There are 41 living languages in Uganda. But only three are ever mentioned in debates about the East African nation’s official language: Luganda, Swahili and English.
All three are controversial, and present an interesting starting point for a debate around the choices Uganda could exercise in choosing a language policy.
Ultimately, we believe it makes sense for more than three languages to be elevated to the status of national language. This would hardly be an unprecedented model on the continent. South Africa has 11 official languages. Zimbabwe has 15.
The linguistic status quo
English has been Uganda’s lone official language since independence in 1962. In 2005 Swahili, which is foreign and so viewed as being neutral, was proposed as the country’s second official language. But this has yet to be ratified by parliament.
Luganda and Swahili are used as languages of inter-ethnic communication. English dominates all formal communications in the spheres of education, the judiciary, politics and government.
The official status of Swahili is more symbolic than functional, mainly because of Uganda’s association with regional intergovernmental body the East African Community. Swahili features on Ugandan shilling notes and notices in courts of law. The country’s language policy also prescribes its use in primary and secondary schools, but many schools disregard this.
Luganda, on the other hand, is the language of the biggest ethnic group in central Uganda. It works as a language of inter-ethnic communication, of wider communication and as a lingua franca. It is used in all domains: education, media and telecommunication, urban hip-hop, trading and in church.
The status of English
English gained its status as the language for government officials and aristocrats during the colonial period. It was associated with a higher social class, status and prestige.
There is no recent census on the use of English. But in 1972, the linguist Peter Ladefoged revealed that only 21% of Ugandans were able to hold a conversation in English.
English remains the major medium of instruction despite the introduction of a local language policy in primary schools. All in all, Ugandans consider English to be the way to success and a better life.
Swahili as an option
In 1972, Ladefoged estimated that 35% of Ugandans spoke Swahili fluently. Today, with no language census data, we can only paint a picture on its usage.
The language has a fraught history in Uganda. By the time European Protestant explorers arrived in Buganda in 1877, followed by Catholics in 1879, Swahili was used as a language for inter-ethnic communication, in the courts and as a language for trade in East Africa. In 1928 it was declared the official language in education and administration. This was met with stiff opposition from Buganda and bishops who sent a petition to the colonial secretary. The policy was reversed and Luganda was reinstated as the official language in the administration.
In Buganda, Swahili was said to be a language of slavery and bondage and its association with Islam made it a rival to Christianity.
In 1972 during the presidency of the dictator Idi Amin Dada, Swahili was again declared the national language of Uganda and introduced as a compulsory language on radio and television. Government employees were ordered to use Swahili, increasing its use. But the end of the regime also saw the end of the official use of Swahili.
Although the central region became hostile towards Swahili, in Northern Uganda it had a different status and image. The inhabitants of Northern Uganda, for instance, were recruited into the King’s African Rifles from 1902 through to the 1960s to serve in colonial government’s army. Joining the army was prestigious. When they returned home, they came back with a new language: Swahili.
Swahili was admired and learnt by the relatives of the army officers. It spread in the region. Even today Swahili is used in Northern Uganda as a lingua franca.
Unfortunately, despite its long history in Uganda, Swahili has failed to attain prominence as has happened in other East African countries.
A number of negative attitudes developed about Swahili that have diminished its status. Its use by undisciplined and unprofessional soldiers during periods of political unrest between 1970 and 1985 did not help its image; it became marginalised and associated with torture and theft. Its use in the army also made it look like a language of command rather than a language for social interaction.
Although in 2005 Swahili was given a new impetus in Uganda’s national life, ten years on it still awaits the ratification of parliament.
Luganda – the controversial indigenous tongue
Luganda is the most widely spoken indigenous language and the most widely spoken second language alongside English. The native speakers of Luganda are the Baganda, who constitute 18% of the population.
Luganda is spoken primarily in the south eastern Buganda region of the country, along the shores of Lake Victoria, as well as up north towards the shores of Lake Kyoga.
Its use has spread to other parts of the country, mainly in the urban centres where it is used in business, transport, church, media and as the medium of inter-ethnic communication. Baganda, who belong to Uganda’s subnational kingdom of Buganda, are both numerically and geographically the primary ethnic group of the capital city of Uganda, Kampala.
Luganda is one of the first African languages to document the country’s indigenous history through translations of the Bible, evangelical and catechism literature.
In 1912 it became the official language of the government. In 1928 it was replaced by Swahili because of complaints from other ethnic groups who thought Luganda and its speakers were favoured above others. But Buganda contested this decision and Luganda was reinstated as the official language of the administration.
Baganda chiefs who became administrators during the colonial time promoted the use of Luganda even in areas that did not primarily speak Luganda. It later developed into a language for literacy and education and the language of the church. Until recently, most parts of Western and Eastern Uganda used Luganda in church and education.
Recent studies also indicate a preference by locals to use Luganda over their local languages in education because parents believe that it opens doors to urban life.
But it has also been repeatedly turned down as the potential national language. According to speakers of other languages, the strong ethno-linguistic identity displayed by its primary speakers has acted as a turn off. Secondly, naming Luganda the national language would be viewed as favouring the Baganda.
So what’s the solution?
Uganda is not the only country in Africa that has struggled with the question of national languages. South Africa and Zimbabwe have gone the multi-language route. Uganda could do the same.
Wouldn’t it be helpful and prudent if, say, Runyoro-Rutoro; Runyankore-Rukiga, Luganda, Ngakarimajong and Ateso were elevated to official status? These are the major languages in Uganda and are fairly representative of all the country’s peoples.
Lecturer, Department of African Languages, Makerere University
Lecturer in African Languages, Makerere University
Medadi Ssentanda is affiliated with Makerere University and Stellenbosch University.
Judith Nakayiza does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, the Knight Foundation and Barclays Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Strategic Partner.