Two recent events have changed my long time views on the documentation of endangerment languages. These are the following:
Particularly, I am changed by the realizations found in the book so I will begin with that. I encourage anyone in our field to begin reading it immediately! These two quotes in particular really begin to stir the consciousness: …mobility goes together with multilingualism. (45)
In addition to providing nearly all of the concepts relating to languages in Africa in one place, the book shakes up all the assumptions we have. One question I often get asked in reference to Africa is why are there so many languages in comparison to the United States. Truly, the answer is that many questions are spoken (or were spoken but are now extinct) in the States, but English is the dominant one. So then why is a similar situation not found in Africa given the influence of outsiders, the history of colonialism, wars, and slavery? To answer that the authors tackle the huge and complicated issue known as ‘multilingualism’. One answer they provide is that migration patterns and their motivations based in previously (pre-colonial) established linguistic and ethnic ties (42 – 43). For instance, trips to Mecca used to take years and requiring settling. There were also the languages of States and Empires. But, they state that, in the African context, what we as linguists see as ‘discrete languages’ are better categorized as ‘registers and repertoires’ (pg 2) and state that there are numerous pitfalls of categorization of languages into discrete units. Further, the (mis)labelling of languages by ‘sailors, traders, missionaries, and colonial administrators’ (pg 6) followed by linguists, have often grouped together otherwise unrelated people or languages. The initial part of the book is devoted to questioning the notion that language = identity, or is the crucial marker of identity. While I tend to disagree with sweeping statements such as, “There are no fixed linguistic identities (2)“, I do agree that there should be an exchange between ethnography and linguistic description. I suppose what they mean by ‘fixed’ is that linguistic identity is fluid depending on the context. It is true that most people in Africa speak numerous languages, in many cases they have pride in the language of their village of origin, which often coincides with their ethnic identity. On the other hand, many Malians and Burkinabé speak Bamana and Jula respectively although they are of other ethnicities such as Bobo, Blé, Sambla, Maraka, etc). The same being true in Sengal as the authors give the example of ‘deep’ Wolof, the language spoken by ethnically Wolof families in Cayor and Baol regions in Senegal and compare it with urban or ‘Dakar Wolof’ – “…Wolof is the least ‘ethnic’ language of Senegal (32)“. To amend this they state that ‘group languages’ may be a better description than ‘ethnic languages’. On the other hand, many ‘minority’ languages are spoken in resistance to the larger languages. The religious (Islamic) implications of languages such as Wolof and Fula (and Mandinka which is seen in parts of Senegal such as Casamance as being equated with Islam since it was brought by the Mandinka) causes many people to consciously not participate in dialogues in these languages although they have opportunities to learn them. In terms of documentation methods, the book also brings up the drawbacks of “…many grammars distilling a language from an idiolect of one (in most cases a formally educated male)…(7)” . This speaks to the fact that if the linguist collecting the data does not speak a language other than a former colonial language, as is often the case, s/he will only be able to speak to educated males as girls often are forced to drop out of school when they are of child-bearing age or, as the authors note, girls are discouraged from using it even if they have been taught to prevent them seeming too ‘assimilated and acculturated’ (20). We even take for granted the rhetoric used to describe language. For instance, the authors point out that loaded terms such as ‘foreign language’ imply that the language in question is just that, foreign or different, rather than being something that may be spoken at home on a daily basis. Though certainly there are languages which a person learns later in life, after having left their home. Thus another question of interest concerns who learns such ‘outsider’ or ‘foreign’ language(s) and why? One answer is women since they move (when married) to another village and often learn the language of the area, especially if a common one is not know. People whose language is confined to one village or a small number of speakers have children who then grow up in these multi-lingual households. Further, it is also noted that most children in the African context are raised by other children – brothers, sisters, and age group mates – rather than by their parents after they are weaned at the age of 3) so that, ‘…the majority of children do not grow up with their biological parents…’ (23). To take this further, and I question if this true of everywhere, that fostering, the raising of a child in a household completely outside of one’s own ‘…is as ubiquitous throughout Africa as are age classes.’ (39) since according to the cited study only ‘…up to 30% (40) of children are brought up by relatives…’ For some time, there has been a predication that large ‘killer languages’ will wipe out smaller ones, however, they show that this is not being seen on the surface. To answer this, they again turn to the reality of multilingualism,
Knowing which languages to expect in which place or context helps to keep multilingual repertoires alive by creating routines, occasions for playful interactions in several languages and conventionalized contexts for their use. (19)
