Inaudible, invisible and absent: 50 years of erasure of African languages in film*

This blog had a long hiatus – I’ve been too busy adapting to life in Finland and learning one of its official languages, Finnish. It is not without irony that I take up this blog again at the end of a week celebrating the European day of languages. Two years ago at the same time, I wrote about this occasion and asked the question whether Africa (or the world) would need an African day of languages. Now I have a compelling motivation to take up blogging again: I watched two of the films shown at the recent Helsinki International Film Festival, which had a focus on African film under the theme African Express this year, and was struck by the continuing marginality of African languages in these films. They can serve to illustrate the eery absence or underappreciation that is the fate of African languages in cultural production.

Let’s begin by looking at an absolute classic which featured at the festival: Ousmane Sembène’s La noire de... (English: Black girl), hailed as the first film produced by a Sub-Saharan director. Its protagonist is a young woman from Dakar who moves to Antibes to continue working for a French colonial family as their children’s nanny, but finds herself isolated, confined and reduced to the status of a domestic servant. First screened in 1966, the conditions imposed by early postcolonial censorship and postproduction forced Sembène to film mostly in silent mode. At the time, films had to be postproduced in Paris. Since Sembène had received no funding from the French Ministry of Cooperation to send his actors to France, he was severely constrained in his artistic choices: La noire de makes very little use of voice, and especially the protagonist Diouana, played by the Senegalese actress Thérèse M’Bissine Diop, is seldom seen speaking. When we hear her, we listen to her inner monologues, recorded in a studio in Paris. But many viewers of the films will not know that they are not listening to M’Bissine Diop’s voice, or to Senegalese French – the voice-over was created by the Haitian actress Toto Bissainthe.

A triple alienation: Diouana the nanny is not only reduced to a maid without any rights, she is also robbed of her voice, which most likely would have been in Wolof mixed with Senegalese French. This voice is supplanted with metropolitan, standard, French, performed by a Haitian voice artist in a sound studio in Paris for whom this variety of French is as colonial as is standard French for Diouana, since Kreyòl Ayisyen is the language which with most Haitians identify. Sembène uses this imposed silencing to his advantage, making the violence endured by his central character audible as being what it is: the imposition of having to speak the language of the people who torment her. (His next film, Mandabi, received French funding and even the permission to create a French and a Wolof version, but is was shot based on a script in a French that was a literal translation of Wolof so that his actors, who had to perform the French text, could also do it in Wolof).

Fast forward to 2021, the year in which Le dernier réfuge (English The last shelter), a documentary by Malian director Ousmane Samassekou, was shot. The film, an endearing elegy of migration, conviviality and temporary shelter portraying migrants and staff at a refuge run by a catholic charity in Mali’s northern city Gao, was produced in South Africa and France. Advertised as being in English and French, the film captures a multilingual soundscape filled with the diverse and multilingual repertoires of its characters – we hear West African Frenches in all their dazzling diversity, Mali’s most spoken language Bambara, and several languages of which I can only guess one to be a Gbe language – one of the migrants comes from Benin and speaks a language containing labiovelar sounds, just like [gb] in the name of the language group. I wish I could tell you with more certainty what language this was, and which other African languages unidentifiable to me were being used. But I can’t, because this information has not been deemed important: the subtitles are exclusively in English and French and do not even mention that some sections are translated and not in French originally. Through this omission, viewers are denied to even rudimentarily experience, through sign-posting in subtitles, the auditory feast of West Africa’s rich multilingualism.

Back to Finland. In this country of a mere 5 million inhabitants, all foreign films shown outside of festivals are subtitled not just in one of its official languages, but in both Finnish and Swedish, even though Swedish is spoken by 5% of the Finnish population. Sami languages, Finnish Romani and Finnish sign language are absent, although some of these have around half of the number of users of Swedish. The European day of languages clearly has a lot of work to lobbying to overcome the nationalist heritage investing some European languages with rights and others not. But in terms of acknowledging its linguistic diversity and making films accessible, Africa is lagging far behind. In Mali and Senegal, only a minority speak or read French, whereas Wolof and Bambara are spoken by the majority of inhabitants. Perhaps it really is time for an African day of languages, not the least in order to remind (especially the many foreign) producers of African films that the languages in which they are shot and subtitled make them inaccessible to most African viewers.

