BUKENYA: Prof said I was a linguist masquerading in literature

Saturday November 11 2017

Okoth Okombo

Prof Okoth Okombo. He is generally regarded as the father of sign language studies in Africa. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

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I believe 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 Okoth-Okombo 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.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]