Many linguists are enthralled with code-switching, and Africa would appear to be ripe with examples. However, the authors ask, is it really code-switching? Wolof and French thus have a very intimate relationship, but their existence as separate codes in many speakers’ minds is doubtful, since most of them have not acquired French as a discrete language. (20) Another component of language documentation is revitalization. Efforts in revitalization are sometimes focused on literacy. The authors define the term ‘exographia’ as “the use of a different language in writing than in speaking by a community…(49)“. Since all Latin-based orthographies in African languages originate in missionary efforts’ (50) Even though scripts already existed before missionaries, many were suspicious as they resembled Arabic and thus used Latin based scripts instead – completely foreign and in many times unintuitive to the speakers. Many languages are written by linguists in Latin-based orthographies, literacy programs actually backfire for this reason and by making languages (or speaker’s at least feel this way) illegitimate unless they are written. The authors stress “…the importance of seeing literacy as a social practice embedded in a complex cultural context, rather than just a technology needed to participate in information transfer through reading and writing (73).” —— Skipping ahead to Chapter 5 because of its concentration on the issues surrounding endangered languages as the ACAL conference approaches with this year’s theme on endangered languages, begins with the beginning. The 1992 Language (issue 68) article on endangered languages and its sparking research in the Americas and Australia. The interesting point here is that, thus much of the understanding we have of how languages become endangered is based on those areas. Because English is the cause of language death in those areas, and is assumed to be the case in Africa. Linguists and other researchers assume that French, English, and Portuguese are taking over Africa in a similar manner. However, if a language dies in Africa, it is more often than not because of a shift to a larger African language such as Swahili, Hausa, or Maninka (pg. 269). Further, as the authors provide in depth examples, many people in Africa learn a new language without losing an old one. Given that people in cities still communicate in their languages with people in the villages, these will mostly likely not be lost. Many African cities consist of neighborhoods of villages – people still live with the same groups and therefore continue to speak their languages. Also, languages merge. The convergence and trace effects of languages which were lost into, that is submerged by contact languages. Urban and youth varieties do not replace but rather add to repertoires in certain environments. Thus the question arises as to why do languages die? The authors discuss how languages can be spread out due to arbitrary borders by colonialists, wars, disease, climate change, people’s longevity, and their migration patterns. Crystal (2000) has stated that in West Africa, English and French creoles will take over local languages. Surprisingly, there is no French based creole in W. Africa (pg. 269) (and therefore anywhere in Africa?) plus, creoles serve another purpose such as a lingua franca in people’s lives, not necessarily to replace their language. Further, the authors note the important differences in the effects of colonization and modernization in rural and urban parts of Africa. “The majority of these criteria are inapplicable to or irrelevant for the African context.” (pg. 270). Whereas I agree that generalizations concerning languages are obviously inaccurate, some of them are applicable for certain settings. Where the book presents UNESCO’s nine factors for language endangerment on pg. 270, I have supplied my thoughts using the case of Tiefo (ranked from 0 – 5): 1. Intergenerational language transmission: 0 (children in Africa learn languages from other children, age mates, not the elders. Also youth languages tend to be temporarily used by a generation who then return to their identity languages later on) 2. Absolute number of speakers: 5 (unreliable data, who would identify as a speaker and in what context) 3. Proportion of speakers within the local population: less than 1% (who counts as a speaker) 4. Trends in existing language domains: 1 (languages are meant to be used in different domains – Tiefo may still be used primarily in traditional rites and rituals but this will by no means prevent its death) 5. Response to new domains and media: 3 (same as above, one language is not used everywhere) 6. Materials for language education and literacy: 3 (the concept that to save a language, there must be literacy materials is flawed. again, different languages occupy different places in life and most African languages do not have a tradition of being written – nor is learning done via literacy in the African context) 7. Government and institutional language policies, including official status and use: 0 (same as 6) 8. Community members’ attitudes towards their own language: 2 – 3 (many communities do not view the death of a language as traumatic as the language is replaced by a language of other importance (pg. 274)…) 9. Amount and quality of documentation: 2 grammars, handful of articles (these may or may not enable a community to save or revitalize their language) The identification of whether a language is endangered or not is not precise. Truly, all languages are potentially endangered and are in need of attention, particularly those in Africa.There will necessarily be a sense of urgency when a language has say 5 speakers such as Tiefo, but at this point the language may be so deteriorated and the speakers so traumatized by the events that led to their language’s death as to make a complete description nearly impossible. Should we truly be sad at the death of a language, and what does the word even mean? Languages are fluid and changing thus to say that their death represents a loss of a, or aspects of, a culture is misleading. Even through normal language change can these be lost. One thing many linguists lament is the loss of a rare feature found in a dying language, but the authors provide evidence to show that rare features are not necessarily found in endangered languages (however, this could be rare relative to what – such as the specific sounds found in Bangime that are rare for the area, but not rare typologically). Certainly English has its fair share of marked consonants as an example of rarities occurring in non-endangered languages. In fact, some endangered languages, for example Tiefo, have simplified grammatical features due to the fact that the remaining speakers are actually semi-speakers.
