Tend to language so it lives

2010-03-05 16:29

It is one of those books that often slip through the cracks, though it did have a measure of success. I came across the American ­edition randomly and, while I ­don’t have it any longer, it has stayed with me.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by ­Simon Winchester was published in 1998 and tells the story of how one of the early and most prolific contributors was a retired US Army Surgeon called Dr WC Minor, who happened to be in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic ­Asylum.

Documenting the words was intense and time-consuming, so the publishers put it out to a team of volunteers/contributors (in a sort of 18th ­century manual Wikipedia manner) who scoured all ­literature for words, compiling quotations, the root of words, ­meanings and so on.

Dr Minor, due to his incarceration, ­obviously had much time on his hands and is said to have contributed an estimated 150?000 words, of which about 10?000 were to have been included in the first edition of the dictionary.

I hadn’t thought about this book until a recent discussion about how we, as Africans, need to do more to document our history.

In a way, the emphasis on oral history and tradition has lulled us into allowing a great deal of our history to fade with our elders, as they move on to other realms. What our societies looked, ­tasted or felt like resides in their minds and if we do not draw out and document those memories, then all we have is what we think it was like and a biased history created by those in power.

A second component to this situation is that language is also fading. While the English language continues to evolve with new words coming into dictionaries and others fading into history, the majority of African languages are merely dying out. As fewer people speak and write in these languages, the less relevant they seem to be. And their evolution is more a disintegration, with no new words ­being created – the existing words being replaced with those of other ­languages.

Now, we are living in a time where we do not have to go through the painstaking process that the early editors of the Oxford dictionary went through, taking more than 50 years to complete. ­Technology provides us with a less time-consuming process and one can also tap into a wider pool of people.

What it needs is for someone to take responsibility and initiate ­processes to document our rich history and languages in the same way that initiatives like Wikipedia operate. We often look to ­government to deal with these elements of arts and culture and are then disappointed or surprised when it doesn’t happen the way we envisage.

Crowd-sourcing and social media have shown there are other ways of getting things done and I believe that is where the lessons lie, if we are going to ensure our stories, languages, history and our culture are going to be kept alive.

Wikipedia continues to be a fascinating case study for this and, while it is true most Africans continue to have limited or no access to the internet, there are those of us who do. We’re already documenting the present with blogs on music, entertainment, social issues, ­politics, and so on.

Let us also find ways of looking into the past and recording that for the future. Considering the alternatives, the internet really does seem to be the ideal platform to serve as an archive or repository for our language and history.

Just a thought.

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