- Degema language
Degema Spoken in Nigeria Region Rivers State Native speakers 10,000 (1999) Language family Language codes ISO 639-3 deg
Degema is a Delta Edoid language of Nigeria. It is spoken in two autonomous communities on the Degema Island by about 22,000 people, going by the 1991 population census figures (including the projection figures for the two Degema-speaking communities). The two communities in which Degema is spoken are Usokun-Degema and Degema Town (Atala) in Degema Local Government Area of Rivers State of Nigeria. Each of these communities speaks a variety of Degema that is highly mutually intelligible with the other. These varieties are called by the names of the communities that speak them. They are the Usokun variety spoken in Usokun-Degema and the Degema Town (Atala) variety spoken in Degema Town. These varieties are very similar in their phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties.
No standard variety has so far emerged between the two varieties of Degema. However, in recent times, there appear to be more scholarly descriptive linguistic publications on the Usokun variety than on the Degema Town (Atala) variety (see Kari 1997, 2003, 2004, and 2008b).
The Degema language is not also called "Atala" or "Udekaama" as contained in some scholarly publications. Atala is the alternative name for one of the Degema-speaking communities – Degema Town, while Udekaama is the name of a clan, which comprises Usokun-Degema and Degema Town. Similarly, "Kala Degema" is not an alternative name for the Usokun Degema variety of Degema, as contained in the entry for Degema in the Ethnologue.
Historical background of the Degema people
Oral tradition has it that the Degema people, who originally belonged to the Egene (Engenni) ethnic group, emigrated from Benin in Nigeria (in what is now Edo State of Nigeria) to Ewu in present-day Engenni, in Ahoada Local Government Area of Rivers State of Nigeria. That was the first phase of the migration. According to Mr. Mark Roman, a native of Engenni, and a staff of the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the people of present-day Degema settled at Ewu (a parcel of land that is close to Akinima) when they emigrated from Benin, along with other groups that settled at Okilogua in Engenni, and not in Akinima as it has been claimed. He mentioned that Ewu is also in Okilogua. At Ewu, there was a split that took some of the inhabitants to Enuedua (Joinkrama), forming the Enuedua group, some to Ediro, forming the Ediro group, and some to Ogua, forming the Ogua group. All these groups make up the Engenni community. Mr. Roman also explained that the Degema people belonged to the Ogua group.
The split at Ewu was in consequence of a disagreement over fish that belonged to all the people that lived there. It happened that some of those who contributed their own cup of water to the cooking of some fish did not get their full share of the water after the cooking was done. They gave no thought to the fact that water evaporates when heated and that, say, ten cups of water would not yield ten cups when heated. The aggrieved ones, therefore, unanimously decided to leave Ewu, and indeed they left, after being told by those who were responsible for the sharing of the soup that the water with which the fish was cooked would be measured again tomorrow – supposedly to ensure that all who contributed cups of water got a fair or equal share (This is the source of the name Udekaama, which literally means ‘We will share it tomorrow’ or ‘We will measure it tomorrow’, and not ‘even tomorrow, it will be so’ as contained in Kari 1995 and 1997). The name Udekaama subsequently became associated with the aggrieved group.
The ‘Udekaama group’ left Ewu and came to the then uninhabited Degema Island in the 15th century or thereabouts. When they arrived, they settled at Ipokuma which means ‘headland’ or ‘cape’ in Degema. Ipokuma is commonly referred to now as ‘Doctor’s Farm’. The headland is the part of Degema Island that is adjacent to the then uninhabited island on which Abonnema, a Kalabari-speaking community in Akuku-Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State of Nigeria, is presently situated. This movement to Ipokuma constituted the second phase of the migration. Udekaama is an umbrella-name consisting of two groups: Usokun-Degema and Degema Town (Atala), which were headed by Ugu and Ekeze respectively. These people led these two groups from Ewu to Ipokuma. Kari (1995 and 1997) listed Ekomburu (Obonoma) as one of the groups that makes up the Udekaama clan. In this brief historical background, however, Obonoma is excluded from these groups. This exclusion results from a publication in a local Nigerian newspaper, The Beacon, Friday, June 29 – July 5, 2001, p. 6, in which the Obonoma people denounced their association with the Udekaama clan. They claimed that the inclusion of Obonoma, along with Degema Town, Usokun-Degema, and Obuama by the Government of the day in the pre-independence Udekama Group Council was purely for administrative purposes, and that this did not put Obonoma under the jurisdiction of Udekaama. Although they admitted that they have the same origin as the Udekaama people, as they were all part of the Engenni ethnic group, which probably explains the linguistic similarity between the extinct Obonoma dialect and the dialects spoken by the Degema Town and Usokun-Degema people (cf. Peters 1981), they maintained that they constitute a different group, separate from the Udekaama people. This distinctiveness appears to have had its roots at Engenni, as the Obonoma people claimed that they lived as a separate group in Engenni, and were not part of the disagreement at Ewu. The Obonoma people refer to themselves as the Ekemburu people. The peoples of Usokun-Degema and Degema Town, however, call them the ‘Ekomburu’ people. Whereas it lies outside this book to criticize some of the statements in the said publication, especially as they relate to the link between Usokun-Degema and Degema Town, let it be mentioned for record purposes that it is not correct to lump together Usokun-Degema and Degema Town and refer to them collectively as ATALA. Usokun-Degema and Degema Town are autonomous groups. The umbrella-name under which these groups come is Udekaama.
