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    Thread: The language of Pan-Africanism

    1. #1
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      Default The language of Pan-Africanism

      The language of Pan-Africanism

      H. Nanjala Nyabola

      2011-06-08, Issue 534

      http://pambazuka.org/en/category/panafrican/73900


      cc A K
      ‘If we are to have a truly Pan-African language, shouldn’t it be a language that best reflects Africa as it is today, rather than as we imagined it to be 100 years ago,’ asks H. Nanjala Nyabola.
      I was at a conference last weekend on ‘Pan-Africanism for a New Generation’ and got into an interesting discussion with one of the panellists on the role of language in building Pan-Africanism. Briefly, there’s great panic in many cultural institutions like UNESCO over the rate at which languages around the world are dying, and the panellist, a highly qualified translator at an eminent institution, argued that this was a particular threat to the search for a Pan-African identity. While I take the point that it is always a tragedy when a language dies because of the cultural trove dies with it, I questioned the need for panic. After all, languages have been dying almost as long as people have been speaking. This phenomenon is not new and it is not African. If we are seeking to build a truly Pan-African identity, shouldn’t we be moving more towards embracing a single or a small number of African language rather than retaining thousands of languages each spoken by a smaller number of people?

      Language is a cornerstone of any community. Beyond simply allowing us to communicate with each other, language allows us to construct images or ideas of the societies that we live in and gives order to our relationship to the world around us. I’m no linguist, but on a most basic level, the fact that words exist for certain things in some languages and not in others tell us a lot about the significance of those specific phenomena in the society in question. You’ve probably heard the one about Inuit containing 18 words for snow? Well, a high school friend used to observe that in our shared mother tongue there were nine ways of saying ‘I’m going to beat you’ and only one way of saying ‘I love you’ – the same word for saying ‘I like you’. Words are created but they also create; they allow us to name those things that we interact with frequently and in this way give the aforementioned order.

      It follows therefore that language will play a critical part in defining the order of any Pan African community. In ‘Decolonising the Mind’, Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that language is at the heart of the processes of colonisation and decolonisation. Europeans sought to impose their authority on the African people by compelling them to master foreign tongues, opening the door for the subsequent cultural domination, but at the same time language can be a force for resistance that allows us to take back our ‘creative initiative’. From this perspective, one can easily argue that the process of decolonisation in many parts of Africa is far from over, and in fact is retrogressing in a very real way. For instance, the fact that only one African language is an official language of the African Union (AU) tells us that formal Africa still views itself along colonial lines with one notable exception. Should we be surprised that East Africa is thus hurtling towards regional integration that seems to be stalling in other parts of Africa?

      At the same time, languages are dynamic entities that represent the constant evolution of the communities within which they are used. I see it as a self-reinforcing relationship, in which languages exist as long as we need them but we only need them as long as they exist. Kiswahili is spreading because of increasing economic and social links westwards and southwards, but the more it spreads the greater the need for people to learn it. At the same time, it allows East Africans to express a truly ‘African’ identity that spreads beyond local or national boundaries. The trouble for many people is that Kiswahili is an objectively difficult language that is in many countries only effectively taught in schools, leaving young people without access to formal education, living through the current cultural renaissance with a thirst to express their African identity and little opportunity to do so.

      Yet, languages also offer people the opportunity to demonstrate remarkable creativity and agency in the process of claiming identities and far from dying, I believe African languages are evolving to reflect the new cosmopolitan nature of many countries. Several academic papers in Kenya and overseas have examined the influence of sheng’, a patois that is best described as anglicised Kiswahili interlaced with words from various Kenyan mother tongues. Sheng’, technically illegal in Kenya, allows young Nairobians to not only subvert political and social authority in a very tangible way, but because English and Kiswahili are so strongly associated with formality, also allows us to reach out to each other on a more egalitarian basis. Sheng’ represents an urban brotherhood, and a person’s choice of words reveals to other sheng’ speakers a lot about their socio-economic status. Interestingly, wealthier kids from upmarket suburbs do their best to mimic the inflections of poorer kids from the mtaa (inner city) as a way of legitimising their ‘Africanness’.

