Africa in Europe: overcoming and creating borders

I have a good excuse for having stayed away from the blog for some time: I was busy getting ready for the 8th European Conference on African Studies which took place at the University of Edinburgh last week. This was my first ECAS, and with 1,500 participants and hundreds of panels, it was almost overwhelming. My impression of this mega-conference remains very partial, since even with the greatest stamina it was only humanly possible to sample a very limited selection of what was on offer. My interests were divided between sessions on decolonisation, increasing exchange with Africa-based researchers, and of course panels dedicated to language, on which I will focus in this post.

Diversifying outlooks and epistemologies requires equal access of researchers to resources, discourses and debates. The obstacles are manifold, but one is keenly felt in the UK at every international scholarly gathering: the difficulties for African researchers to obtain visa. For the panel that I co-organised with my colleague Fiona Mc Laughlin, this meant that one of the African participants could not deliver his talk in person, since his visa had been refused. This is not an isolated case: visa refusals have dramatically increased since the introduction of the hostile environment to immigration. The anger at this persistent injustice has prompted leading researchers to write an open letter about which you can read here.

It is impossible to think African languages without thinking multilingualism, and all panels I attended shed light on its various aspects. Fiona Mc Laughlin’s and my panel “Language and the political imagination – connections and disruptions” featured three talks (panelists from Zimbabwe had to withdraw their participation), each of which laid bare how multilingualism is negotiated even at the smallest local scale, and how diverse the motivations are for associating a language with a place.

In my own talk “Putting the history back into the speech community: firstcomer-newcomer dualisms and language territorialisation” (the title being a nod to Paul Nugent’s paper “Putting the history back into ethnicity: enslavement, religion and cultural brokerage in the construction of Mandinka/Jola and Ewe/Agotime identities in West Africa, c.1650-1930′”) investigated how the languages of firscomers who settle strangers and control the land rights in linguistically heterogenous places can over time become re-imagined as the ethnic languages of entire spaces. The second talk, set in the Western Cameroonian grassfields, by Pierpaolo di Carlo and Ivoline Bidji Kefen showed the process of language territorialisation in the making through illustrating how a language, however minimally distinct from its neighbours, becomes a tool for the constitution of a political unit.

Pierpaolo di Carlo on the intrinsic relation between language and polity in Munken

Fiona Mc Laughlin’s presentation on emerging multilingual language practices in Dakar’s Chinese market forcefully illustrated the great willingness of stallholders and customers to forge practices acknowledging their interlocutors’ linguistic profiles by creating a pidgin that reflects their interactions, not for mere communicative needs, as she argues, but as playful and creative practice in a shared sociolinguistic space.

Not born out of necessity: Centenaire Pidgin in Dakar, Fiona Mc Laughlin’s talk

In a different panel, Paul Kerswill’s and Edward Salifu Mahama’s talk on the great differences in multilingual organisation in two rural settings in Northern Ghana resonated with these talks in highlighting the need for detailed ethnographic and historically embedded studies in order to apprehend the significant differences in patterns of multilingualism in two geographically very close yet distinct settings.

Kerswill & Mahama: using only the languages associated with a polity excludes many of its inhabitants
Kerswill & Mahama: lessons to be learned from multilingual settings for development communication and language policies

On Friday, a panel on the disruptions concerning the use of indigenous languages oscillated between observations of versatility and trauma. Elise Solange Bagamboula’s paper “Modernisation et l’émergence de nouvelles pratiques langagières en Afrique sub-saharienne: vers une analyse glottopolitique du cas de la Rébublique du Congo” was dedicated to the adaptability of both ethnic and linguistic configurations to new circumstances, including the growing presence of Chinese investors. But Mathias Bwanika-Mulumba and Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju deplored the continuing disinvestment in indigenous languages, the fact that their teaching remains tokenistic and their prestige non-existent in the face of English. A testimony of the continuing pain and exclusion induced by colonial language legacies and also, as Bert van Pixteren reminded the audience in his talk, an enormous waste of talent.

