Have you ever heard of a language that is only spoken by men? Or how about one that is only spoken by women? I recently happened to remember an article I read a few years ago about how, in Nigeria, there exists a culture where men and women speak different languages. If there was any doubt that how we use language is largely cultural, let the case of the Ubang people remove all doubt from your mind. For starters, the Ubang people believe that the fact that their men and women speak different languages as a God-given gift. The difference occurs in the lexicon of the two languages according to anthropologist Chi Chi Undie. The language has not been researched extensively, so we don’t know if there is any reason for the different lexicons. Just to give you a quick overview of exactly how the languages differ, here is what Chi Chi Undie described the unique languages. “There are a lot of words that men and women share in common, then there are others which are totally different depending on your sex. They don’t sound alike, they don’t have the same letters, they are completely different words.” At this point, you’re probably wondering how anything gets done if gender determined the language someone speaks in the Ubang culture. I can assure you, however, that there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility between the two languages. As you might expect, mothers must communicate with their male children, and so the males speak the female language for the first few years of his life. After he is ten years old, he must start speaking the male language to indicate that he has reached maturity. Here’s where it gets even more interesting: when I read that the difference was thought to be a God-given gift, I assumed that the Ubang people would be adherents of a religion as unique to them as their language. I was shocked to discover that they, in fact, practice Christianity and believe that Adam and Eve were Ubang people. Unfortunately, this incredibly unique language is thought to be dying; several of the speaks of Ubang are unable to speak unadulterated Ubang and frequently mix English words into their speech. Schools only exacerbate this issue, as Ubang students are discouraged from speaking their languages in schools. The chief of the Ubang people expects that the languages will survive, as they are so crucial to their identity as Ubang people. Although I can’t tell you whether the Ubang languages will survive, I can say with confidence that the Ubang languages are among the most unique in the world.
Hi, I'm Om, the author of Lingua Franca.