      My argument is not against preserving indigenous languages – far from it. My concern, and I know it seems contradictory, is that as we have remained so focused on preserving languages that have increasingly marginal utility in a rapidly changing world, we are losing sight of an exciting opportunity that is available right in front of us. Whereas English in England is constantly expanding to accommodate formal and informal words (just look up bootylicious in the Oxford English Dictionary) it strikes me that the debate over indigenous languages is locking out new and exciting cultural phenomena, like sheng’ that may well represent the indigenous languages of Africa’s growing urban population. If we are to have a truly Pan-African language, shouldn’t it be a language that best reflects Africa as it is today, rather than as we imagined it to be 100 years ago?


    2. #2
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      Default Re: The language of Pan-Africanism

      The author seems to fail to recognize that the issue is less what we imagine it to be 100 years ago and more about what we will DECIDE it will be 100, 1,000 and 10,000 years from now. Conscious decision rather than having our environments manipulated so that choices are made for us as we blow like a leaf in the wind without a clear understanding of our direction or destination.
      "African champions must break the chain that links African ideas to European ones and listen to the voice of the ancestors without European interpreters."
      -Jacob Carruthers, "Mdw Ntr"

      Ma ku Mbôngi, ka matômbulawanga za ko.
      "The community's political institution does not borrow foreign dialects to discuss its' political matters or to educate its' members"
      - Kikongo proverb

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    3. #3
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      Default Re: The language of Pan-Africanism

      I came to the same conclusion after reading it. I posted it more so to make the point how important it is that we learn Afrikan languages. At this point I don't care what any of us decide to learn. After we learn a few then we can pick which one's were going to use to communicate through the continent and diaspora.

      Ayi Kwei Armah feels we should all learn KiSwahili and ultimately MDW NTR. KiSwahili because many of us speak it and it has similarities and connections to many other Afrikans languages and MDW NTR since we'd have to resurrect it and no one would have hegemony over it.

    4. #4
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      Default Re: The language of Pan-Africanism

      In his talk here last year Ayi Kwei Armah advocated a created language in which various Afrikan people could see themselves. He said Mdw Ntr was too difficult to learn and that all other indigenous languages should die a natural death.

      Sent from my GHANA-MADE RLG Uhuru Note BrilliantPhone using Abibitumi Kasa mobile app
      "African champions must break the chain that links African ideas to European ones and listen to the voice of the ancestors without European interpreters."
      -Jacob Carruthers, "Mdw Ntr"

      Ma ku Mbôngi, ka matômbulawanga za ko.
      "The community's political institution does not borrow foreign dialects to discuss its' political matters or to educate its' members"
      - Kikongo proverb

      Ọbádélé Kambon, PhD
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    5. #5
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      Default Re: The language of Pan-Africanism

      Quote Originally Posted by Obadele Kambon View Post
      In his talk here last year Ayi Kwei Armah advocated a created language in which various Afrikan people could see themselves. He said Mdw Ntr was too difficult to learn and that all other indigenous languages should die a natural death.

      Sent from my GHANA-MADE RLG Uhuru Note BrilliantPhone using Abibitumi Kasa mobile app
      That certainly is change for him. I don't know whether folks find Mdw Ntr hard to learn but I have observed that people who do know it (or say they know it) do not choose to speak it conversationally. I'm talking beyond greeting people with "Hotep" and saying "Dua". If those that know it don't converse in it, it will never take hold. I have left Mdw Ntr for last precisely for that reason. As a lay person in terms of linguistics, deciphering text is one thing, speaking is another.