…language is a discarnate phenomenon that is rather handled by means of metaphor then by measurement and arrangement in the glass cases of museums. (pg. 284)
I really appreciate the time the authors have taken to dissect even the terminology we take for granted, such as the parallels with biology which may not even apply – the term ‘endangered language’ as if a language is like a species begs the question, are languages in a natural life cycle like other living things, being born and dying? Not usually, except possibly in the case of creoles which are born. Later, the authors mention of languages dying because of natural selection as being an unhelpful metaphor in that the death of the language can actually benefit the community. Actually that does seem an accurate use of the metaphor when a language is lost in favor of a more prestigious one. They state that, “There is no evidence of which we are aware where the shift to another language (as opposed to maintaining it as a language in a multilingual repertoire) has yielded real socioeconomic advantages…” (pg. 286) This seems contentious – what does one define as ‘real socioeconomic advantage’? Further, how do we know that a language will die? The book discusses the methodology of determining when languages are in decline via simplification and rule loss versus those who look for bilingualism and borrowing. Many languages’ death have been predicted for the last hundred years yet they still exist today and others which have disappeared unexpectedly. Usually, though, rather than language death there is decline – especially when taken into consideration the marginalization of the people – and again and again the authors state that language should not be seen as a separate entity from the speakers themselves and their history and language attitudes. I suppose here it depends on what one is studying. When a linguist is using a magnifying glass to determine the underlying representation of vowels, how concerned are we for the person to which the tongue belongs? I also really enjoy the specific anecdotes from the authors’ own research: There is an example (pg. 285) of a case of parents ceasing to speak Hone to their children in favor of a more prestigious language and therefore the language dying (committing suicide as the authors call it). This seems to contradict previously made statements that language learning takes place on the playground more often than in the home, further if this were true, why would colonial languages not take the place of indigenous ones? Perhaps the situation is always more complex than it seems. There is a very interesting case of the Jalonke in Guinea who self-identify as being Fula since they were once enslaved by them, reminiscent of Bangime and seems to confirm (at least in part) my hypothesis concerning their origin as being former slaves (probably of the Dogon or of someone who enslaved the Dogon given the borrowings. The speech by Adamu Akara in the dead language Hone on pg 287 – 288 is an extremely moving testimony about what is lost when a language dies. While it may not be a loss of particular cultural practices that we tend to associate with language loss, it does speak to the real loss of community and cohesion that the people gave up for hoped for status. Further, the prevention of language loss is not as simple as creating an alphabet. The problem begins with the marginalization of the people, but also includes climatic change, political instability, and societal factors. For example, an isolate language like Bangime has likely survived for so long because of the people’s geographic isolation and stability as a community. Now that the people have begun to migrate to the cities and attend schools, will their language ecology be threatened? Similar to Adamu, the elders have been known to lament the youth’s apathy for the traditional ways through indirect insults in songs. In Section 5.7, the story of the Chopi language provides a convincing argument to, at least in certain cases, preserve languages because of the positive associations they provide. On ‘discovery’ – the term is resentful surely because it implies that the people or their language were unknown prior to being found by Westerners. This is especially true in the case of Bangime; the ‘discovery’ of a ‘new’ isolate. It is possible that the language has been spoken in the area since the beginning of time (another Western concept) and the people were not lost in the wilderness crying out and shooting off flares in order that someone would discover them. The process of naming and categorizing languages is indeed a superficial one but it may be necessary just the same. In this, I think it is important to respect endonyms. The tricky part may come to where we as linguists carve up language borders as this is all too reminiscent of colonialists drawing arbitrary borders. I asked my long-time friend and Dogon language consultant to name all the ‘dialects’ of his language once. Although we linguists estimate there to be about 20 Dogon languages and 60 or so dialects, he named around 40 dialects, each with its own name and differences he could point out, for his language alone. If language as identity, it is of the utmost importance to note these differences.
To reconcile the power of the word and the paleness of paper, we will need to dwell on these thoughts and find more unstable or flexible ways of concerning ourselves with other peoples’ languages.(pg. 358)
Obviously, dwelling upon language as data, and as abstract sets of rules, makes descriptions “real” and “scientific” and the described “facts” more “worthy”. (pg. 346)
In reality, there is often only one person in the whole world who combines the necessary, hard-won expertise to work in a given context – somebody who has established relationships with speakers, speaks some of the languages of relevance, knows the linguistic and sociohistorical context, and, centrally, is willing and able at the same time to conduct fieldwork.
