The Pulse: What about Language in Nigerian Cinema?

In The Pulse, our new feature section, we’ll connect different voices on topics in Black Film.  We’ll ask a question, frame it, and then connect with some of the many modes of answering that question.  In this first installation, we’ll look at the conversation about language in Nigerian Cinema. 

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Language does many things in cinema.  It produces, packages, and reflects culture. It validates and sanctions particular tongues. It denotes an audience and creates revenue streams.  And among many other things, it plays.

In Nigeria, whose 158 million citizens speak some 500 languages, the film industry puts out 1,000 to 2,000 films a year.  A global audience estimated in the hundreds of millions (if not more) watches these films, which are dubbed, subtitled, or already in an accessible language (mostly, but not always, English).

What matters, then, about language in Nigerian cinema?

The national dialogue on films in indigenous languages –from online messageboards to newspaper editorials to facebook – is particularly robust these days, due in no small part to the visibility of 2011’s 5th Festival of Indigenous African Language Films.  This, too, against a trend of de-Anglicization of Nigerian films in recent years.

“While Nigeria has been busy discussing how to decolonize television screens for the past 60 years, the Nollywood industry has done so in less than 30 years, yet the success of the industry still has its own problems that need to be carefully articulated, since it bears on our very being as people,” said Dr. Onookome Okome in a presentation at the festival, according to The Sun.

L-R: Segun Adefila, Bukola Awoyemi and Tunde Kelani on the set of Arugba (2010), a Yoruba film. . © 2011 Mainframe Film and Television Productions

Not that the process has been homogenous and weighted evenly, as languages in Nigerian films do not mirror Nigeria’s linguistic composition[i].

“What happened to the Igbo Language Film?” asks Onyeka Nwelue in a post on YNaija.com. Though the Igbo film Living In Bondage (1992) is widely acknowledged as the first Nollywood film[ii],  very few (less than one percent) of films made in Nigeria today are in Igbo.  The common narrative is that Igbo filmmakers prefer making films in English, while Yoruba and Hausa filmmakers make films in their respective languages.  “What has made the Igbos think that it is better and more commercial to do these films in English? If making a film in English guarantees awesome box office sales, why do Yoruba movies still do well?” queries Nwelue, pushing for more Igbo film production.

Harris Chuma, president of the Igbo Film Forum, is leading the charge to do just that, organizing the first Igbo film festival earlier this year. “This festival will focus on addressing the issue of fallen Igbo Language and the need for Igbo filmmakers to embrace the new direction,” said Chuma.

“Any tribe that loses its language has invariably lost its identity,” writes Ebele Orakpo in The Vangaurd, before adding his voice to a growing assault on the most common defense of making films in English – commercial viability through a wider distribution audience:  “The reality on ground is that Nollywood of today survives based on indigenous language films. The champions of the Nollywood of today are the Yorubas and the market for Yoruba language films is booming. Hausa language films are also selling.”

With good subtitling, films can be in indigenous languages and sell well, but “defective subtitling has been the bane of the problem,” for Nigerian films, says Augusta Okon in an article originally posted on Nollywood Journal.  Indeed, the subject has become the source of more serious technical consideration.

Still, language in Nigerian film doesn’t fall into discrete categorization, and the transmission of linguicist[iii] norms happens in ‘indigenous’ films as well, claims Emmanuel Adedayo Adedun (link to full PDF) in the academic Journal of Policy Analysis. “Films that are produced in indigenous languages also have a lot of English switching (or intrusions?),” he writes after an in-depth of analysis of the English-sprinkled Yoruba movie Jenifa (2008), “English is not just a language in Nigeria, it is a super language that is associated with education, prestige, class, and opportunities.  It is a language that everyone strives to use and this is reflected in the movies.”

English does operate as a signifier of wealth and prestige (pidgin English, for example, could be understood by more, but wouldn’t mean the same thing), and represents a more income-oriented film industry, but we shouldn’t deduce audience makeup from this (or judge it, for that matter), argues Moradewun Adejunmobi in Cultural Critique;  “Too often it is assumed that all English-language activities engage the same African audience, a single social class: the elite…In short, Nigerian video film in English does not appear to substantially overlap in orientation or audience with Nigerian high literature in English.”

Adejunmobi looks across Africa to find examples of popular art consumption across lines of linguistic intelligibility – Hausa consumption of Bollywood films, Dyula communities listening to North-Arfican Arabic Music, and East Africans listening to Soukouss music in Lingala –  to make the point that language and audience don’t always correlate neatly.

It’s at this point where one begins to feel how deeply powered language is, and how sprawling the discussion can become.

And, it’s been almost four and a half decades since Ousmane Sembene released Mandabi  (1968) – the first feature length film in an African language – and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba wrote their seminal On the Abolition of the English Department, two moments that set the stage for how we talk about language and film/literature in Africa.  In many ways, those moments undergird the conversation on language in Nigerian cinema today, in spite of its current coordinates.

Is it nor appropriate that Ngũgĩ’s daughter, Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ, brought this connection around full circle?  In a 2010 interview with about Nollywood, Wanjiku underscores the importance of Nollywood as “filling a vital gap of telling stories that Africans can identify with” before saying:  “I do agree with my father when he says that language is the carrier of culture as well as memory—that language and culture are inseparable. If African languages survive, so will our culture, and the opposite is also true. If African languages die, our cultures will go down with them.”

Even Further Reading:


[i] About half of Nigeria speaks English, though speakers of the ‘big three’ languages – Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo – outnumber English speakers (an observation somewhat complicated by the fact that people often speak two or more languages). In spite of this, there was one officially one Igbo film put out last year, equaling the number of Spanish films made and released in Nigeria.

[ii] The title ‘first Nollywood film’ causes both confusion and contention.  Where an acceptable definition of Nollywood’ is agreed upon, it is not synonymous with Nigerian cinema, which existed well before 1992, and ‘first Nollywood film’ refers mostly to Living in Bondage’s style and home video distribution model.  And the areas where ‘Nollywood’ is hotly debated often break down, coincidentally enough, around language; some claim ‘Nollywood’ applies only to English language cinema, others draw a wide boundary at all of modern Nigerian cinema, and still others at all non-Hausa (‘Southern’) modern Nigerian cinema (Hausa cinema often goes by Kannywood and is often compared more to India’s Bollywood), among the differing opinions.

[iii] “Ideologies, structures, and practices used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language,” according to Robert Phillipson in Linguistic Imperialism.

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

One response to “The Pulse: What about Language in Nigerian Cinema?

  • Stanley Izebhokhae

    Refreshing articles, I have often wondered what keeps me glued to a TV watching Yoruba movies in subtitles. I understand that it is not about the language, it is about the theme. However, watching bad subtitles when you know a bit or more of the language can be frustrating.

    I have a screenplay written in English, but to be shot in Bini and Esan language. Two industries that are springing up. I had changed my mind to do it in English to meet a wider audience, now I’m changing my kind again and sticking to my original plan.

    Language films will stand their ground in the near future, especially if local sponsorship are forthcoming.

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