Let’s look at African languages

7 Min Read

When I searched for ‘language’ on Africa on the Blog, the last contribution I found was by Gloria Uzo Nweke, in March 2015. It’s a passionate post, in which she argues that Africans “have a rich history to celebrate and take pride in.” She points to Africa’s old written scripts. She makes a valid point – but what to do with it?

In another comment I found on African Arguments, a reader said: “The African continent differs from all others by the very large number of its indigenous languages. Estimates range from 700 to 3000 different languages and dialects.” This indeed seems to be a very commonly held belief, and it may be one reason why in Africa, local languages have a much lower status than in most European countries.

But – what is a language, really? When I, as a layman, let my friend Google do its work I find beautiful sites such as those of the Ethnologue and the Joshua Project, which try to classify all the languages and peoples of the world.

It is important to note their background: both of these were set up in the past by American Protestant missionaries, who sought (and are still seeking) to bring the Gospel in all the ‘tongues’ God created after the fall of the Tower of Babel. In other words – these sites were set up by persons interested in finding as many differences as possible, instead of being interested in finding as many commonalities as possible.

When I, as a layman, then look at my own home country, the Netherlands, I see that the Ethnologue credits our small country with twelve different languages being spoken here, not counting sign language and two gypsy languages. To the modern Dutchman, this seems absurd – the lay person knows only two: Dutch and Frisian. Yes, there are variants of Dutch spoken in different parts and they are not completely mutually intelligible. But still – that is all seen as part of what one might call the Dutch language continuum.

In fact, in the past century or so, a conscious effort has been made in the Netherlands to build, unify and protect the Dutch language and in part, this is responsible for the fact that Dutch is even today a vigorous, widely used language.

And this is not only the case for Dutch. French, Italian, German are all standard languages which have evolved from a continuum of dialects, in part by conscious effort from governments and many others.

This does not only apply to European languages either. Modern Turkish, for example, was much reformed and standardized under the guidance of the Turkish Language Association, set up in 1932. So now, modern Turkish provides a common ground for the 35 or so Turkic languages that exist.

In Africa, there are some examples as well. In the Central African Republic, Sango, an Ubangian language, has official status. This is because most of the people in that country in fact speak one of the Ubangian ‘languages’. And then there is South Africa, of course, with nine official African languages, ten if you count Afrikaans, plus English.

In general, though, in Africa, local languages are not protected, barely studied, and not studied from the point of view of what they have in common, rather than what is different. Local languages are not supported or promoted. In the EU, a language like Maltese, with fewer than 550,000 speakers, has official status. In Uganda, Ganda, with around five million speakers, has no official status at all.

If I ask my friend Google to work harder, I find that there is indeed the African Academy of Language, based in Mali. It is, however, so pitifully under-resourced that it cannot do much serious work. Then, there is the CERTODOLA, the International Centre for Research and Documentation of African Traditions and Languages – even worse off. Then, there is CICIBA, the International Centre for Bantu Civilizations – to be rehabilitated ‘soon’.

In Africa, like in Europe and in other parts of the world, there must be a number of distinct and distinguishable dialect continuums that together can form more standard languages. Those languages can be used for vehicles of communications and for art and literature (and in fact in many countries, this is happening on the ground, such with as Lingala in Congo or Sango in the C.A.R.). The number of these languages we don’t know – but is certainly not thousands. Has not the time come to put resources into these, to study, protect and foster them?

This idea forms part of a wider exposé in my new longread, “African Identities: a New Perspective”. It is available free of charge to readers of this blog via this link, using DS86D as the promotional code.

Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.

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