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The Power of Babel
Language & Governance in the African Experience
By Ali A. Mazrui Alamin M. Mazrui
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 1998
Ali A. Mazrui, Alamin M. Mazrui
All right reserved.
Chapter One Language & Race in the Black Experience
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An African Perspective
One out of every five black people on earth has a European language for a mother tongue. The dominant European languages in the black world are English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Dutch trails behind as the fifth Eurafrican language. It is found among people of mixed race in South Africa and in places like Surinam. The largest black nation outside Africa is in Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
French is more dependent upon the black world for its global status than English. While the majority of French-speaking people are white, the majority of French-speaking countries are black. Over twenty African countries have adopted French as the main language of national business. Italian has not been adopted as a national language in any African country, but it is widely understood among élites in Somalia, Ethiopia and Libya. As for the German language, it has a residual role in Namibia.
Although in Africa itself European languages are seldom mother tongues, it is one of the ironies of literary history that the first black winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has not been an African-American or a Jamaican for whom English is the mother tongue, but a Yoruba-speaking Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, in 1986. Similarly, the most honoured black user of the French language in France has not been a black Frenchwoman or man (from, say, Martinique) for whom French is the mother tongue, but Leopold Senghor, the philosopher-poet and former president of Senegal.
Much more common than linguistic accolades for blacks from Europeans, however, is the link between languages and white domination over blacks. Our emphasis in this analysis will be especially on the African part of the black experience, though aspects of the conclusions are of much wider relevance.
The history of language in Africa in the twentieth century reflects closely the fact of continuity and change in African political, social, cultural, psychological, and economic realities. The period characterizes the consolidation of colonialism and racism with their far-reaching linguistic and cultural policies, the struggle for independence, the emergence of neo-colonialist trends and the rise of African self-consciousness in matters relating to the preservation and promotion of African national institutions.
In many ways the half-century before independence constituted a period of maximum threat to indigenous languages in Africa; and yet at the same time they were the years of codification, new orthographies, and literary output for some languages which were previously unwritten. African languages were threatened by colonial policies which gave a new emphasis to European languages in education and administration. And yet some of the major indigenous tongues acquired new orthographies based on the colonially imported Latin alphabet and were consequently better preserved in writing than had been possible in their days as purely oral tongues. Colonialism threatened the indigenous heritage by the promotion of European languages. And yet colonialism inadvertently helped the preservation of African oral legacies by the miracle of the written word. This chapter is partly about this interplay between the tongue and the pen, between the indigenous and the imported in the field of language in cultural transition.
Language policy and racial attitudes
European arrogance during the colonial period had two major components: the premise of a superior race and the premise of a superior culture. The balance between racial arrogance and cultural arrogance varied from one imperial power to another. On the whole, the French were more culturally arrogant than the British, refusing to mix cultures in colonial schools and insisting on the supremacy of French civilization. The British, on the other hand, were more racially arrogant than the French, insisting on the segregation of the races between schools but permitting the mixture of cultures in the curriculum. It has been said that the French did not mind who made love with whom provided the preliminaries were conducted in impeccable French. The British did mind who made love with whom. Sometimes they minded who made love at all. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that these differing imperial powers, so distinct in their racial attitudes, would evolve the same language policies in their colonies. Different forms of imperial arrogance had different implications for language planning in the colonies.
Because the British were less culturally arrogant than the French (though more racist), African languages fared better under the British raj. Indeed, a distinction can be drawn between Germanic-speaking Europeans generally (the Germans, the British, the Flemish, the Afrikaners) and the Latin-speaking Europeans (the French, the Portuguese, the Italians and the Spaniards). The Germanic Europeans were more likely to insist on the segregation of the races. The Latin Europeans were more likely to dismiss 'native cultures'. Sometimes for purely racist reasons (as in the case of the Afrikaners in South Africa) Germanic-speaking Europeans insisted on the greater use of indigenous languages in education and a greater recognition of African cultures.
In contrast, Latin Europeans were more mesmerized by ideas of assimilation (or Portuguese assimilado) and showed less tolerance toward indigenous languages than did the Germanic-speaking (or Teutonic) powers. As a result one was far more likely to see newspapers in indigenous languages in schools in British colonies than in French, Portuguese or Italian colonies in this late colonial period. We shall spell out these policies more fully later.
