Guns, Germs, Steel – Tongues, Travels, and Tribulations (The Real Weapons of Mass Language Destruction)

Two recent events have changed my long time views on the documentation of endangerment languages. These are the following:

Friederike Lüpke and Anne Storch’s new book

Paul Newman’s talk at SOAS

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)

Hence, dissatisfied by the dominant scholarly perspective on speaking that separates it from the real life of speakers… (1)

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)
In addition to language endangerment, some linguists are fearsome of the degradation of language. But, as the authors question, is simplification, mixing, borrowing, and changing of language found among the ‘youth varieties’ a new process formed because of urbanization or is it a natural and long-time process developing out of the coexistence of languages?

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)

What does it mean to be a global modern person?  “…’language death’ is not changing speakers into global modern people, but simply transforms strangers into insiders” (pg. 306). This is a larger question, but maybe part of that identity today is to be multilingual.  The latter portion of the quote, is certainly not simple as is put.  The concept of stranger in West Africa is complex in and of itself.  I have heard people there refer to the ‘stranger’ as being the ‘closest to God’ of all roles a person can play.  Whereas the stranger in the Western context is a burden to their host, in West Africa, when a host receives a stranger, there is an opportunity to honor God with the hospitality bestowed upon the person.  Sometimes a stranger is welcomed into the host’s compound (usually the chief in a village setting) with the saying, ‘friend of God, from where do you come? Welcome to your house.’  Then, through the shared language, small dialectal differences are quickly picked up and picked out to highlight the differences between the traveller and the host.  To go from this level to the process of complete assimilation must take at least a generation and even then there are other identifying factors of ethnic background such as family name and even appearance that create distance between the ‘stranger’ and the ‘host’.

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.