Such a traumatic experience – not just losing a language, but a home
and a place in the society – is difficult to translate into African contexts, where multilingual practices prevail and “broker languages” may change in the course of time. (pg. 358)
secret languages”. The following quote sums it up nicely,
A complete language is much more than just words and grammar; it is multimodal, including face and head movements, gestures, changes in pitch and speed, various forms of performance, and a huge vocabulary of specialized entries, which are reserved for specific contexts. Sometimes, rarely used phonemes that are exclusive parts of registers or ritual language are also part of these phenomena, being part of a more complete phonology. Speech registers, the ways of speaking in specific contexts, are an important part of language, as the variety
that is considered unmarked, or “average”, very often is the variety used by those who have more power than others. This variety is usually not a thing of linguistic pureness, but of power and control. (pg. 86)
Vision as a dominating perception modality and the acceptance of
written language as truth are important stipulations of any given speaker community here. (pg. 127)
…changing perception hierarchies from a preference for hearing to one of vision. This is exactly what happened a few generations ago in the course of the introduction of Western style school systems, which changed not only ways of transmitting knowledge, but also ways of perceiving of certain concepts (Langer 2010).
…just as there are no fixed languages or fixed linguistic identities, there is no fixed alignment of linguistic practice with ethnically or otherwise construed aspects of identity.
…the project of intellectuals in Africa here is to construct “black languages of science” in order to demonstrate that they are as worthy as the “white” languages used in literature and scholarship – as if such a proof was needed. (pg. 141)
For a brief period – in the wake of the independence
movements in the 1950s and 60s – it looked as if tribalism would be superseded by nationalism, the ideology propagated by the anti-colonial liberation movements. But, as argued succinctly by Vail (1989), the national model lost its attraction soon after independence due to its mainly negative (anti-colonial) motivations and due to the inherited arbitrary borders, and tribal identities quickly became an attractive model again for the representations of others and of self in the newly created diverse countries. As a consequence, the academic discourse
and analytical framework for the study of African societies, at least within the domain of anthropology, less so within linguistics, became disconnected from the wider perception of Africa. (pg. 185)
The data on which theories about thousands of years of language history were built fills only a few notebooks. (pg. 222)
…an epistemological wake-up call is in order so that the manifold criticisms of current mainstream descriptive practice start attempting to capture the descriptive and psychological realities of these systems and to describe what knowledge they represent, rather than searching for an elusive ideal. (pg. 244)
…in every language, language- and culture-specific knowledge that distinguishes this language from others is “stored” or expressed, even in long-term, intensive contact situations. (pg. 247)
…change is embraced by those living it, but viewed as threatening linguistic diversity or linguistic knowledge by external stakeholders. (pg. 265)
So, what happens when a Fula “dies”? 200 terms designating different types of cattle, and the categorization system underlying their membership in noun class -nge, would disappear forever. (pg. 265)
Hence, Fulfulde does not only permit its speakers to refer economically to all types and kinds of cows, thereby providing a huge hoard of knowledge on cattle herding in the West African savannah, but also permits us to understand how cattle, ritual interaction and religion are historically interrelated, and therefore how cows are conceptualized among fulophone African cattle breeders: not as meat and milk providers, but as creatures that are associated with the sacred. This is indeed knowledge of some value, and a clue for understanding people’s ways of dealing with and managing their resources. (pg. 265)
Once again, and maybe this shows just how little we do know about the languages with whom we refer to ourselves as experts, the book is misleading about a culture and its language. A note on page 258 it is stated, “These [the Fulani] cattle herders are often referred to in Fulfulde as Bororo’en, Woɗaaɓe, and so on…”. The Fulani are one enormous group of people, spanning from West to East Africa. Fulfulde Maasina is one dialect, spoken in Mali, of the language they speak, Fula. The Woɗaa-ɓe (plural), Boro-ro-en (agentive singular) are found in Nigeria and Niger and are quite distinct culturally and linguistically from other Fulani found in Mali, Senegal, or Guinea. Also, it is mentioned that the authors will use one term to refer to the Fulani people and another to their language Fula, but here they switch among various terms including Peuhl and the Peul (the French name in two different spellings for the language and people), Fula (the English name for the language, Fulani is for the people), Pular (the dialect spoken in Guinea), and Pulaar (the dialect spoken in Senegal and The Gambia), and Fulɓe (the term the speakers use to refer to themselves -ɓe being the noun class plural). This is quite confusing and should either be explained in this manner or simply pick one term and stick with it. Further, I am somewhat shocked at the statement on page 260, “…Fula has not become one of Africa’s large languages of wider communication…” since as they state above, “Fulfulde has some 10 million speakers across Africa, according to the Ethnologue, including Pulaar in the extreme West in Senegal and Arabicized Fulfulde in the extreme East in Sudan. This is a fairly large number of speakers and a vast area of distribution.” What language of wider communication is larger than this other than Hausa and Swahili?