At their most extreme French colonialists believed that no African was good enough unless he or she spoke French. On the other hand, there are German whites in Namibia even today who believe that no African is good enough to speak German. There were certainly white settlers in colonial Kenya who forbade their servants from speaking English to the master's family, even if the servant's English was much better than the master's Kiswahili. The social distance between the servant and the white mistress especially was often maintained by ensuring that the servant did not address 'the Memsab' (East Africa's equivalent of Mem-Sahib) in the English language. When the Germans promoted Kiswahili in colonial Tanganyika and the British did the same in colonial East Africa as a whole, the reasons were sometimes purely racial, sometimes due to missionary zeal or colonial convenience, and sometimes scholarly.
Two cases of European domination in this period happened to be internally bilingual: Belgian domination of the Congo (French and Flemish) and the Anglo-Afrikaner domination of South Africa. There were dilemmas to be resolved by the white oppressors themselves in these subjugated countries. In the case of Belgian domination of the Congo, the dilemma was indeed between the Latin legacy of the French language (intolerant of indigenous languages elsewhere in Africa) and the Germanic legacy of Flemish (in the tradition of greater accommodation with local languages elsewhere). The power of Francophone Belgians in the metropole in this period ensured that the French language was the one which was bequeathed to the Congo. The power of the Flemish missionaries and educators 'on the ground' in the Congo ensured some tactical tolerance for indigenous languages and avoidance of French 'assimilation as a policy in the Congo. Francophone power in Belgium resulted in the exclusion of Flemish in the colonies. Flemish power locally in the Congo resulted in the minimization of the French impact and the promotion of indigenous languages.
The other European dilemma in Africa concerned South Africa. The competition between Afrikaans and English was more purely inter-Germanic rivalry in our sense. Two versions of the Teutonic paradigm had clashed. For reasons which were designed to protect the white man rather than preserve African culture, the Afrikaners preferred to slow down 'the Westernization of the native' in this period. Language policy was part of this deceleration of the Westernizing process. Afrikaners preferred 'Bantu Education' as a device for keeping Africa 'African and white power supreme!
But unfortunately for the Afrikaners, this was a period of pan-African identification among their 'natives'. More and more black South Africans felt that if they had to choose between English and Afrikaans, the former was of greater pan-African relevance. On one hand, Afrikaans was a symbol of white oppression; on the other, the English language was a means of communication with much of the rest of Africa. Two Germanic languages had widely differing implications. Afrikaans was a language of racial claustrophobia. English, on the other hand, was a language of pan-African communication. The Soweto riots of 1976 - the use of Afrikaans as a medium of education in African schools was a major and precipitating grievance - were part of that linguistic dialectic.
What of the role of Arabic in Africa during this period? In the Maghreb, the French tried to strengthen two rivals to Arabic: the French language itself and the indigenous Berber. French language policy tried to foster a triple heritage of verbal communication in the Maghreb - Arabic, Berber, and French. It was part of France's policy of divide and rule, which had more success than it deserved, at least until the 1940s and 1950s when North African nationalism tried at last to transcend ethnic and linguistic differentiation.
Along the Nile Valley (mainly under the 'Germanic' British), Arabic had an easier time. The supremacy of Arabic in Egypt was challenged far less strongly than it was in the Maghreb. Indeed, Egypt was a fountain for the spread of Arabic elsewhere. Northern Sudan was increasingly Arabized partly as a result of the impact of Egypt. Many Sudanese resented Egypt's political influence. Paradoxically, most of them nevertheless embraced Egypt's cultural, linguistic and religious leadership.
What about Southern Sudan? Although this period experienced some of the worst confrontations between Sudan's North and South, especially from the mid-1950s onwards, it also witnessed the most rapid linguistic Arabization of the South ever. In most other parts of Africa, the spread of the Islamic religion has usually been faster than the spread of the Arabic language. This is true of the Islamization of Hausa-speaking, Wolof-speaking or Swahili-speaking regions of Africa. By contrast, Southern Sudan has experienced a faster spread of the Arabic language than of the Islamic religion. Southern Sudanese are less likely to go to the mosque than to pronounce with sophistication the Arabic words Insha' Allah (If God wills).
Language situation and language policy
The spread of Arabic along the Nile Valley is only one instance. In the period since 1935 there have been other languages which have spread geographically far beyond the areas where they were spoken in the preceding years. Some languages have become languages of contact, inter-ethnic communication and lingua francas.
