How is your mother tongue doing? Is it growing or shrinking in usage? Apparently, languages, like living things, can also become endangered and even go extinct, as I discovered recently, of a number of languages spoken in Kenya.
Take the El Molo language for instance. It is spoken by the El Molo people who inhabit the southeastern shores of Lake Turkana. This Afro-Asiatic language is on the verge of extinction if it already is not. Its last known speakers were all around 50 years old in 1994.
The El Molo language seems to possess the proverbial 9 lives of a cat. It was thought to have become extinct in the middle part of the 20th century, but a few speakers were discovered in the latter half of that century, hence resurrecting the language. It later went under again.
Kore language, believed to be a variety of Maa, is spoken among the Kore people. They live on the island of Lamu on the northern Kenya coast. Their language is also believed to be now dead and its speakers seem to be headed in the same direction. By 1985, the Kore people numbered between 200 and 250 (Curtin, 1985).
After being defeated by the Purko Maasai in the 1870s, the Kore fled to northeastern Kenya where they were taken captive by Somali people to work as slaves in their households before being set free by British imperial forces around the end of the 19th century.
Loss of cattle brought them to Lamu Island in the second half of the 20th century. Nowadays, the Kore speak Somali and have adopted many Somali customs.
Omotik, a Nilotic language spoken by the hunter-gatherer Omotik people is also now officially extinct. The last remaining Omotik, who live in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya speak the Maasai language.
Other languages such as Suba, Yaaku and Ogiek are also headed towards the endangered languages list. Their popularity has been waning over the years and they risk taking the same path El Molo, Kore and Omotik languages have travelled.
Suba language, spoken by the under 30,000 Suba people, is not doing too well. The Suba actually prefer to speak the more popular Dholuo language of their neighbouring Luo people than their own. Those who still speak the language are elderly residents residing on the island of Mfangano.
The Yaaku people, on the other hand, adopted the pastoralist culture of the Maasai in the first half of the 20th century, between 1925 and 1936 and abandoned their hunter-gatherers and beekeepers tradition. Nowadays they speak a variety of Maasai known as Mukogodo-Maasai. A few Yaaku still keep bees.
The Ogiek or the Okiek also known as the Akiek, are a Southern Nilotic people who speak Okiek, a language cluster of the Kalenjin family. Most, if not all, Ogiek speakers have assimilated to the cultures of surrounding peoples. The Akiek of northern Tanzania, for instance, now speak Maasai while the Akiek of Kinare in Kenya nowadays speak Gikuyu.
There may be a time, it seems, when the rich diversity of Kenyan languages that make it such a colourful country will come to an end. There will be a need for every effort to be made to halt this worrying trend otherwise most of our mother tongues will become extinct.
Once again I ask, how is your mother tongue doing? Is it thriving, endangered or extinct?