The settlement at Ipokuma was before the Abonnema people came about 1882, and indeed before the coming of the Kalabari people. The claim that the Udekaama people settled on the Degema Island before the coming of the Kalabari people is confirmed by a publication entitled Operation Link Delga (Degema Local Government 1987), as the following quotation reveals:
‘A fourth group who were already in their present locations by the time the first two groups came to their new settlements, and who to varying degrees, became associated and identified with Kalabari – Obonoma, Bukuma, Old Bakana, Dekema [sic], Angulama. Some of these have been fully integrated into the Kalabari Kingdom; others (Dekema [sic], Bukuma) still maintain their originality and have relatively tenuous culture-linguistic and conjugal relationship with Kalabari people’ (Degema Local Government 1987: 17).
At Ipokuma, Ugu and Ekeze led Usokun-Degema and Degema Town respectively, in a northward movement to their present sites for the purposes of fishing, hunting and farming. This constituted the third and final phase of the migration.
It is important to state that none of these two communities or their leaders is subordinate to the other in any respect. From the time they left Ewu to this day, the two groups have considered themselves independent.
The name ‘Degema’ is a bastardized form of Udekaama. It is the name by which the then colonial masters referred to the Udekaama people. This bastardized form may have resulted from the Kalabari mispronunciation of Udekaama as Dekema. Degema, as pronounced by the then colonial masters, has come to stay. It is not very clear why the name Degema has gained grounds and is widely accepted. One probable reason, for its acceptability, could be that it was the name that was found in official documents at that time. Another reason could be that Udekaama is considered to have a negative connotation that makes the peoples of Usokun-Degema and Degema Town to remember the rift between their forefathers at Ewu. They do not want what happened at Ewu to repeat itself in the place where they are presently settled, hence their preference for ‘Degema’. That, today, Udekaama is also found in official documents, though not as a substitute for Degema, is mainly due to the assertion of the ethnic identity of the Degema people by the Degema people, a people that are surrounded by Kalabari-speaking communities, and are erroneously thought of by many unformed members of the public as constituting part of the Kalabari Kingdom. Today, it is clear that the people of Degema are linguistically and culturally distinct from their Kalabari neighbours (The Kalabari people speak Kalabari, an Eastern Ijo language spoken in Akuku Toru and Asari Toru Local Government Areas of Rivers State of Nigeria. Kalabari is also spoken in some parts of Degema Local Government Area of Rivers State of Nigeria).
Degema, in addition to referring to the inhabitants of two communities on Degema Island – Usokun-Degema and Degema Town, also refers to their language, the land on which they live, including the administrative headquarters of the Degema Local Government Area. It should be added that the name ‘Degema’ does not refer exclusively to one of the communities of Usokun-Degema and Degema Town but to both. Any claim, both in the past and present, that associates Degema with only one of the two Degema-speaking communities or subsumes one of these communities under the other is selfish and should be ignored (for a similar discussion, see Kari 2008a).
(The information above is based in most part on Kari 2004)
Degema Local Government Area. 1987. Operation link Delga. Port Harcourt: Harrison Publishing Company.
Kari, Ethelbert E. 1995. The structure of the Degema verb. M.A. thesis, University of Port Harcourt.
Kari, Ethelbert E. 1997. Degema. Munchen-Newcastle: Lincom Europa. ISBN 3-89586-214-2.
Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel. 2003. Clitics in Degema: A meeting point of phonology, morphology, and syntax: Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA). ISBN 4-87297-850-1.
Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel. 2004. A reference grammar of Degema. Koln: Rudiger Koppe Verlag. ISBN 3-89645-047-6.
Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel. 2008a. Linguistic imperialism and the rise in linguistic consciousness: The Degema case. In Y. Takashina (ed.), Dynamics of Language – "Foreign Languages" as Named by Others, 25-35. Osaka: Research Institute for World Languages, Osaka University.
Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel. 2008b. Degema–English dictionary with English index. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA). ISBN 978-4-86337-018-0.
Peters, Abel S. 1981. Cases of language maintenance in the Kalabari speech community. B.A. thesis, University of Port Harcourt.
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