The right to rant: Preserving the integrity of Yoruba language in news broadcasting

Ropo Ewenla

By Ropo Ewenla

The BBC Yoruba sports desk has a very loud headline for its report of the Arsenal VS Man U match of Sunday, January 22. It reads “Ara San Pa Manchester United Ni Papa Emirates”. It means “Thunder Struck Manchester United Dead in Emirate Stadium. This is alarming to say the least, especially considering that the scoreline reads 3-2 at the end of the match. It is a dramatic win on home ground. Yes. It is a good payback for the home team having been beaten by Mau U on their own turf earlier in the Premiership. Yes.  But then, “thunderous death”? How? Where? When? Why? My initial response was laughter. I was amused. But then I felt that this is a development, growing on us, that we have to pay serious attention to. First, I think the headline undervalues the ethics of journalism except sport reportage is guided by an entirely different code. Second, I think it undermines the potency of Yoruba language as one that is capable of accurately reporting events without resorting to irreverent and sensational hyperbolism.

There is something about the mode and tone of language of news which is supposed to be formal, factual, accurate, explicit, objective and neutral.  There should be no room for ambiguity. The core questions a news report answers are the six basics of who, where, what, when, why and how? Journalism itself is “a profession with a strong element of social responsibility. That is why journalists are required to follow the highest ethical standards – accuracy, balance, impartiality and truthfulness, independent of any commercial or political interests.”

Yoruba as a language is descriptive. Expressive. It is colourful. It is a beautiful language. But then it is not misleading. And so also is journalism. It is a great and noble profession. However, it seems a lot of Yoruba broadcasters particularly those who handle news and current affairs, including sports, seem to be guided by some rule that does not respect the controlling purpose of language in news dissemination. I choke when I hear people doing Yoruba news programmes on the radio describe rape or minor defilement in phrases that evoke laughter. That is pure sacrilege. All in the name of wooing listeners! How base can we get?

Some of the headlines I have encountered on the main BBC page concerning the same match are “Unstoppable Arsenal roll on”, “Manchester United denied in dramatic style”, “Arsenal v Man Utd: ‘Gunners eliminate lingering doubts over title pedigree”, “Late Nketiah goal hands Arsenal win over Manchester United”. Without recourse to verbosity and yet with apt use of language, the point is made. Clearly, simply and with elegance.  There was no thunder. No death. So, where did these children of Baba Londoner school of journalism get their death by thunderous win in a match that ended 3-2 and not 30-2?

The BBC since 1922 has set a somewhat enviable record in broadcasting with its distinctive well-researched content and disciplined but creative presentation.  It has indeed stayed true to its mission statement, which is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.” Irrespective of whatever it delivers to its home country, its core values have always been “trust, respect, quality and value, creativity and togetherness.” With these, it has earned credibility and integrity. Sometimes, if in doubt, check with BBC is almost an aphorism. It is commendable that while Radio Nigeria and Voice of Nigeria have chosen not to reinvent themselves, especially in our rich local languages, the BBC Trust deemed it apt to establish major language units in Nigeria. I however strongly doubt if what this headline in question, like many others of same sports desk, is doing to Yoruba as a language is the original intention. If you want to have a BBC Yoruba sports fun desk all well and good. But if it is fact, it cannot be “faction” and still be news.

We may all wish to be reminded, or informed as the case may be, that the late Professor Akinwunmi Isola did not present an inaugural lecture at the then-University of Ife in those days. Why? Because when it was his turn, he insisted that he was going to deliver it in Yoruba language. No other person in the academic history of the language had done that before. As a matter of fact, Yoruba language dissertations, thesis and long essays were written in English. Few have adopted Yoruba today but majority of our institutions still rely on English language to evaluate the teaching of Yoruba language. Back to the case of Professor Akinwunmi Isola, the university of Ife, said it was not acceptable for him to deliver his inaugural in Yoruba. Why? According to them Yoruba is not an academic language; it cannot be used to describe technical, scholarly terms. Isola’s argument points to the absurdity of denying him, a professor of Yoruba, the chance to pay homage to his language and culture and most importantly, to use that inaugural to debunk this same lame argument that Yoruba language is not competent to address serious academic issues and terminologies.

You may, from the forgoing, understand my angst when I tune into a radio station and Yoruba is being portrayed as a language devoted only to fun. This may be a good time for language policymakers in Yoruba to rise up and speak with one voice. Yoruba language is fun and knowledge intertwined. It is a language that projects the aptness of using the right finger to pick your nose.