*Postscript: my colleague Adam Schembri rightly pointed out that the original title (From inaudible to invisible 50 years of African languages in film) was guilty of erasure itself: it failed to make room for African sign languages. Were they present, they would of course be visible, but in all likelihood as unacknowledged as the spoken languages. As it is, they can’t even boast the doubtful privilege of having to be removed from commercial audiovisual feature films. Sign languages have no status, official recognition or public presence in most African countries. If even spoken languages with official recognition, such as Wolof and Bambara, are removed or rendered invisible in film, what hope would there be for sign languages to even be represented in the first place?

A wealth of information on the linguistic conditions of cultural production in Senegal, including the information presented here on Ousmane Sembène, can be found in this monograph:

Warner, Tobias. 2019. The tongue-tied imagination. Decolonizing literary modernity in Senegal. New York: Fordham

The language of cultural memory

Last week, I had the chance to visit an exhibition on David Adjaye, the British-Ghanaian architect whose work resonates with themes of identity, memory and belonging. Many of his buildings, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC pay homage to the visual language of African arts, crafts and religious artefacts. The three-layered structure of the NMAAHC building, for instance, plays with the three-tiered crowns common in Yoruba art as you can see below.

Yoruba mask with three-tiered crown in front of a video clip showing the NMAAH

The patterned façade is inspired by ironwork typical for Louisiana and South Carolina. These two elements, from points of origin and places where enslaved Africans created a new craft form, is a beautiful metaphor for the interconnectedness of the Black Atlantic.

Patterns for the façade of the NMAAH inspired by ironwork

Currently, Adjaye is working on another ambitious identity-building project: the National cathedral of Ghana in Accra. This project aims at no less than at creating national unity through iconically citing symbols of precolonial power and cultural expression in its architecture, claiming Christianity, now the religion of ca. 70% of Ghanaians, as part of the religious landscape of Ghana. Of great significance are the shapes of the roof, which are visual nods to wooden stools used by West African chiefs, as well as to floating pieces of textiles. Fabrics hold manifold social meanings in West African societies, some of which I have mentioned in a previous post. In a Ghanaian context, particular symbolic importance is held by cloths decorated with Adinkra symbols.

Adinkra symbols are a visual language associated with the Asante, expressing complex messages through aphorisms and proverbs. These meanings are expressed through stamps, often made from calabashes, into which the graphic symbols are carved, and which are then used to decorate fabrics. The symbol below is the stylised symbol of a bird looking back onto itself and instantiates wisdom – the capacity to learn from the past.

Sankofa Adinkra symbol: always look back!

Of course it would be impossible to mention Adinkra symbols in the wider context of weaving cultural symbolism into architecture and art without mentioning the artist Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, whose body of work is a contemporary recontextualisation of Adinkra symbols. Africa’s artistic expressions are as vibrant and transnational as its linguistic ones, creating new meanings for and with old forms and remixing them into powerful tools of memory and identity: look closely!

Microcron – Kusum No. 8 by Owusu-Ankomah

The exhibition “David Adjaye: making memory” is at the London Design Museum until August 4 2019.

Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah is represented by the October Gallery in London and also has his own web page.

A dirge for Nketia

On March 13, the great Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died at the age of 97. His hugely influential body of work contains books and papers on an area very important for many African cultures, located at the meeting point of music and language: drumming.

He worked extensively on drumming in several societies of Ghana and adjoining countries, first and foremost on drumming among the Akan. A fascinating area for everybody interested in language is his research on talking drums. They are proverbial for many African settings, but do you know how the drums actually speak?