Yet, colonial languages can also be creatively appropriated, and the afternoon offered a delightful taste of that. The film Frontières, by Burkinabé director Apolline Traoré, vividly portrayed how colonial borders persistently endure in her road movie. It features four women on a perilous coach trip from Dakar to Lagos, suffering the harassment and dangers ever-present at West Africa’s postcolonial borders despite the promises of free movement of the ECOWAS space. Of great interest to linguists, the film also illustrates linguistic borders, testifying of the colonial partition of Africa. But it also shows how these borders are overcome in the languaging practices of its protagonists. This theme, the erasure of boundaries through creativity, ends my ECAS experience: the truly transcendental Scottish-African Ha Orchestra closes the conference with a concert interweaving various musical traditions and musical and spoken languages, juxtaposing flute, mbira, kora, djembe and sintir. Although the spectres of physical and linguistic colonial borders continue to haunt Africa and Europe, artistic and linguistic resilience is there to build bridges, and I travel home with some hope and many new connections.

Mashing it up – Nash Nouchi

I admit this is a bad pun. But I wanted to talk about Nouchi, a popular register of Côte d’Ivoire, and my very knowledgeable friend Anne Schumann pointed me to Nash, a musician who has her own YouTube channel, Nash Nouchi. Here you can see Nash herself explaining the origins and functions of this register that mashes up and remixes the repertoires of young people in this West African country.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the taming of French, the colonial language, has a long tradition. This appropriation is evidenced in the long-established register français populaire d’Abidjan, which has turned into the Ivorian way of speaking French. Nouchi is not categorically distinct from français populaire, nor from metropolitan French. It is part of a constantly shifting linguistic continuum which speakers navigate skilfully. Nash’s diverse language use illustrates that Nouchi, counter some popular theories on the internet, is not, or not only, a register born out of communicative needs of youngsters without formal education and concomitant lack of mastery of French. Rather than being a deficit, it’s an outlet for creativity and openness, a badge of identity. Some of the Ivorian innovations associated with Nouchi are known all over the world, for instance gaou ‘country bumpkin’, which has been eternalised in Magic System’s Premier Gaou.

Gaou and other Ivorian specialities

Many Ivorians, like Nash, daily navigate social spaces that have room for different flavours of French, some that are closer to a monolingual boxed-in code, and some that are more inclined to let their multilingualism shine through. It is not surprising that Nouchi has become associated with popular culture, in particular with rap and hip hop. Here comes Nash again, with the song Fo pas me garer. Not only the song lyrics, but also the spelling of the title and words appearing in the video show how Nouchi crosses language boundaries: Fo pas me garer corresponds to “faut pas me garer” – ‘don’t park me’, in French. Aniwoula – “a ni wula” in standard Jula/Bambara orthography means ‘good morning’. The standard spelling of French is subverted by spelling it partly in spelling norms for national languages; but the national language Jula is spelled in French orthography – playful transgression.

I’m sharing a link to an article on Nouchi that gives you much more information on its origins, linguistic make up and genres. But beware: by the time you’ve downloaded and read it, Nouchi will have already moved on! In fact, it has been mashed up over and over again since the ink of the paper dried…

Béatrice Akissi Boutin, Jérémie Kouadio N’Guessan. Le nouchi c’est notre créole en quelque sorte, qui est parlé par presque toute la Côte d’Ivoire. Peter Blumenthal. Dynamique des français africains : entre le culturel et le linguistique, Peter Lang, 2015.

Writing repertoires

People in Casamance in Senegal are famously multilingual. But what works seamlessly in the oral modality is quickly turned into a burden in writing though.

If literacy is taught based on a strict norm, a language-based standard, writing more than one language requires much effort, since the conventions of several orthographies need to be taught, learned, memorised and put to the task. Most literacy campaigns in national languages therefore introduce literacy in only one language in any given area.

