Point Of Order: A Note On The Language Of Parliament

Recent incidents in parliament on language use, particularly the aftermath of the imperfect expressions used by a member of Parliament, have compelled me to reproduce below public policy on language use in national and local forums, which was part of the J. B. Danquah Memorial Lecture series I gave on the platform of the Ghana Academy of Arts And Sciences in 2006.

Communication in Parliament since independence has been in the ex-colonial language. This naturally diminishes the pool of qualified legislators, as well as stakeholder participation in governance, restricting these to a tiny minority conversant with the English language.

The situation is less exclusionary, of course, in countries where there are workable language policies such as Tanzania, which has replaced English in parliament with the national lingua franca, Kiswahili, as the sole language of parliamentary business, both written and oral. This has enabled the ordinary man or woman to compete with the so-called political elite, and join them to debate issues within the walls of parliament.

In Kenya, Parliament decided on two languages after shifting in 1974 from the monolingual policy, to the sole use of English. At the moment, though the law itself is written in English and a bill comes to parliament in English, both English and Kiswahili are used in parliament during discussion. Proficiency in these two languages is required for entry into parliament. It has, of course, been observed that this requisite of bilingualism still favours a minority, since proficiency in both languages is more an exception than a rule.

Constitutional ambivalence

The current constitution of Ghana does not require language proficiency as a criterion for representation in Parliament. Criteria specified include being a citizen of Ghana, of at least 21 years and a registered voter. “They must also be ordinarily resident in or hail from the constituency for which they stand as candidates, and must have discharged their tax obligations.”

Of all Ghana’s constitutions, it is those of 1969 and 1979 that specify the language of parliament, and the level of proficiency required to be a member of parliament. The two constitutions required the member of Parliament to be proficient in English. The 1960 Republican Constitution guarantees free speech in the national assembly without specifying language.

It is the 1969 Constitution that is more explicit. Article 71(d) says:

“Subject to the provisions of this article, a person shall be qualified to be a member of the assembly if, and shall not be qualified unless, he is able to speak, and unless incapacitated by blindness or other physical causes, to read the English language with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the assembly”.

In the 1979 Constitution, Article 76 I(c) on the Legislature is similarly worded.

The 1992 Constitution, on the other hand, does not contain any language clause. The issue of language in parliament comes up in the Standing Orders of Parliament. The orders commencing on November 30, 1995, for instance, states as follows under ‘Language for Proceedings’:

The proceedings of parliament shall ordinarily be conducted in the English language, except that a member may exercise the option to address the House in Akan, Nzema, Ga, Ewe, Hausa, Dagbani, Dagaare or in any other local language, provided facilities exist in the House for its interpretation (emphasis mine). (p.47)

Elsewhere, the Standing Orders of Parliament have conveyed this without specifying indigenous languages usable. On the other hand, the onus of translation has sometimes been put on the parliamentarians themselves. According to the official book of Parliament, A Guide to Parliament, English is the main language used in parliament. In case a member finds it necessary to mention a word, phrase or sentence in any of the local languages, he may be required to translate it to the understanding of all.

Also, a member may decide to speak in any local language, provided the facility exists in the House for its interpretation (emphasis mine).

The proviso specified is vague and flexible enough for political purposes; not only does it not specify the agency responsible for the provision of translation, but it also does not mention the implications of the absence of the required translation facilities.

The following extract from the official publication of Parliament, A Guide to Parliament, provides part of the answer:

The proceedings of Parliament are ordinarily conducted in the English language, but a member may exercise the option to address the House in any of the major languages if it is accompanied by an English translation. It is permissible for a member to say a phrase in another language provided he accompanies it with an English translation.

Here, not only is speech in ‘any local language’ omitted, but where a phrase in another language has been used, the parliamentarians themselves are given the task or responsibility to provide their own translation. The state’s responsibility here is either ignored or disowned.

The above summary indicates the lack of clarity in Ghana’s official policy on the language of Parliament. Whereas the requirement for English is clear, there is considerable equivocation about the status and relevance of Ghanaian languages, whether as incidental to English or as in autonomous discourse. Even here, the state does not assume official responsibility for translation.

Common to all constitutions of Ghana, whether 1957, 1960, 1969, 1979 or 1992, however, are specifications about free speech and freedom of expression. Remarkable, however, is the subtle contradiction between constitutional guarantees of free speech on one hand, and the insistence on a minority language as the official language.

