men­tally, re­ly­ing on ob­served, and prov­able em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence.

But that is the way we talk in lec­ture and sem­i­nar rooms. Let us get back to prac­ti­cal mat­ters. We have just said that a lin­guist prac­tices lin­guis­tics. This means that lin­guis­tics is a job, like medicine. A lin­guis­tic prac­ti­tioner does the job of lan­guage, just as a med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner does the job of medicine or a le­gal prac­ti­tioner does law.

The lin­guists’ du­ties in the prac­tice of their skills are mul­ti­tude and we can­not enu­mer­ate all of them here. The dis­ci­pline of lin­guis­tics com­prises sev­eral branches, in which lin­guis­tic pro­fes­sion­als spe­cialise. There is, for ex­am­ple, struc­tural lin­guis­tics, which deals with the build­ing blocks of lan­guage: its sounds, word for­ma­tions and changes, mean­ings and the way we string them to­gether to com­mu­ni­cate. This is where you hear the big terms like phonol­ogy, lex­i­col­ogy, mor­phol­ogy, se­man­tics and syn­tax.

Do you re­mem­ber the char­ac­ter, in the TV com­edy Mind Your Lan­guage, who asks if syn­tax (“sin-tax”) is the money we pay in church? In pop­u­lar speech, the study of the struc­ture of lan­guage is called gram­mar, and, as Okoth Okombo al­ways in­sisted, you can­not claim com­pe­tence in a lan­guage with­out a sure grasp of this. In­deed, in one of the trib­utes re­cently paid to him, the good Prof has been de­scribed as a “gram­mar­ian”.

Two other ar­eas of lin­guis­tics I would like to men­tion as we re­mem­ber Okoth Okombo are So­ci­olin­guis­tics and Ap­plied Lin­guis­tics. They are closely re­lated, and cru­cially rel­e­vant to you and me as mem­bers of so­ci­ety and as users of lan­guage. Af­ter all, it is a tru­ism to say that we all con­stantly pro­duce and con­sume lan­guage.

So­ci­olin­guis­tics, which sys­tem­at­i­cally stud­ies how lan­guage op­er­ates in so­ci­ety, throws light on such phe­nom­ena as mul­ti­lin­gual­ism, di­alects and other va­ri­eties of lan­guage, like slang, ar­gots and pid­gins. What, for ex­am­ple, is the sta­tus of Sheng in Kenya, and what can be done about it? But this al­ready lands us in Ap­plied Lin­guis­tics.

This has been my main in­ter­est in lin­guis­tics ever since I landed in it 50 years ago, guided by lu­mi­nar­ies like my beloved Mwal­imu, Prof Mo­hamed H. Ab­du­laziz, who is still toil­ing at it at UON. In other words, I be­lieve that all lin­guis­tic work should be di­rectly aimed at help­ing peo­ple and so­ci­eties use lan­guages com­pe­tently and pro­duc­tively for their hap­pi­ness and pros­per­ity.

Ap­plied Lin­guis­tics does this by us­ing all avail­able knowl­edge about lan­guage to ad­dress chal­lenges like lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion and lan­guage poli­cies, in­clud­ing the man­age­ment of lan­guage for so­cial co­he­sion. Lan­guage pol­icy in­cludes all the ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sions made by a so­ci­ety to en­sure op­ti­mal use of its lin­guis­tic re­sources.

In mul­ti­lin­gual coun­tries, like Kenya, for ex­am­ple, de­ci­sions have to be made about which lan­guages to study, pro­mote and use, na­tion­ally, in­ter­na­tion­ally and lo­cally. Even more im­por­tantly, ef­fec­tive steps have to be taken to en­sure im­ple­men­ta­tion of the de­ci­sions taken. We know, for ex­am­ple, that Kiswahili is Kenya’s na­tional lan­guage, and English is an of­fi­cial lan­guage.

But what do these des­ig­na­tions mean, and how do they ac­tu­ally op­er­ate in our day-to-day deal­ings, in as­sem­blies, the courts, the schools and the me­dia? Where, for ex­am­ple, does Ngugi’s vig­or­ous ad­vo­cacy of our “na­tional regional lan­guages” come in? These are mat­ters that should prob­a­bly be best en­trusted to ex­perts and pro­fes­sion­als, the lin­guists.

But are they al­ways con­sulted and lis­tened to in the mak­ing of those vi­tal de­ci­sions or are we left to the whims and emo­tions of politi­cians and op­por­tunists? If our so­ci­eties are go­ing to recre­ate and re­gen­er­ate them­selves, we might as well start with ra­tio­nal and in­formed ap­proaches to the won­der­ful gift of lan­guage.

Re­mem­ber, in the be­gin­ning was the word, and the word was the “alam-al-khalq” by which we were all cre­ated.

I be­lieve that Prof would prob­a­bly have been hap­pier with me shar­ing ideas with you than re­gal­ing you with my per­sonal mem­o­ries of him. So, we will de­vote our time to­day to a close look at this “lin­guist” and “lin­guis­tics” thing that Prof be­lieved we had in com­mon, and what it has to do with us in our ev­ery­day lives”


Prof Okoth Okombo, who died in Nairobi last Thurs­day.

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