But what to do if your village hosts speakers of many different languages, such as Agnack, where speakers of Baïnounk Gujaher, Mandinka, various Joola languages, Mankanya, Kriol, and other languages cohabit? What if you want to write a note to a neighbour with whom you communicate in Mandinka but also want to keep a diary in Baïnounk Gujaher and leave a comment on Facebook of a friend in Dakar in Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca?

Driven by this question, a team of local transcribers, teachers, and linguists came up with the LILIEMA method, which introduces literacy based on entire repertoires rather than basing its teaching on one language only. Using the official alphabet of Senegalese languages, writers learn sound-letter associations based on words from the entire repertoire in the classroom and are thus enabled to express themselves in any language they wish in writing.

You can see LILIEMA in use on the Donkosira blog, where inhabitants of Agnack blog on aspects of local knowledge they want to share, and were they regularly use several languages to reach a wide audience with their posts. Have a look at this post for instance, on rice cultivation, which features Baïnounk Gujaher and Mandinka in addition to French, which is the only language written in its own and distinct orthography, since its is firmly inscribed into a European standard culture. Other posts feature Kriol or Joola Fogny, liberating writers and readers from impossible choices and setting them free to express themselves in writing as flexibly as they would in speaking.

Getting planes into Bijogo

After having been mainly engrossed with Mande languages recently it’s time to return to the Upper Guinea Coast for a bit. Today, I’m taking you to the Bijagos archipelago off the coast of Guinea Bissau, where Bijogo languages are spoken. Bijogo languages have noun classes, which in these languages mostly take the form of prefixes. For all languages with gender or noun class systems, the way in which loanwords (a silly name, since the words are there to stay) are integrated offers insight into the various ways in which words are assigned noun classes or genders.

One option is the form of the word. Bijogo has a noun class marker ka-, which forms its plural with ŋa-. If a a borrowed item starts in k(a)-, it is reanalysed as belonging to noun class ka-, and is given a plural form in ŋa-, as you can see in these examples, which all figure words from Portuguese-based Kriol (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
karta karta ŋa-rta ‘letter’
kalsa kadisa ŋa-disa ‘trousers’
kopu kɔp ŋa-ɔp ‘glass’
guuja kuuja ŋa-uuja ‘needle’

Misfits whose initial syllables don’t neatly match an existing noun class prefix, can retain their bare forms in the singular and get the prefix – in the plural, as do these three words (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
lebri dɛbri kɔ-dɛbri ‘hare’
mango mango kɔ-mango ‘mango’
boti boti ko-boti ‘boat’

This is also an option for words that start in a vowel, such as arupudanu ‘plane’, or aju ‘garlic’, – they can also enter the ko-class in the plural and turn into kɔ-aju and ku-rupudanu. Words whose meanings fit those of an existing noun class paradigm, as the ones for humans, they get fully integrated and get a noun class for the singular and the plural (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
soldadi ɔ-soɔndane ya-soɔndane ‘soldier’
fransis ɔ-paransis ya-ɔparansis ‘French person’
fula ɔ-puda ya-puda ‘Fula person’

Sometimes, these words unwittingly give their age away. Because arupudanu (from Portuguese aeroplano)is not used anymore in present-day Kriol but has been replaced by avion (from Portuguese avião), we can conclude that the word was most likely introduced into Bijogo in the first half of the 20th century according to Segerer (2002), from whose grammar of Bubaque Bijogo this information is taken.

Here comes the full reference:

Segerer, Guillaume. 2002. La langue bijogo de Bubaques (Guinea Bissau). Louvain/Paris: Peeters

“My Songhay keeps growing”

My colleague Klaudia Drombowsky-Hahn and I have spent a week with students from the English Department at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines and staff members from AMALAN, The Academy of Malian Languages. As part of Klaudia’s course, all of us drew our language portraits. Developed by the Austrian linguist Britta Busch, language portraits have been developed and are now widely used as a method to evoke linguistic repertoires that, while still eliciting them in terms of codes or languages that can be named, avoids the straitjackets of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’, ‘L1’, ‘dominant language’, and so on. Rather, it is left to individuals to imagine and execute the task, which is to fill in (or draw and write around) a silhouette, through focusing on all languages that play a role in their lives.

