John Otim, a writer, poet, and teacher at All Saints University, Lango.

Rhino, Lango symbolWithin the past 40 years the Lango language or Leblango, as it is called, has changed dramatically. This was not entirely a surprise. The people themselves have changed fundamentally within this same period. A good part of a generation or two was lost. Unaccounted for. A new and mostly young people have come into their own under the most trying circumstances. Many of them grew up in refugee camps. They missed out on education. They missed out on job training. Today, youth unemployment is endemic.

Young people are one of the most neglected groups in northern Uganda. Over 21 years of conflict, whole generations have missed out on education, training, jobs and, by implication, the ability to become economically and socially empowered” International Alert.

With the transition, from a vanished generation to a new generation, came change in the language. Old words, long since disused, reappeared: operakino, otukakino, ochorakino, okanyakino. They added nothing new. Their appeal remained limited. Listening to the few that spoke it, the image of a drowning man clutching at straws comes to mind. Desperation! There it was! The sun is coming up.  A people yearning to go out and graze their animals. Alas, their once teeming herds of cattle were no longer there. Someone had taken them. By force of arms. Newspaper reports talked of people in the planes seeing endless lines of cattle driven away from the region.

Change is the condition of life. Living things change, a sign that they are alive. Change by itself is not a statement of good health. Sometimes change is the result of decay. Wholesale removal of the means of livelihood for an entire ethnic group can lead to disaster, which in turn impacts on the language they speak.

Regardless of assurances from international bodies dedicated to watching over world languages, to the effect that the Lango language is doing well, it is impertinent to pause the question given the situation here on the ground. Is Leblango dying?

One of the ways Leblango has undergone change over the recent past is in the addition of new words. In the future, some linguist will tell just how many new words have been added in the past 40 years. They will tell, how this compares with development in the nearby languages. There is no doubt that Lango language today enjoys a much richer vocabulary than it did 40 years ago. This is a good sign.

Some new words have come into the language to denote totally new concepts. Others have come to express concepts that were there before but were not at the fore. Such new words as wibiye (politics), otedero (ordinary people), biacara (profit), camucana (corruption), aparcwinya (my love). All these were concepts and realities that existed.

One aspect of Leblango that has experienced a lot of change are the nouns. In the past there were many nouns in the language for which the singular also expressed the plural. Today there is a trend for plurals and plural creation. Here are a few examples.




New plural

Gali (bicycle)




Buk (book)








Pali (trousers)




Pala (knife)




Otoka (car)




These new developments are the result of pressure arising from nearby languages especially English whose nouns abound in plural forms. Yet, here too, one may observe the workings of the phenomenon we have described. That is to say, the result of desperation arising from an acute problem in society, in this case, the prolonged war in northern Uganda. That then manifests in the language. Two issues arise out of this. How to direct and manage language change. How to spell new and emerging words in a logical and consistent manner.

Which leads us back to the fundamental problem in the Lango language. The problem of orthography.

  1. What are the sounds of the language? Do they include the ‘s’ sound and the ‘h’ sounds? I believe they do. I first made this affirmation 10 years ago at a Lango Language Workshop. The orthography issued by the Lango Language Board, exclude those 2 sounds.
  2. How do we spell the words of the language?
  3. Where does one word come to an end and another word begins?
  4. How do we write these words to make sentences?
  5. Do we need a new orthography to guide us?

We know that an orthography is validated only when users of the language freely accept and use the orthography. An orthography that gathers dust on the shelves is not a functional orthography.

To get back to the key question of the paper: Is Leblango in danger? Despite apparent buoyancy in the language today, the answer to the question is, I am afraid, yes. The following are signs that there are problems in the language.

  • Paucity of writing and publishing in Leblango.
  • Total absence of TV broadcasting in Leblango.
  • Near absence of Leblango cinema and Leblango videos.
  • Poor showing of Leblango on the internet.
  • Emergence of fake words: owobe, onyira, Langis.

Endangered languages undergo changes of simplification and reduction, a process known as language obsolescence (Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences).

Could this be what is happening to Leblango? Albeit in a yet mild and undefined manner. Could the use of new plurals for words already in plural, could the widespread use of fake words, could the wholesale borrowing of words from other languages (to replace words that already exist), could they in the end amount to this? What should be done?

Consider this. The health of a language is inseparable from the culture of its people. Which means that we could never solve the problem of language solely at the level of language. We must look to literature, we must look to music, to dance, to theater. In the great age of media (read: internet) we must look to journalism.