Applying this within the legislature itself, this contradiction is doubly significant insofar as 1) parliament is the body that makes laws, and would be expected to show the way; 2) the constitutional guarantees of free speech within parliament are of a higher order than in the rest of society. Indeed Articles 115 to 120 of the 1992 Constitution set out extra privileges and immunities that parliamentarians enjoy while in parliament or on their way to parliament.

This includes the provision in Article 116 that no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted against a member of parliament in any court or place out of parliament for any matter or thing brought by him in or before Parliament by petition, bill, motion or otherwise.

Even newspapers or publishing houses that publish reports, papers and proceedings of parliament enjoy immunity from prosecution, unless it is shown that the publication was without good faith.

Constraining factors

These extra privileges enjoyed by legislators within parliament (and those responsible for associated publications) make any form of censorship on any group of legislators all the more lamentable: victims of such censorship are doubly jeopardised and society is at a double loss.

But the potential for structural censorship under consideration could be mitigated by the provision of state-sponsored infrastructure within parliament that would facilitate free speech and minimise the problem of exclusion through simultaneous translation.

Except that even though the standing orders of parliament allow for incidental use of indigenous languages, that very right has a built-in deterrent since the onus of translation is put on the speakers themselves.

Generally, however, entire parliamentary speeches in Ghanaian languages are uncommon. They may have been avoided, partly, because of the stigma of being considered ‘illiterate,’ or uneducated, and, partly, also because of the required language of communication in parliament which is elaborated in the standing orders, as well as certain technical vocabulary which are difficult to render extempore in local languages by the untrained.

A greater constraining factor is the prohibition of prepared speeches in parliament. According to the Standing Orders: “A member of Parliament is not permitted to read his speech in the House except a maiden speech.”

This regulation, undoubtedly, is meant to ensure spontaneity in parliamentary debates, whose flow and momentum may be compromised if speeches are carefully scripted and read. On the other hand, it is likely to constrain members of the House whose proficiency in English and command over the subject matter discussed may not qualify them to intelligently participate in spontaneous exchanges. Rather than risk humiliation, does an intimidated Member of the House have any other alternative but recoil in silence?

Code Mixing

More typical, however, are parliamentary speeches, which are freely interspersed with local and colloquial expressions. Dating from the proceedings of the Gold Coast Legislative Assembly to current parliamentary sessions, other languages have been freely deployed to intersperse English used in parliamentary debates. Such phrasal interjections have sometimes been colloquial or popular expressions in Ghanaian languages such as Ewe, Akan, Ga, Farefare, Dagbani. Occasionally, Pidgin English has been used for effect.

Other times, speakers have switched from Standard English to homegrown homilies, wise sayings and proverbial expressions which they delightedly render in local languages, and translate. Indigenous proverbs are often deployed for poetic and rhetorical effect, since these come spontaneously, and more vividly portray the speaker’s argument than renditions in English. Here the speaker seeks to minimise possible loss or redaction of meaning by rendering the original expression for full effect, before risking a translation. A few times, though, elite professionals have sought to be pedantic by spicing their argument with Latin, French or sometimes Greek.

Oftentimes, such code switching has provided dramatic interludes and comical relief, since they attract heckling and various interventions from other members of the House, momentarily stepping down the formal tone of parliamentary discourse.

Greek/Latin

On January 15, 1965, Mr J. A. Owusu Ansah (MP for Offinso-Kwabre) quoted a Latin proverb ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ to spice his argument during discussions on Kwame Nkrumah’s sessional address:

I am going to confine myself to the section which deals with the health needs of the people, and with your permission, Mr Speaker, I quote Mr Speaker, Mens sana in corpore sano. The health needs of the people will continue to receive urgent attention of the government and party. Our aim is to provide free health facilities for the entire people of Ghana by the end of the Seven-Year Development Plan period. (Parliamentary Debates 1965:113)

Mr Owusu Ansah’s Latin proverb, meaning ‘a sound mind in a sound body,’ was not translated, but the context of its use clearly demonstrates its meaning.

On 26th December, 1970, during the second reading of the Rural Development Fund Bill, Mr B. Ackuaku (Justice Party, Dzodze) in his contribution, quoted the Latin proverb, Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, explaining it in the words, “I fear the Greeks even if they bring gifts to me.” (Parliamentary Debates 1970)

Or one could cite J. H. Mensah, the Minority Leader, who in 1999, quoted the Greek proverb Mene Mene Tekel, Upharsin in parliament. (Parliamentary Debates 1999).

The writer is the President of the Central University College and Fellow, Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences

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