Here you can see the language portrait of one of the course participants.





In terms of named languages, her repertoire comprises Songhay, Tamasheq, Arabic, Bambara, English and French. So, does this mean she speaks five languages? And is one of them her mother tongue? The silhouette, together with some explanations offered by her reveals that Songhai – to be precise two different Songhai varieties, Gao Senni – also callled Koyraboro Senni, the language of the town dwellers – and Tumbutu Chiini, aka Koyra Chiini ‘city language’, are important because the whole family lived in the two northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao, cities whose alternative language names set them apart from surrounding nomadic populations.

Tamasheq qualifies as her ‘mother tongue’ in the literal sense of being her mother’s language, different from her father’s. She uses it mainly when visiting the maternal side of the family, who follow a nomadic lifestyle. Arabic is an important language for her, but she feels constrained in it because of the way it was taught to her: the followed courses in Modern Standard Arabic at the university, where students were only taught to read and write it, and where oral language use had no place.

Bambara is a language she already spoke before coming to the south of Mali, to Bamako, to study. But it really only took off when she was exposed to it there, where it is spoken by everybody, so she is still learning it. Bambara is followed by English, the language we also use totalk to each other, because we are in the English Department and teaching takes place in English, in which the students are highly fluent. She learned Englishonly from 7 to 9 grade, and then at university when she enrolled in the English programme.

French somehow is mentioned last in the conversation we have about her language portrait, but this doesn’t mean that it is very remote fromher daily life. It is not only the main language of her formal educational experience, but also a language she speaks with friends, and spoke with her father during her childhood. English and Tamasheq are in her heart; French and Songhay in her head, and they keep growing

Language portraits vividly illustrate how important it is to let go of fixed assumptions about the role languages might play in people’s lives and to invite them (even if a frame and perspective can’t be avoided altogether) to develop their own metaphors on what languages mean to them.

Read on language biographies and language portraits in this article:

Busch, Brigitta (2006): Language biographies. Approaches to multilingualism in education and linguistic research. In PRAESA Occasional Papers, pp. 5–18.

Setting free the tongues

It is International Mother Tongue Day today, and across the globe people are celebrating the languages that are important for their lives. Very often, these languages are marginalised and minoritised, deprived of prestige and recognition, and one of the purposes of Mother Tongue Day is to put them into the spotlight for at least one day.

But persistent imaginations of what a mother tongue is, carried over from the European context in which the concept was coined, through the choice of words and the language ideas behind them, actually penalise speakers of languages whose language lives don’t correspond to the expectations it creates. Most dictionaries capture these language ideologies by characterising a mother tongue as “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult” (Cambridge English Dictionary”, as a synonym of “native language” (Marriam Webster). Collins offers a different interpretation, which potentially contradicts the former one: “Your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.” (Collins Online Dictionary) Wiktionary comes up with three definitions, one of which is similar to the Collins one: “the language spoken by your ancestors”, and a third: “the language spoken by one’s mother, when it differs from that spoken by one’s father”. Under the second and third definition, an individual can grow up not speaking their mother tongue (if they don’t learn their parents’ language), while under the first and most widespread one, this is a thing of impossibility, because by virtue of being a child’s first language, it becomes the mother tongue, even if it is not the one of parents or grandparents.

UNESCO, who initiated and continues to celebrate Mother Tongue Day, does not offer easily accessible definitions, and has made a multilingual turn, celebrating linguistic diversity and encouraging “mother-tongue based multilingual education”. This widening of perspective on repertoires and their diversity is welcome.