Nketia distinguishes between different modes of drumming, depending on the intentions of the drummers to send short, conventionalised signals, imitate speech, or provide a rhythm for dancing. The first and third modes appear straightforward: dancers learn a code and tap it, and listeners can interpret it as a warning, call to a meeting, etc. Or they simply follow the beat in danced movements.

For the speech mode of drumming, the signal needs to be memorised by the drummers, translated into drum beats and pulses, and retranslated into speech by the listeners in order to be understood. Poems, oral history, proverbs could all be drummed, and understood by the audience based on rhythm and pitch of the drums. This art was already becoming rarer at the time when Nketia documented this skilful practice and is rapidly vanishing, since it requires years of instruction. Here is an extract from a text on oral history that could be drummed:

A text drummed in speech mode from Ashanti (Nketia 1963)

Because he was aware of the rapidly changing role and function of education in West African societies, Nketia wrote much on the importance of musical education to continue and modernise these traditions. A contribution that remains very topical, since formal education does still not give space to the learning of West African performing arts. Read more in his seminal work:

Nketia, Joseph Hanson Kwabena. 1963. Drumming in Akan societies of Ghana. Edinburgh: T. Nelson for the University of Ghana

The Bamum script in London

Africa hosts a wealth of scripts and writing traditions. I have mentioned some of them in earlier posts, for instance the Bamum script from Foumban in Cameroon, the N’ko alphabet from Guinea, Ajami writing, and the Vai script from Liberia. Before introducing you to other African writing practices, I have to share the news with you that an eminent researcher on writing in Africa, Konrad Tuchscherer, is going to present his research in London.

On June 28, he’ll give a talk, entitled “Script in West Africa” at the British Library. A fitting location to remind the British public that far from being the oral continent that needs to be converted to writing by the activities of outsiders, is a treasure trove of scripts, innovated by daring inventors or having roots reaching back through millenia.

The British Library also hosts the Endangered Archives Programme, which provides funding for archival activities that help protect, preserve and share many of the world’s vulnerable archives, for instance the palace archives of the Sultan of Foumban. There is a yearly call for applications for funding. The bad news: this year’s call is closed. The good news: the programme just got extended, so you can apply next year. There’s much more precious evidence of African writing through the centuries to bring to light!

What is ‘African’ African linguistics? Or what could it be(come)?

I’m excited this week, because I’m teaching African linguistics to Malian students at the Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Bamako. There is no degree programme in Malian or African languages and linguistics here, and therefore my colleague Ibrahima Cissé had the ingenious idea to invite colleagues from his network to come and teach as part of the English Master, in English. My colleague Klaudia Dombrowsky-Hahn, who teaches at Frankfurt and Bayreuth, is also here, and we follow each other’s classes.

African linguistics started out as a colonial discipline, when colonial administrators and missionaries started being interests in the languages of the the interior of the continent that they had conquered in the second half of the 19th century. As a discipline that is concerned with sub-Saharan Africa – an entity that only becomes meaningful through European eyes, adopting problematic racial and geographic boundaries – it still is very much inscribed into a paradigm dating back to colonial times, which coincided with particular racial prejudices, and also with the heyday of romantic ethnonationalism in Europe. The legacies of this lens, which led them to discover mini-peoples (aka ‘tribes’ or ethnic groups), united by a language and a territory, in societies governed by very different principles of cohabitation, loom large. So my course started by discussing visions of language inherent in the work of colonial actors and investigating alternative visions of Malian linguists. Surprisingly to many, lead-language writing transferring French writing norms to Malian languages was started by a Malian linguist, Moussa Travelé, and was frowned upon by French linguists, who according to their purist language logics wanted to keep languages separate and also did not want to ‘corrupt’ African languages or French by allowing transferences and similarities in writing – so the official alphabets of many African languages are closer to colonial language ideas than the French-based writing practices many Malians use until today. An example of the latter follows.

Moussa Travelé’s Bambara dictonary, using French lead-language writing

The writing conventions developed by the colonial administrator and linguist Maurice Delafosse, which aimed at writing Bambara different from French, can be seen here:

Content pages from Delafosse’s (1901) Bambara course book

The ensuing debate showed how important it is to lay bare these different visions and their motivations, which co-exist in different sociolinguistic spaces and in people’s imaginations. The debate will continue tomorrow!