It is absolutely imperative that we as researchers do not deny our bias in the role of participant observers, a point well made this past Friday by Prof Lise Dobrin, University of Virginia, in her talk here, ‘Is collaboration really a “method”? Is “data” really a goal’.  For whom do we document and attempt to ‘save’ languages?   As the authors state, “This follows from the inavoidable contradiction between nostalgic ideologies mourning a loss of something necessarily past and the simultaneous location of all stakeholders in a modern present.” (pg. 322) Similar to the manner in which a poverty tourist romanticizes the way of life found in many African communities, we as linguists must not seek to preserve that which is hindering a speech community from advancing and assimilating into a ‘modern’ society. Although I am still loving re-reading the book, and will continue to update this ‘review’ as it is becoming, one criticism I want to make at this point would be to say that the book at times is unnecessarily redundant and repetitive.  I realize that the authors are striving to make their arguments stick but given that the content is dense as it is, less is more.
Chapter 6
Quite an easy read, just went through it on the bus last night home and on the way to work today.  Really gorgeous use of language in this chapter; many a quotable passage.  Here is my favorite:
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)
Indeed, it becomes daunting after reading books such as this, like ones dealing with poverty in Africa, covering seemingly unsurmountable problems, to try to then envision an alternative or a solution to the mountains of uncovered problems such as this one,
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)
While I do not think we should stop writing grammars nor should we cease performing the analysis of undescribed languages (and neither do the authors), linguists (myself included) could certainly stand to broaden the scope of our study to include the ethnography of the speakers and the context in which the speech occurs rather than simply focusing on the minute data.
I found this passage dear to my own heart, surely it is the case for those of you who have found yourselves dedicated to your own work, and should be of comfort to anyone who is worried about the so-called competition!
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.
In certain cases throughout the book, and particularly in this final, summary chapter, I felt that the authors made too broad of generalizations such as the following:
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)
I would add “…difficult to translate into [most] African contexts…” as I and I am sure most of you reading this can think of examples of communities in which you have worked where the speaking community did indeed lament the loss of their language with its associated untranslatable words and related concepts, let alone the rituals that by necessity are performing in particular speech.  The authors themselves provide examples of this nature, and not every context in Africa is the same; while most people in Africa do speak upwards of 5 – 6 languages, there are many rural communities where people still primarily speak one language and that language is strongly tied to their ethnicity and culture.  The Bangande, for example, the speakers of Bangime, do speak Fulfulde as a lingua franca but they are not shifting away from their language, no matter how ‘useless’ it may be in a ‘global’ context (given that it is an isolate and therefore no one except the seven Bangande villages understands or can even learn it fluently).
Chapter 2 –
This chapter concerns, “spirit registers, initiation languages and non-urban youth registers,
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)
And now that I have your attention, I would also love to have some comments on a hypothesis concerning Bangime and Secret Language Sound Changes.
Chapter 3 –
In terms of Language and Power, the authors state, indeed an example of powerful use of language in itself,
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)
With the ‘here’ to which they are referring being the protests in Egypt viewed through unconventional uses of Arabic in the social media.
Interestingly, the statement above seems to conflict with something mentioned in the previous chapter, “The preference of hearing over seeing in various African societies as an indication of truth (Aikhenvald & Storch 2013) reflects this reality.” (pg. 122)  Maybe this is a change in progress, attributed to a Western influence as suggested on pg. 126,
…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).
The original statement struck me as odd, given the importance of, for instance, a reliable source (a man) seeing the first moon to indicate the beginning or end of Ramadan in Mali.  Yes, it is his word that the people take but often a village does not take the word of the radio announcers but instead relies on their own Imam and in fact many villages end of beginning and/or ending the fast on different days.
Another thread which is a core part of the weaving of this book has to do with language and identity.  On the one hand, they authors argue against the commonly accepted model that language is identity.  This is said clearly on page 2 of the book,
…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.
Based on my own experiences working in Africa, and even reading about the experiences of the authors and the researchers whose work they cite in this book, this statement is too strong.  That is, to say, ‘there are no fixed languages or fixed linguistic identities’ is simply false.  The third chapter of the book discusses how language ideologies stating, “language ideology is closely connected with identity…identities are manifested and maintained” (pg. 135).  I have written in this blog about how the Fulani habitating near Gnanfongo at the time I was there were completely confounded about my identity based on what they were hearing (someone speaking their language) did not match what they were seeing (an American).  Again, this speaks to the visual versus audio as proof of truth.  Some of them could not reconcile my (quite obvious) identity as a foreigner and simply decided I must be Fulani.
I do agree, however, with the fact that in attempting to conflate speaker’s languages with their identities we may do damage.  Where we as linguists attempt to ‘give back’ in creating a literacy program that will ’empower’ the speakers with whom we work, (yes this was my reason for returning to grad school to become a linguist), we may be doing more harm than good.  For one thing, this chapter illustrates how choosing one variety of a language to write while leaving others behind further marginalizes already marginal languages.  Further, in many cases, our choice of orthographies, when decided in collaboration with, say, our language consultants, are then most often created by young(er) men who have been educated and spent time away from their community, again marginalizing the women and elders who might have a better understanding of the importance of certain pronunciation varieties of the language.  Various examples are illustrated to show how literacy projects, especially large-scale ones, may hinder rather than help a community who wishes to preserve or reinvigorate their language.  While there may be positive examples of successful literacy efforts, the usual one of Swahili is even discussed here with some interesting twists and counter-points to make one truly wonder at the efficacy of such a program.