Four forces have been particularly important in the spread of languages: religion, economics, politics, and war. The spread of Arabic in Africa historically has been mainly under the momentum of the spread of Islam. But, as we have indicated, Arabic is spreading in Southern Sudan today because of political and economic considerations rather than as a response to religious conversion. The role of war in the spread of Arabic in the South is more complicated.
Christian missionaries all over Africa have also played a part in the spread of languages. The use of indigenous languages for the spread of the gospel has sometimes favoured particular African tongues as against others. Proselytism has once again disseminated not just 'the Word' in the sense of religion, but 'words' in the more literal sense of language.
The economy has also played a part in the spread of languages. Migrant labour, urbanization and the expansion of markets in this period have all brought people of different linguistic backgrounds together. The dramatic growth of mining industries since 1935 has served as a magnet for attracting linguistically diverse workers with a resulting need for languages of contact.
The years from 1935 also happen to be the period of expanding involvement of the masses in politics, initially in the struggle against colonial rule. The political mobilization of the masses, especially after the Second World War, increased the political use of both the imperial languages and some of the African ones as well.
The Second World War itself had linguistic as well as other consequences for Africa. The multilingual Africans enlisted into the armed forces created a need for a common language of command. Sometimes the imperial language of the particular European power was simplified for military needs. In British Africa the use of an indigenous lingua franca sometimes seemed to make better sense. In East Africa, Kiswahili developed into a military lingua franca for the King's African Rifles. Later on, the importance of Kiswahili within Uganda's armed forces created a surprising linguistic bond among men from otherwise diverse cultural backgrounds. When in power in the 1970s Ugandan soldiers even gave Kiswahili the status of a national language in the country, and expanded its use in the mass media.
Both in relation to the armed forces and for other reasons, the gender question has also been a factor in the spread of languages in Africa. About half of the men in Uganda speak some kind of Kiswahili but a far smaller portion of Ugandan women do. More important than the masculinity of the security forces is the fact that migrant labour in Uganda and elsewhere is more likely to consist of men than women. Urbanization in Africa generally also involves more mobility among men than among women. As a generalization we should therefore conclude that bilingualism and multilingualism in Africa (and perhaps in most other societies) is more widespread among men than among women.
If religion, economics, politics and war have played a part in the spread of languages, they have sometimes also threatened the survival of some of the smaller languages. Many African languages have been losing speakers through assimilation to other language groups. Some are slowly disappearing as the number of their speakers dwindles. Many factors have contributed to this state of affairs since the 1930s. Among them are improved communication in the geographical and linguistic sense, colonial and post-colonial language policies, the work of language promoters including missionaries, ministries of education and broadcasting and to some extent teachers and linguists. There is also the sheer dynamism of some languages to survive, thrive and expand, while others contract in a situation of linguistic competition.
It is generally acknowledged that the African continent constitutes the most complex multilingual area in the world. The complexity results from the high numbers of languages, the way they are distributed, the relatively low numbers of speakers per language, and intensive language contact in many areas of the continent resulting in widespread multilingualism. It is thus difficult to know exactly how many languages there are in the continent, partly because of the problem of delineating languages and dialects; moreover, there is considerable variation among language names in different areas.
Then there is the role of language in deciding where one ethnic group ends and another begins. The question arises: Can there be different races with the same skin colour? Are black African groups which differ in speech a case of different 'races' or different 'tribes'? When C.G. Seligman published his classic but controversial Races of Africa, the first problem he had to confront was the definition of 'race.' Who are the Bantu? What constituted a Nilote? Who are the Hamites and Nilo-Hamites? Seligman admitted that language by itself was not an adequate guide to 'race'.
Yet the study of the races of Africa has been so largely determined by the interest in speech, and it is so much easier to acquire a working knowledge of a language than of another part of a man's cultural make-up, that names based upon linguistic criteria are constantly applied to large groups of mankind and, indeed, if intelligently used, often fit quite well. Hence, in describing the great racial groups of Africa, terms such as 'Bantu', which strictly speaking have no more than a linguistic significance, are habitually employed. (Seligman, 1957:1-2)
Excerpted from The Power of Babel by Ali A. Mazrui Alamin M. Mazrui Copyright © 1998 by Ali A. Mazrui, Alamin M. Mazrui . Excerpted by permission.
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