To read more about the colonial history of linguistics in (French) West Africa, read these books:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun (2004): Vernacular palaver. Imaginations of the local and non-native languages in West Africa. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

van den Avenne, Cécile (2017): De la bouche même des indigènes. Échanges linguistiques en Afrique coloniale. Paris: Éditions Vendémiaire.

Ö goes to Guinea

I’m still in Bamako, but a good connection means I can return to this blog just like a polygamous husband to his neglected other wife… And while not much happened in my online life, I spent a captivating week offline but directly connected to the various ways in which village residents from three West African countries – Mali, Senegal, and Guinea – present aspects of their diverse local knowledges.

Through recording local knowledge that is important to them on mobile phones and uploading it to the Donkosira blog if and when connectivity permits, it is their regard that determines what is deemed worthwhile documenting and sharing, and how it is presented. But blogs are a medium that requires use of the written modality in addition to photos and videos, and if this written information is to be offered in languages other than the colonial (and sole official) language of the three countries in the scope of the project, which is French, this causes great insecurity. Because the languages spoken in the villages Monzona, Damaro, Bouillagui and Agnack Grand and Agnack Petit are either locally confined or not taught at school, the first answer to the suggestion to write in them is: “But these languages are not written.”

Yet, almost all of the project participants had actually already produced writing in languages other than French – for instance in text messages or in transcriptions of stories and other texts. You can see an example in this post on proverbs by Ansoumana Camara. If you look at the ways in which the proverbs are transcribed in Konianké, the local Mande language, a truly ingenious strategy emerges: Ansoumana Camara has transferred the spelling rule of the language of first literacy, French, to Konianké. This type of writing is extremely widespread in West Africa, and a very economical way of writing in a multilingual environment that doesn’t offer much support to languages other than the colonial one. Sadly, it is often dismissed as corrupted and improper, so that its practitioners themselves dismiss it. Yet, these writing techniques testify of a great understanding of phonic regularities in French spelling and their transfer to new languages is highly skilful, and not at all deficient. So of course their value is recognised and they have a place of honour on the Donkosira blog.

Today, however, I want to tell you about a local flavour present in Ansoumana’s writing that is very endearing to me as a German. Since I’d first seen him write in Konianké, I had been intrigued by one thing: the presence of the letter ö. Ö has no place whatsoever in French orthography, but of course we Germans are very fond of our umlauts. I knew that the letter ö had been introduced in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970s to write the the sound [ɔ] in national languages that had been officially standardised. But Ansoumana had stated that he had never learned to read and write a Guinean language. So how had the ö found its way into his spelling?

A Koniaké story transcribed by Ansoumana Camara from Damaro (Guinea)

Our workshop in Bamako offered the occasion to find out. It turned out that school teachers had introduced the letter ö because the sound [ɔ] appears in local names, such as Böbö [bɔbɔ], pronounced with a more open vowel than Bobo would be in French, and so a proper name served as a Trojan horse to introduce some aspects of writing national languages that otherwise had no right of existence in the Frenchg-based school curriculum. Thirty odd years after this school experience, the ö is still there – a tiny but persistent trace of spelling rules for national languages that still have no space in the school curriculum.

If you want to learn more about lead language writing, i.e. the transfer of spelling skills to repertoires in West Africa, you can find out more in this article:

Lüpke, Friederike (2018): Escaping the tyranny of writing. West African regimes of writing as a model for multilingual literacy. In Kasper Juffermans, Constanze Weth (Eds.): The tyranny of writing revisited. Ideologies of the written word. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 129–148.