Yet, this is still too often translated into an insistence on the singular in practice, and on the idea of a clear context in which a child grows up with one and only one language that occupies this particular role, at least in their early lives, but ideally through to adulthood. But what about situations where individuals have no, or several, mother tongues (understood both as ancestral languages and as languages in which they are primarily socialised)? These contexts are globally in the majority, and in them, an individual may grow up hearing and speaking many different languages throughout the first years of their lives: the languages spoken in the court yard, the different languages spoken by different members of the family, by mothers who marry into communities of their husbands, by fathers who joined their wives, the languages associated with religion, and the languages of secret societies. Children may identify with ancestral languages not present in their environment, so that spoken and claimed languages don’t coincide. Or they may grow up moving between different linguistic ecologies and adapt seamlessly to these contexts, which turns them into adults with enhanced linguistic capacities who go on to keep learning languages throughout their lives. Crucially, in these contexts, none of the languages in an individual’s repertoire will fulfil the exclusive role suggested by the term ‘mother tongue’. So, insisting on mother tongue in the singular, or on one language with this total importance in a person’s life, reduces the richness and complexity of multilingual life experiences and shoehorns them into a choice that does not represent the roles of languages in individuals’ repertoires.

In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why “mother tongue education” in Africa, despite great verbal support, is not really taking off – because it doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of linguistic settings and of multifaceted and fluid linguistic identities. Any language policy that requires the selection of on one and only one language in a particular region will exclude many of its inhabitants and their repertoires. So, on Mother Tongue Day, let’s set free the tongues, and strip our appraisal of the functions of languages from Eurocentric baggage so that we can truly comprehend what linguistic diversity means.

Multiple or impossible choice? multilingualism as or instead of mother tongue. The repertoires of children in two household in the village of Agnack Grand, Senegal

To read more on multilingualism and the role of multiple languages, in particular in rural African communities often presented as monolingual, read this article:

Good, Jeff; Di Carlo, Pierpaolo; Ojong, Rachel (forthcoming): Multilingualism in rural Africa. In Mark Aronoff (Ed.): Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Linguistics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If you want to be visually immersed in multilingual life in a West African village community, watch this film and check out the companion materials on its website:

Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack

The real polyglots

From yesterday’s Polyglotta Africana it’s not a big jump to polyglots. There is a particular Northern idea of polyglots: slightly geeky, mostly male, individuals who speak multiple languages and often have their own
online and offline communities to learn languages. Some people even distinguish between ordinary polyglots and hyperpolyglots, starting somewhere above 10 languages. Without wanting to belittle their feat, that they are seen as so exceptional and equipped with special talents is a weird idea. Weird as in W.E.I.R.D (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), psychology’s acronym for the bias towards establishing expectations on normal and extraordinary behaviour based on this demographic.

Take a W.E.I.R.D polyglot to West Africa, and there will be many places where they will be outshone by most of the locals. And another difference will apply: not only will most people have repertoires that at least contain 5 or 6 languages (and I mean languages with considerable distance from each other, not closely related lects), but these repertoires will be grown and adapted without any formal language learning throughout an individual’s life, dependent only on their trajectories and networks.

Casamance is an obvious place for me to use for examples, so tonight I’ll defeat expectations and take you to Northwestern Cameroon instead. There, one area has been in the focus of in-depth research on rural multilingualism: the lower Fungom. This small and remote rural area, with 100 square kilometers approaching the size of a large European city, hosts 9 languages. Everybody is multilingual in Lower Fungom, and an average repertoires comprises 6 or 7 languages plus several of their lects, and in addition, Lower Fungomians speak languages of wider communiction, too. If this is the average, imagine how multilingual one would need to be in order to qualify as a polyglot!

My colleague Jeff Good has written an article on the research of his team in the Lower Fungom in The Conversation – follow him to Cameroon to find out more about how West African village dwellers use and imagine their languages:

Good, Jeff. 2017. Threatened languages and how people relate to them: a Cameroon case study. The Conversation