Unity in Pluralism: It’s a-one-nation-several-tongues distin

by Komla Selikem


The English language became part of our national linguistic repertoire through colonialism. While one would expect the language to exhibit a high level of purity and stability, it has experienced considerable change in Ghana. This change has roots in our socio-cultural practices, especially our indigenous languages. Consider words such as ‘enstoolment’, ‘enskinment’, ‘outdooring’, among others. These are canonical Ghanaian English coinages that entered the lexical fold of English, originating from chieftaincy and a rite of passage.

Further, other salient features of indigenous-Ghanaian languages are present in the variety of English generally spoken in Ghana today. Prominent among these features, is the sound patterns of the languages. It is, however, difficult, but not entirely impossible, to point out the individual languages from which these features are transferred to the sound system of English. This difficulty lies in the inherent similarities that exist among indigenous-Ghanaian languages. For example, to my knowledge, no indigenous-Ghanaian language has the theta (θ), in thin, and eth (ð), in that, sounds in its sound inventory. Further, it is a common feature of indigenous-Ghanaian languages to have, with few exceptions, form and sound correspondences, such that every letter in a word is assigned a sound and pronounced.

It should be noted that research underscores the transfer of linguistic features from one language to the other among multilinguals. Bearing these facts in mind, is it any wonder a speaker of an indigenous-Ghanaian language is very likely to pronounce the /t/ in English words such as soften, fasten, among others, and assign a sound to each of the letters in the word quay? The transfer phenomenon described here explains for the sound profile of distin, a Ghanaian-social-media lingo. Distin is a derivative of ‘this’ and ‘thing’. The sounds of indigenous-Ghanaian-languages that are closest to the eth and theta are /d/ and /t/ respectively. Also, many indigenous-Ghanaian languages do not allow word-final consonant clusters. It is, therefore, not surprising that many Ghanaians substitute the ‘eth’ and ‘theta’ for the /d/ and /t/ and drop the word-final /g/, yielding distin.

As varying reflexes of this transfer phenomenon are ubiquitous, it is noteworthy that the linguistic behavior of many Ghanaians is replete with them, resulting in a variety of English that is quite distinct from other world ‘Englishes’. In essence, our languages have contributed collectively to the development of our variety of English.

Despite the apparent unity in their linguistic systems, like Bambara, French, Igbo, Italian, Russian, Yoruba, and other languages of the world, our indigenous languages are idiosyncratically complex and systematic. Therefore, regardless of the social roles that these languages are assigned, none is superior to the other. Each one of them is useful and crucial in specific contexts, indexing the fact that there is no ordinal relationship among them. This characterization is true of the numerous dialects of these indigenous languages as well. It follows then that Ghanaians are equipped with the socio-economic and cognitive benefits that are characteristic linguistic pluralism and multilingualism.

Facebook Comments