Language and poetry
If you were to write a poem, what language would you write it in? Does that sound like a question with an obvious answer?
For me, I’m English born so I write in English. But, for a young African person in Mali, for example, the question of which language to write in could be complex.
Let’s take the example of a young Minyanka man in the south of Mali. Minyanka is also called Mamara and is one of Mali’s national languages. He wants to write a poem for a competition. He has a number of choices.
- Does he write in French which he doesn’t speak or write very well but which he learnt at school?
- Does he write in Bambara which he learnt to write in a literacy class. Bambara is the language which he uses when working in the large town, and which is widely understood in Mali? Or,
- Does he write in Minianka, the language of his heart, which he learnt to write through his primary school class but which is not used outside of his local area?
Perhaps his choice would be influenced by the competition. If it was a competition proposed by the local radio station maybe a submission in Minyanka would be accepted. Even if the competition was a national one Minyanka might be accepted because it is one of the ‘national’ languages of Mali. But then he may have limited readers – who can read Minyanka outside of the south of Mali? Perhaps for that reason he might choose to write in Bambara, one of the more widely used languages of Mali, or even French. Perhaps he would even go to the extent of writing the poem in Minyanka, but translate it into French and send both versions into the competition.
You see? In many African countries it is not easy!
An older article in the journal of African Travel-Writing discusses this issue of the creative process and language. It looks at all sides of the argument and if you are interested in sociolinguistics or language use I think you’ll find it interesting.
Look at Mother Tongue: Interviews with Musaemura B. Zimunya and Solomon Mutswairo and see what you think.