Ghana calls an end to tyrannical reign of the Queen’s English
© Afua Hirsch, reporting from Accra for the Guardian
Voice of colonialism gives way to local form of English that’s ‘flexible and fun’ as opposed to giving language ‘a good beating’
Question: “Have you eat?” Reply: “No I go eat after small small.” This is just one of the turns of phrase Ghanaians employ, in the words of one local commentator, “to give the Queen’s English a good beating”.
But as Ghanaians join their west African neighbours – following the examples of Nigerian Pidgin and Sierra Leonean Krio – in speaking their inherited colonial tongue with growing creative licence, a row is breaking out about what really is the proper way to speak English.
On one side of the fence are the old-school Ghanaians who were taught throughout their education to mimic received pronunciation – or BBC English, as it is popularly known – with varying degrees of success.
On the other side, a backlash is growing against the old mentality of equating a British accent with prestige. Now the practice has a new acronym, LAFA, or “locally acquired foreign accent”, and attracts derision rather than praise.
“In the past we have seen people in Ghana try to mimic the Queen’s English, speaking in a way that doesn’t sound natural. They think it sounds prestigious, but frankly it sounds like they are overdoing it,” said Professor Kofi Agyekum, head of linguistics at the University of Ghana.
“There has been a significant change now, away from those who think sounding English is prestigious, towards those who value being multilingual, who would never neglect our mother tongues, and who are happy to sound Ghanaian when we speak English.”
Ghana has nine indigenous languages that are officially sponsored by the government, including Akan languages spoken widely in the south. A further 26 languages are officially recognised and at least double that number are also spoken. Unlike its francophone neighbours, which were forced under colonialism to teach only in French, Ghana has alwaysmaintained the use of African languages in its primary school education.
But the idea that sounding “British” carries prestige also has a long history in Ghanaian society, manifesting itself in the country’s struggle for independence in the 1940s and 50s, when an ideological difference emerged between an Oxbridge-educated Ghanaian elite and more radical, left-leaning leaders.
Now, more than 50 years later and more than 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade saw an influx of Christian missionaries imposing British language and literature, Ghanaians are embracing a new standard: Ghanaian English.
“The idea that intelligence is linked to English pronunciation is a legacy from colonial thinking,” said Delalorm Semabia, 25, a Ghanaian blogger. “People used to think that if you speak like the British then you are as intelligent as the British. But now we are waking up to the fact that we have great people here who have never stepped outside the borders.”
“The best example of Ghanaian English on the international scene is [former UN secretary general] Kofi Annan’s clear diction,” said Ghanaian columnist Kofi Amenyo. “The man maintains the Ghanaian features in his pronunciation and yet succeeds in being easily understood by the peoples of the world.”
For Ghana’s younger generation, though, the move towards Ghanaian English is less about elder statesmen, and more about music and technology.
“In the 90s many local artists wanted to sound like Usher or Jay-Z, but now they are taking local names and branding themselves locally,” said Semabia. “Little by little, people are embracing the use of our own languages – for example, now we can Google in Akan.
“For us, English is our language – we want to break away from the old strictures, to personalise it, mix it with our local languages, and have fun with it. The whole point of language is that it’s supposed to be flexible and it’s meant to be fun.”
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