The moving red eye

Emotions are not universal. They are expressed in cultural scripts reflected in language, sometimes over wide areas, but drawing on very diverse sources. The metaphors used to describe feelings often can focus on particular body parts as the locus of an emotion. In the Kwa language Ewe of Ghana, some emotional expression – those roughly corresponding to jealousy, envy and covetousness – are built on the image of a red/and or moving eye. Here some examples:

Examples for emotions expressed with ‘eye’ in Ewe (Ameka 2002: 28)

What is special about these expressions is that they feature a specialised and conventionalised use of the term ‘eye’. Ameka distinguishes a psychological and a physical use of eyes. Only the former features in the expression of emotions. It is recognisably different from the physical, body part, eye, which can occur in the plural – after all, we tend to have two eyes. The expressions of negative feelings in the example above can never be used in the plural. There are more differences between ‘ordinary’ and ’emotional’ uses of the word ‘eye’ in Ewe. Read Felix Ameka’s article to which I link below.

But I must go away now and research the origins and exact meaning of the Bambara phrase n sinamuso nyɛ fin ‘ the black eye of my co-wife’. I only know it from the textile design that is named after is, for instance for a wax like the one below. If I remember correctly, the black eye stands for the co-wife’s anger, provoked by her rival wearing such a beautiful wax. When wearing a wrapper bearing the design, the emotion is not evoked through language, but delicately and indirectly through talking fabrics. After all, communicating through speech only would be so limiting!

Wax of the type “N sinamuso nyɛ fin

Here the link to Felix Ameka’s article:

Ameka, Felix K. 2002. Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: On ‘jealousy’ and related emotions in Ewe. Pragmatics and Cognition 10(1):

Snap me one!

Languages are often boxed in in our thinking, with items belonging to one language, and with language being tacitly understood as spoken and written forms of expression only. Gesture and sign language research questions both these premises, by looking at how manual and bodily gestures are used in communication. Research on gesture, probably because it is also interested in the question of how and to what extent speech and gestures are aligned, has looked at the speech of bi- and multilinguals, taking language out of its box so to speak. What speakers do when they speak and gesture in languages that have different expressive possibilities provides insight into how integrated or separated these languages are for them.

In multilingual West Africa it makes a lot of sense to look at how people use their linguistic resources to communicate regardless of their association with one language, and how these resources can be fluid and changeable vs. associated with more conventionalised registers that can be named. Gestures are a prime example of communicative devices that can be independent of particular languages but are often shared in particular cultural spaces. An example of such a gesture, which will be familiar to many West African readers of this blog, is the “snap and point” gesture used for spatial recall and other functions described in this blog post by Chelsea Krajcik. Check out the video to see these gestures being produced.

Another example of culturally shared conventions for gesture has been documented by James Essegbey and Sotaro Kita. They report on a taboo respected all across Ghana that forbids pointing with the left hand. This practice has led to particular constraints that are widely respected, irrespective of spoken language. When people want to point to the left, they often need to contort their body or use both hands in gesturing, as this is not seen as offensive.

Examples of using the right hand or both hand when pointing left (from Kita & Essegbey 2001: 84)

Do you have examples of regionally distributed gestures? Leave a comment below the line if you do, it would be great to discover more of them together!

Read more on the left hand pointing taboo in Ghana here:

Kita, Sotaro & James Essegbey. 2001. Pointing left in Ghana. How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice. Gesture 1:1: 73-95

Sequoyah’s ghost at Grand Cape Mount, Liberia

Many of you may be familiar with Sequoyah, alias George Guess or Gist, a North American Cherokee who invented the Cherokee script in 1821. This script is a syllabary – it has a character for each syllable of the Cherokee language. But why would I write about a North American writing system from Georgia in a blog on African languages?

