Shakespeare: Language activist, world citizen – Part 1

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

On June 16, 1976, the children of Soweto in South Africa took to the streets to protest the latest insult heaped on the black peoples of South Africa by the minority Apartheid government which had passed an unending stream of restrictive laws which circumscribed the lives of every non-white citizen of that unfortunate country. The Boers as the mainly Dutch settlers living in South Africa had come to power in the Republic in 1948 and since then had moved to consolidate their power over the majority non-white people through what could be and indeed under the circumstances be regarded as legitimate laws.

Perhaps the most intrusive and provocative of these laws were the Pass laws which effectively caged every black man, woman and child in the Republic and made their lives an open book which could be read at will by an army of minor officials whose only occupation was to see that the Blacks were kept in their place at the bottom of the pile. There were many other laws which the Blacks had to endure and did endure and more they endured, the more the laws kept tumbling out of the seat of power in Pretoria and the more the noose tightened across the collective neck of all Black South Africans.

However, when one more law was loaded unto the camel of Black public opinion, it broke the poor camel’s back and provoked a backlash which was to prove to be the single action which led to the abrogation of White minority rule in South Africa because less than 20 years after the youths of Soweto bared their collective chest to the bullets of their overlords, apartheid was consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Apartheid government did not envisage the strength of reaction that was unleashed by the passage of the simple law which made Afrikaans, the backwoods language spoken by the Boers and which had no currency outside South Africa, the only language of instruction in all schools in the country, in effect displacing English from the curriculum. The black children of South Africa saw this law for what it really was, a trivialisation of their education since it made it impossible for them to be part of the rest of the world. The young people insisted that they be taught in the language spoken by most of the rest of the world and that language is English.

The language with the largest number of speakers in the world is Mandarin but by some distance, the most widely spoken language in the world is English which is spoken to some degree in virtually all countries of the world as it is now the language of commerce so that many Mandarin speakers have English as their second language and take considerable effort to acquire English in one way or the other. Apart from being the language of global commerce, English is also the language of entertainment as Hollywood productions are consumed all over the world and virtually all the hit songs are rendered in some form of English. The use of English is so pervasive that anyone who shows a deficiency in this language is unlikely to be taken seriously especially in the global academic community where the language of discourse in virtually all subjects is English.

The current dominance of the English language is deeply ironic because even in England, English was not used as a language of instruction in universities and Francis Bacon, the great English man of letters wrote his books in Latin and it was only towards the end of his distinguished career that he took the trouble and it was a great deal of trouble, to translate his works into English as it was the language of the vast majority of English people who had no access to any form of formal education.

English was a German dialect the use of which was actively discouraged by William the Conqueror and his knight who had crossed the English Chanel in 1066 and made French the language of the English Court and so the language of civilised intercourse was French just as Latin was the language of the learned. It was not until the opening years of the 16th century that English became the language of the English court and it is an interesting coincidence that the man who promoted the English language more than any other person was William Shakespeare, born in Stratford upon Avon on April 23, 1564 and died in the same town and probably in the same bed 52 years later making 400 years since the bard, perhaps the most influential man who ever lived died. And these many years later his influence is not only huge must increasing, not only for the elegance and beauty of his words but because no other writer in any language has captured the human condition as completely and as honestly as Shakespeare was able to do.
To be continued
• Lamikanra contributed the piece via Adebayo.lamikanra@gmail.com

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1 Comment
  • Ayo Faleti

    Why are we Africans so willingly enthralled by other people’s things? Today’s English, as a language, came from aristocratic Norman-French and the Saxon spoken by the plebs, after the Battle of Hastings; with William the Conqueror adding the area currently called England to his kingdom. Contrary to some assertions in this write-up, serious peoples of the world take Shakespeare for who he was – a great writer of the English language (period!); they never forget about their own heritage and the important personages who have contributed positively (and negatively) to that heritage (ask the Chinese, Germans or Japanese). Serious nations certainly never adopt other people’s heroes, while having little or no appreciation of their own. Africa will NOT achieve its potential if Africans continue on this track of glorifying everything foreign while discounting their own.

    By all means take Shakespeare for who he was, but ‘let the dead bury their dead’. Let’s extol our own significant personages of near and distant past.

    ‘Ile ni a ti nko esho rode’.

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