This coming February,Prof Ngugi wa Thiongo will be back home in a whirlwind tour to promote his new book ‘Kenda Muiyuru’ which is written in Gikuyu language.Ngugi has been consistent in his call for Africans to write in their own languages if they are to preserve their culture, identity and communal soul. While in a book launch in Kisumu, the Literature Prof. asked Kenyans to support local dialects as a way of empowerment.
When Ngugi came up with the idea of writing in Gikuyu in the ‘80s, most thought he had lost it.But history has come to absolve him. Look, every day we have new Gikuyu radio and TV station coming up. These stations need newsreaders, script writers, editors, drama writers and content developers who are adept in the Gikuyu language. Never in the history of our language were fluent Gikuyu speakers in so high demand.Infact, I always remind my daughter that she can increases her chances of being a news reader by learning to speak Gikuyu well, unlike her age mates who speak a mongrel tongue called Xaxa.
Away from Ngugi, the term ‘dialect’ means a particular form of language which is peculiar to a specific region or group. The word is not without some offshoots. Acrolect refers to the most prestigious dialect, while basilect refers to the least prestigious dialect of a language.Sociolect refers to a dialect of a particular social class. Like that particular dialect of those rich Harrier –driving Gikuyu women traders who say ‘ashaaa’ instead of ‘aca’.Idiolect refers to speech habits peculiar to a particular person. An example here is the way you can say that so and so likes using the word ‘irregardless’ which is a non-word. So much for the linguistics lessons for now.
Going to Gikuyu language, it would be interesting to interrogate the above terms emanating from dialect. First, how many dialects does the language have? Most linguistic scholars will tell you that Gikuyu language has four distinct dialects-Kirinyaga,Nyeri,Murang’a and Kiambu.The Kirinyaga dialect is further split into Ndia and Gichugu-the most sing song dialect of the Gikuyu. Listening to a person talk in Gichugu is like listening to poetry-since it’s marked with repeated rise and fall of rhythm that makes it distinct.Ndia is also unique and spoken around Kerugoya and Kutus.In short, the Kirinyaga dialect has unique language features and few Gikuyu speakers can easily point it out.
As for the other three dialects of Kiambu, Murang’a and Nyeri,I am yet to come along a comprehensive study of what constitutes ,or differentiates the 3 dialects.Two,are there sub-dialects with say,Nyeri Gikuyu? Do Mathira and Othaya people speak the same Nyeri dialect? Do Mathioya and Gatanga people speak the same Murang’a Gikuyu?
Thirdly, the House of Mumbi has a very large diaspora that has been out of home for many years. Meaning that some could have evolved their own dialect over the years. For example, what dialect do the Rift Valley Gikuyu-some of them whom settled there in the 1930s- speak? What dialect is spoken by the Lamu Gikuyu? Do Gikuyu makangas or say Gikuyu chokoras have their own unique Gikuyu dialect?
Finally, now to more controversial issues. Do the Gikuyu dialects have social hierarchy? Is Ndia sub-dialect, for example, less prestigious than Nyeri dialect? Does a rich Gikuyu man who was born and brought up in Muthaiga speak different Gikuyu from a coffee peasant from Murio wa Nda in Muran’ga?
February is Black History month world over. Language is part of history. We believe that language is an integral part of human existence, a source of identity and a means of recording human experience. To pay homage to Black history, we will focus our attention to language in the month of February.
Since it’s not possible to interrogate all languages here in one month, our focus will be the various dialects of the Gikuyu language and their defining features. Our aim is to show that our languages are as unique and deep as any other language, be it Latin, French or Mandarin. In the words of Cheikh Anta Diop,
“European languages must not be considered diamonds displayed under a glass ball, dazzling us with their brilliance”