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Language situation and endangerment in Uganda: Facts and perspectives

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Uganda like many other African countries has a complex and diverse language situation. It has a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, (See Namyalo & Nakayiza 2014) and, according to the Ethnologue (Lewis 2014) home to 41 languages, which belong to four different language families, the Bantu, the Nilotic, the Central Sudanic and the Kuliak languages.

However, the only nation-wide language survey in Uganda was conducted in 1967-1971 (Ladefoged et al 1972). In this survey, an attempt was made to analyse the languages spoken in Uganda, classify them into linguistic groups, identify some phonological features of few of them and draw a preliminary language map for Uganda, (see Mukama 1998:49). Since then no nation-wide language survey of language has ever been conducted, and even newer publications continue to draw from Ladefoged’s survey. Due to the lack of a recent large-scale language survey and the lack of a language question in the population censuses of Uganda, the actual number of languages spoken in Uganda has been reported with variations, (see Katamba (2006), Kwagala et al. (2007), Batibo (2005) among others. In view of this, the paper analyses the historical background and affiliations of Uganda’s languages by providing specific names of these languages and dialects, their geographical locations and the current demographic sizes as per the 2014 population census. In addition to this, their classification in terms of their linguistic families is provided.

The paper further discusses the status and growth of the individual languages in Uganda. It examines which languages for example; possess writing systems, those that are taught in schools, the quantity and quality of literature available in each language, and the degree and level of terminological empowerment in comparison to the status and role of English in Uganda. In addition, the chapter highlights that the roles of indigenous languages are being revitalised. The status of indigenous languages has grown beyond the limited grounds of ‘vernaculars’ spoken by small divided tribes into dignified area languages with important roles in education, socialisation, administration, judiciary, mass media, politicisation and national unification, (see Mukama: 1998:49). Such languages include Luganda, Runyakitara, Acholi, among others. These languages, are used as medium of instruction under the mother tongue based curriculum, they are taught as subjects in schools. In addition, they are widely used in administration, judiciary as well as mass media

The paper ends with a discussion of language expansion, dominance, shift and death in Uganda. It is observed that apart from English, which has been the country’s only official language, and Kiswahili , which has been recently proposed as the second official language, area languages, namely Luganda, Ateso, Runyankore-Rukiga, Runyoro-Rutooro, Dhopadhola, Lugbra, Acholi and Ng’akaramojongo, have continued to expand and dominate smaller languages. This situation is directly and indirectly facilitating language shift, death and endangerment.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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