Then, in terms of what one does once a language is documented in written form, there are some quite provocative statements such as this one referring to scientific works and literary translations into African languages,
…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)
Here, and throughout the book, the case is strongly made that African languages have the means to describe rich and complex concepts that are relevant to the speakers without the need to superimpose them onto our ideas of what is important.
Unfortunately, most of our society does not see that; how many times have you been asked if you know how to speak ‘African’? or how many dialects there are in Africa?  The reasons for this naïveté on the part of outsiders looking into the continent is discussed in this chapter as well.  Not only is this due to Weinreich’s famous definition of a language, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, but also the deeper meaning, or an alternate translation to his quote as being, “A language is a dialect with a missionary” (fn pg. 143).  Additionally, it is stated that Blommaert commented in 2008 that, grammars and dictionaries serve as ‘birth certificates’ of languages so that, “A language is a dialect with a grammar and a dictionary” (fn pg. 143).
The remainder of the chapter returns to the concept of identity, and discusses through examples based on the author’s field research the reasons people claim as their ancestry for various reasons.  Though very interesting and thought provoking, I found the discussion a bit lengthy and at times somewhat unrelated to the book’s topic:  language in Africa.  Of course place of origin and language are intertwined, but the case study was perhaps too narrow in this case to hold a more general reader’s interest.
Chapter 4 –
This chapter really brought it back for me.  I appreciate this book because not only is a resource for so many concepts particular to the African continent that are either overlooked or are so complex that they are beyond the scope of most works, but also for the author’s relentless (and necessary!) criticisms of so many mistakes in the field.  Because our disciplines are rooted in colonialism and other dominant forces in Africa, the problem of ‘otherhood and primitivism’ is yet another important issue for present-day researchers to re-examine.  Inherent and perhaps somewhat unavoidable is the researcher’s position looking through a magnifying glass at an ‘exotic’ culture, language, and people.  However, the manner in which we view that looking glass can be addressed.  Even our terminology; I find ironic the use of the phrase ‘tribal master narrative’, for example, is steeped in provocative and potentially offensive metaphors for colonialism and slavery. But while we may now replace ‘tribe’ with more politically correct terms such as ‘ethnic group’, many -ists are still guilty of romanticizing rural life and lamenting the loss of tradition.  For linguists, we all too often write or say, ‘sadly, X people are moving to the cities and abandoning X minority language in favor of a (more advantageous to the people) X majority language’.  We must step back and examine for whom is the situation of ‘modernity’ detrimental?  The romantic Western researcher or the herder who now uses trucks to move his cattle?  In our own countries, to walk months if not years in order to find sufficient fodder for livestock would be inefficient if not completely ludicrous! Yet we find this to be a loss of community, culture, and identity, and possibly language attrition as well.
Not that urbanization is the ultimate solution to poverty, the Tao Te Ching advocates (and I think rightly so) for the peace and self-sufficiency that can only come with living rurally in small communities integrating with the earth and the elements.  However, this need not exclude significant inventions such as solar energy, water filtration and irrigation systems, soil amelioration, natural resource conservation, crop loss prevention, not to mention vaccinations and disease prevention and treatment.  Communication, as well, need not be confined in the rural setting, so further reaching cell phone towers, radio, and even internet replacing drums and horns ought not be viewed as a loss.  (sidenote, this is exactly what my problem with paleo movement is – romanticizing ‘primitive’ lifestyles and trying to emulate them.  that being said, you all know how much I love my vibram!  I think this is the balance, though, minimalist without throwing away everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve.)
Stepping back for a moment, why have our fields gotten to where they are (and yes, I wonder as I know Friederike does on how we begun calling going to study in Africa, ‘going to the field’ or even how are our disciplines called ‘fields’, another mistaken metaphor it seems)?  Here is what I mean by the author’s ability to handle very complex concepts in a manner that I have never seen put so succinctly:
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)
Another focus of this chapter is the researcher’s equating of factors such as age, lineage, migration, and gender with authenticity.  A contentious section is devoted to the effects of missionaries and tourism on Africa.  Because of my time spent living in a Dogon village, I loathe and avoid at all costs the term ‘Dogon country’ for example, I feel sensitive to both these issues.  While I do appreciate the authors’ devotion to dispelling myths concerning Dogon people and their languages, they may be inadvertently creating new ones.  Our Dogon and Bangime Linguistics Project and the plethora of work easily accessed from the resource website by Jeffrey Heath and other project members since 2005 could have been consulted and cited rather than out of date resources such as Griaule or even more reliable work by his daughter, Calame-Griaule.  Further, I completely disagree that all “linguistic work and Western conceptions of the Dogon followed a homogenizing route,” (pg. 189) if one takes into consideration the vast amount of work our project has done on the 20 (at least) Dogon languages.  Yes, linguists have in the past considered these all to be one language and culture (as is even somewhat implied in the text) but the situation is of course more complex.  Although most, if not all, Dogon are proud to call themselves as such, especially as opposed to the Fula nickname, kado, meaning ‘bitter’, their languages do differ and their day to day life and spiritual practices and beliefs even more so.  The books comments on the ‘major stakeholders in shaping identity’ seem to indeed show the almost inevitability of the problem unless we take the time to ask (and listen to the answers!) from the people which we are studying.
