Stop the death of isiXhosa

Middle class not proud of their heritage. As South Africans celebrate Heritage Day on Monday, academics and African languages' specialists warned of the death of isiXhosa — the cornerstone and one-time proud heritage of the Xhosa speaking people.

isiXhosa is spoken in all nine provinces of the country and neighbouring African nations, but predominantly in the Eastern and Western Cape. According to experts, the emergence and influence of social networks and media sites has drifted the middleclass, especially the youth, further from their mother tongue, with English being the dominant language preference. Professor Peter Mtuze, author, publisher and retired African language professor at both Rhodes University and Fort Hare, said the fact there was no mainstream isiXhosa newspaper was proof the language was unpopular.

"Since the demise of Imvo, a Xhosa newspaper, we have not seen any relevant newspaper written in isiXhosa. In provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, you have prominent newspapers written in IsiZulu supported by their people. Imvo did not survive because no one was reading it," Prof Mtuze said.

He said Xhosa speaking people were not proud to read and write in their language and therefore not proud of their own heritage.

This might result in the demise of isiXhosa as a language," he said. Prof Mtuze, who has published a number of Xhosa books, said a summit was needed for custodians of isiXhosa to come together and find a solution.

Mr Lukhanyo Sigonyela, Provincial Senior Language Practitioner for the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb), echoed Prof Mtuze's sentiments.

"Our indigenous languages are below par compared to English and Afrikaans in this country. Xhosa speaking people don't see the value in their language, but if you speak nice English people see you as intelligent. Our mind set needs to change," he said.

He said Pansalb was an advocate of African languages and its role was to create equitable use of official languages in South Africa.

 He said middle class Xhosa-speaking people should shoulder the blame, adding that they found English "sexier".

"The middle class are killing the language. They are dangerous because they are trend setters. They are responsible for producing a generation of English speakers who look down on their mother tongue," Mr Sigonyela said.

He said government officials and politicians did not help when they addressed meetings in English when there were no English speakers present.

Acting Editor-in-Chief of the isiXhosa National Lexicography unit at the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Mr Zola Wababa, said isiXhosa had been surpassed by English, a language associated with status. He said while isiXhosa was the dominant language in the Eastern Cape, there was no economic value attached to it.

"Publishers are reluctant to publish a Xhosa book because they don't see the market value," Mr Wababa said.

Mr Manzi Vabaza, spokesperson for the department of Arts and Culture said a lot was being done to promote indigenous languages.

He said, as a department, they had spearheaded the formulation of a language policy, which was passed by the provincial cabinet last year to preserve indigenous languages. Mr Vabaza said his department was working to make sure no language had hegemony over another, adding that the department had a responsibility to communicate with its people in the language they are most comfortable using.

  • This article was published on the Eastern Cape Today.