It is quite bewildering to know of a tribe with different languages spoken by the male and female members of a community, considering the possible difficulty which could be encountered in the communication process.
However, the Ubang people see no limiting factor in the uniqueness of their existence as they have lived with their lingual difference which they have passed down from generation to generation.
This unique community -in Obudu Local Government Area, in the northern region of Cross-River State, Nigeria- is shrouded in mystery regarding its origin which stemmed from oral literature and mythical beliefs.
A school of thought attributed the tribe’s conflicting language to the Biblical Tower of Babel story. They believed that Ubang was given two languages because they were the most stubborn sect that persisted in completing the forbidden project.
One myth also passed down generations depicted God standing on a high mountain called Okwe Asirikwe while sharing languages with each community in the world. He gave Ubang people two languages to avoid returning to heaven with a language to spare. This myth was backed by the claim of an enormous footpath on the mountaintop.
In an interview with BBC Africa, Chief Oliver Ibang -the community leader- said that the dual language in the community occurred when God created Adam and Eve. According to him, they were of the Ubang tribe.
“God planned to give each ethnic group two languages, but after creating the first two languages for the Ubang people, he realized there were not enough languages to go around. So he stopped, that’s why Ubang has the benefit of two languages- we’re different from other people in the world,” he explained.
It was learnt that the tribe has about 11 communities as of 150 years ago but is currently left with only three (Okweriseng, Ofambe and Okira) communities due to inter-tribal conflict.
Predominantly farmers, they had to learn the language of neighbouring communities like Alege, Okpe, Bete, Boki, Ijagam and Utugwang for economic transactions.
However, it is quite difficult for these neighbouring villages to learn and master either Ziebenche which is the male’s language or Iziebenyinye spoken by the female counterparts. This made them admired by nearby villages as the uniqueness brought a sense of awe to them.
How Do They Understand Themselves?
Chi Chi Undie, an anthropologist who studied the community, explained that the variations are far greater than the type which exists between British and American versions of the English language.
“It’s almost like two different lexicons. There are a lot of words that men and women share in common. Then there are others that are different depending on your sex. They don’t sound alike or have the same letters. They are completely different words.”
However, Ms Undie explained that they practice dual-sex culture. “Men and women operate in almost two separate spheres. It’s like they’re in separate worlds, but sometimes those worlds come together and you can see that pattern in the language as well”, she said.
Corroborating this, Chief Ibang believes this results from boys growing up speaking the Iziebenyinye due to their close affinity with their mothers and other women.
“Boys are expected to speak the Ziebenche at age 10. There is a stage the male will reach and he discovers he is not using his rightful language. Nobody will tell him he should change to Ziebenche as he automatically does”, he added.
He further stated that a man learning to speak the Ziebenche portrays a sign of maturity. Such a child will be considered abnormal if he fails to switch to the right language by a certain age.
Challenges To Sustaining The Rich Culture
Indigenous languages in Nigeria are facing threats of extinction in the face of neglect of their native tongue. It is no news that the young generations are discouraged from learning their dialect through disciplinary actions taken against them in schools and homes.
It is believed that intelligent students speak English fluently, even at the detriment of their mother tongues, while the localized English language (Pidgin) portrays the youth as being street-smart.
These anomalies prompted linguistic experts across the country to hold the 18th University Press Plc’s yearly Authors’ Forum at the University of Ibadan in 2016 where Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose delivered the lecture titled ‘Neglect of Nigerian Languages and Culture: Counting the Cost’.
Identifying factors behind the steady decline in sustaining indigenous language in Nigeria, He bemoaned the lack of a common language of communication, inadequate terminology for most modern expressions, need for modernization and globalization among others.
He also blamed the usage of English as the predominant language of communication in contemporary primary education in Nigeria.
In his words, “The gain of the past has been eroded. Mother tongue education is only on paper as private nursery and primary schools teach in English and linguistically mixed urban schools also do the same. Hence, many of the products of primary education are neither competent in English nor their mother tongue. The deficiency is carried over to secondary schools and the university level.”
In the case of the Ubang tribe, no previous attempt has been made to document the differing languages. The only source of knowledge transfer is oral interaction, which unfortunately has proven unreliable in quality due to the average youth’s low fluency level in language use.
Students who speak the language in schools are punished and discouraged from speaking those mother tongues in schools.
In the recommendations given by Joyce Ifeoma, she advised the provision of orthography for most Nigerian languages by linguists. She also pushed for developing indigenous languages to fit into the modern scientific and technological culture.
Lastly, she urged the adoption of the mother tongue as the language of instruction in Nigerian schools.