But then, the question becomes to whom do we ask?  As illustrated by the case study of the “the Baïnouk” organization, the people with whom most linguists work, educated males who have travelled outside of their community, are often not the best representatives of knowledge even though they are the best at transmitting it to outsiders.
I think that the authors criticisms of the missionary involvement are necessary, if not a bit heavy handed and one-sided.  Surely not all missionaries are as careless as the ones represented, even as they do give credit to one, Fast, a member of the Mennonite church.  In my own experience as a follower of Jesus Christ, I do acknowledge the Biblical obligation to share my faith, but at the same time do not agree with the manner in which most (but not all) missionaries coerce, manipulate, and trick people into practicing their religion.  Many churches bring welcome aid to otherwise struggling people in Africa; I simply wish they would do so without a price.  If it were not for someone informing me about the Gospel, I would still be suffering with many issues from which I do no longer, and if someone in Africa is interested, I want them to have the same opportunities I do.  In terms of Bible translation, just because reading and studying the Bible helps me, does not mean that is the only way or even the best way to help someone who does not spend a significant amount of time reading in their own language (even if they are literate). Again and again, it is not for an outsider to tell the people what they need.
Next we delve into an overview of the history of language description  in Africa with a focus on classification in order to retrace our steps and see where we have become lost with respect to the mis-groupings of African languages.  The authors even question why do we attempt to classify languages in the first place, have our efforts “….enabled linguists to continuously ‘discover’ and count languages, fix them in more or less illuminating orthographies, and define their place in society” (pg. 209)?  It almost seems as if the concept ‘language contact’ is a bad word in historical linguistics.  As if the lineage of a language must be considered pure in order to be established as true.  However, in most cases, it is just this contact which has influenced the current form of a language the most.  How do we sort out the role of ‘genetics’ versus that of contact?  What is inherited versus what is borrowed?  As it turns out, the knowledge upon which we base most of our conclusions concerning the relations among African languages is based on impoverished data.  Not only was it “…rid of tone and other unwanted phonological complexities” (pg. 219) (of which many linguists today are still guilty) the speakers were often separated from the contexts in which the languages were spoken because of the first documentary linguists never actually went to Africa (again some still do not) but worked with slaves.  Others were colonialists who abused their consultants.  While linguists lament the loss of languages, we should be sadder that, more often than not,
The data on which theories about thousands of years of language history were built fills only a few notebooks. (pg. 222)
Similar to books such as Poor Economics which explain and expose so many of the complexities in our view of problems affecting the world, a major difficulty in reading Lüpke and Storch’s book is that no concrete solutions are provided to the now Pandora’s box of overflowing problems.  That this provocative section concludes with “…linguists have not yet understood and perhaps never will” (pg. 224) is not satisfying.  May it then serve as a challenge for us, though as we embark on the next field adventure with the knowledge of what we have been missing.
The following section presents case studies to illustrate how historical linguistics has gone astray in attempting to classify languages (and by consequence their speakers) using relatively few data collected in methodologically precarious situations and then stuffed into the latest theory or concept.  Maybe a call for starting over is too drastic, but at the same time, the way in which we are going about studying African languages certainly needs a major shift.  We have so many of these preconceived notions built up at this point that truly,
…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)
While the case studies felt a bit too detailed for the purpose at hand, the scope of the descriptions better belonging in a grammar than a book on multilingualism, the data in and of themselves from noun classes in the Atlantic languages and verbs of perception in languages spoken in Nigeria are interesting in and of themselves.
Any of us who work in the field of language endangerment has probably questioned the value of ‘saving a language’.  Here, the authors question whether or not the term is even appropriate given,
…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)
This point sums up exactly the conflict I feel,
…change is embraced by those living it, but viewed as threatening linguistic diversity or linguistic knowledge by external stakeholders. (pg. 265)
Yet of course a statement such as the following is unthinkable,
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)
Even though I have a huge point of contention the discussion of the -nge class in Fulfulde.  Speaking of romanticizing and Westernizing a misunderstood concept!  This entire discussion seems to contradict everything this book is trying to stand for.  Based on three odd nouns, people attempt to provide a convoluted spiritualized explanation for how cows are related to the sun, light, and fire.  It seems far more likely given that nagge ‘cattle’ and naange ‘sun’ are practically homophonous (and indeed many speakers confuse these terms) and both end in -ge/nge, same as the noun class suffix, that ‘sun’ entered the ‘cow’ class and then the other related terms by association than the authors’ long and drawn out explanation concluding with,
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?


One thought on “Guns, Germs, Steel – Tongues, Travels, and Tribulations (The Real Weapons of Mass Language Destruction)

  1. I skimmed Lüpke and Storch’s book and was surprised they didn’t make any more use of Michael Silverstein’s work than they did given the topics they are discussing. One of the things Silverstein does that I really like is to make a distinction between ‘speech community’ and ‘language community.’ His writing style can be opaque (my words—others will differ with me on that), but here is an Annual Review piece that is straightforward enough should you ever be interested:

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