      All that said I disagree with Nana Armah. What he proposes I see as a more difficult path than Afrikans learning Mdw Ntr. Though I did not know what the answer is for us linguistically.
      "What you think belongs to you, but what you say belongs to the public."
      "Ma ku nsia n'tima, maku; matele, ma ku mbazi."
      -Kongo proverb

    6. #6
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      Default Re: The language of Pan-Africanism

      Quote Originally Posted by Agya Yaw View Post
      That certainly is change for him. I don't know whether folks find Mdw Ntr hard to learn but I have observed that people who do know it (or say they know it) do not choose to speak it conversationally. I'm talking beyond greeting people with "Hotep" and saying "Dua". If those that know it don't converse in it, it will never take hold. I have left Mdw Ntr for last precisely for that reason. As a lay person in terms of linguistics, deciphering text is one thing, speaking is another.

      All that said I disagree with Nana Armah. What he proposes I see as a more difficult path than Afrikans learning Mdw Ntr. Though I did not know what the answer is for us linguistically.
      It's a good discussion. I think the major hurdle is we would rather promote up a eurasian language instead of even considering Afrikan language. When it comes to an Afrikan language all the sudden nationalism is important.

      I could see maybe regional languages if we were to consider say western/eastern/southern/northern. I am not certain but for each region there may be major languages in each region. Maybe that will account for certain tonal issues say like in the south. Then it would be easier to teach each region's language as secondary languages to all. Just a thought. I remember traveling to Aruba and they spoke papiemento. It's a Creole language containing elements of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, as well as Arawakan and African languages. It is spoken by about 330,000 people in Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. So they idea that a place can teach multiple languages is a reality.
      Power is the ability to define reality and to have other people respond to your definition as if it were their own. - Dr. Wade Nobles

    7. #7
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      Default Re: The language of Pan-Africanism

      Asante @Agya Yaw for sharing this article. I think that the language question is an urgent one as it relates, on a very intimate level, to how we see ourselves, our past and our future. Eurasian languages serve the purpose of tethering us to the past of others, often to a past wherein we have been subordinated as tools in their world-building schemes. Similarly, our allegiance to their languages betrays a blind hope that Eurasians will carry us, as Dr. Rkhty Amen said in one of her talks, on their backs into the future. She adds that rather than doing this, they will jettison us, leaving us to suffer in our visionlessness.

      There are various proposals which we should regard with some seriousness. Kiswahili remains, I think, the most logical choice as a Pan-African language. One feature of the language, which may be why the author said that it is difficult, is its grammar. But even this is something that one can see changing as the language continues to spread. This is discussed in Mugane’s book “The Story of Swahili”, how in Congo many drop the variations of the preposition “-a”, which can take the form of la, cha, vya, ya, wa, and so on in proper grammar. Instead many in Congo have opted for “ya” only, ignoring these other, grammatically correct forms of the word. I’ve seen the same thing occur among Africans in America. My point is that even a “difficult” language will be adjusted by those who feel compelled to adopt it.

      mdw nTr is a good and interesting proposal. I do think that Armah’s point about its difficulty is somewhat true. There is also the question of the “development” of the language so that it can serve our purposes in the present. These are not insurmountable tasks. Unlike Kiswahili however, dissemination mechanisms for mdw nTr are less developed. I also fear that a stronger case for it must be made as a Pan-African language than for say Kiswahili.

      There has been at least one comprehensive attempt at forging an artificial language. It was called Afrihili. I’ve posted some information on it on this site. It is an interesting, though imperfect proposal. Folks seriously considering using a constructed language might benefit from examining this project. One issue however, something that a linguist said to me regarding such an endeavor, is that natural languages have a basis from which to naturally expand, whereas artificial languages do not. This basis must be forged. Thus, one must, in effect, sell this language to the masses—a potentially daunting prospect.

      The final solution, which was mentioned by @kevlew is the adoption of regional languages. One simple model could be Kiswahili in East Africa and Hausa in the West. I also like this. One can argue that this is already the nature of things in some respects. Of course there is the problem of what Diop called “micro-nationalisms” that might impede such an effort, particularly for languages that are not perceived as ethnically neutral.
      Last edited by Heru Djet; 03-01-2017 at 09:19 AM.

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