In 1832 or 1833, Momolu Duala Bukare, an inhabitant of Liberia, a country on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, designed a writing system for the Vai language. His script was also a syllabary, and in 1834, the Missionary Herald, the organ of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which had also presented the Cherokee syllabary to its readers, wrote: “The occasion and manner of its being invented, as well as the characteristics of this method of writing, are nearly the same as those of the “Cherokee Alphabet” “

An illustration of the Cherokee syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 432)

What ensued was a longstanding quest to uncover the connections between these two so similar scripts created in such a short timespan in very different, though connected, corners of the world. Most scripts don’t arise out of nowhere but are inspired by existing writing, so one explanation was that both inventors had been prompted by similar written stimuli. But soon after the creation of the Vai syllabary, it emerged that it might be more directly related to the Cherokee script than that. Initial suspicions were that American missionaries who had worked among the Cherokee had brought knowledge of the Cherokee syllabary with them, and that this had spurred Momolu Duala Bukare to come up with his invention. Much later, research revealed that a Cherokee man, Austin Curtis, was living at Cape Mount, in Vai country, in 1829. Was he involved in the creation of the Vai script?

An illustration of the Vai syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 440)

We won’t know for sure what inspired Bukare: abstract ideas and possibilities of writing, leading him to adopt a particular type of writing system – a syllabary – or direct exposure to a particular script. Perhaps the most amazing fact emerging from this mystery is the global connectedness of its protagonists, often imagined as belonging to ‘tribal’ and ‘remote’ groups. Read more on this fascinating story (and on yet more international entanglements) in this article:

Tuchscherer, Konrad, and P.E.H. Hair. 2002. Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script. Journal of African History 29:

Everywhere and nowhere: Ajami writing

In African formal education systems, the Latin script dominates, with the exception of Arabic-writing North Africa and the Horn of Africa, writing in Ge’ez. In secular state schools, literacy is mainly taught in the ex-colonial languages, which all use Latin-based orthographies. But even schools that teach so-called “national languages” – indigenous languages that are officially recognised – teach these languages in the Latin alphabet. Outside of Arabic lessons, the Arabic script is nowhere to be seen in the formal education sector.

This insistence on the Latin script, which is often seen as a neutral, modern, choice, flies in the face of longstanding writing practices that have emerged all over Africa in areas in the sphere of influence of Islam. Just as the Latin script spread with Christianity and was adapted to write languages other than Latin originally in religious contexts, the Arabic script was extended to write in the languages of Islamic scholars. West Africans cultivated this type of literacy, called Ajami (from ‘Ajamiyy ‘stranger’ in Arabic) from the 13th century onward. All over Africa, writers engage(d) with the Qur’ān, writing in the margins of religious manuscripts, penning personal letters, religious prose and poetry, using the Arabic script for the writing of Fulfulde, Hausa, Mandinka, and many other languages. For some languages, this writing crystallised into language-focused literary traditions roughly from the 17th century onward. In others contexts it remains a fluid informal practice.

Important West African languages with Ajami writing traditions (Souag 2010: 1)

To this day, Ajami writing is an important form of literacy, especially in areas that ironically are regarded as hot spots of illiteracy in official literacy statistics. According to this logic, which ignores the many different types of
Qur’ānic schools, where Ajami writing is learned alongside writing and reading of Arabic by some of the students, somebody without literacy knowledge in the Latin script is illiterate. Not surprisingly, this lack of recognition often leads its practitioners to under-report Ajami skills or even hide them from authorities, because these eye Qur’ānic schools and the knowledge acquired there with suspicion. This is a real shame, since Ajami writing is a very ergonomic form of literacy for languages for which not many resources are available. Ajami extends the writing conventions of Arabic to any language and has intricate design principles adjust it to this purpose. One of these tweaks is a special character called by Souag 2010 the “Ajami diacritic” that signals to the reader that a sound must be pronounced differently from its Arabic counterpart. This flexibility has turned Ajami writing into a robust practice that doesn’t require much costly infrastructure, quite unlike standard writing of national languages in the Latin script. But standard language ideologies are so strong that with growing recognition of Ajami, calls for its standardisation are getting louder. Yet, just like many language ideas exported from Western monolingual standard cultures, such a move would rob Ajami of the very underpinning of its success in linguistically diverse and fluctuating societies.

Read more on the ingenious design principles of West African Ajami writing in this article:

Souag, Lameen (2010): Ajami in West Africa. In Afrikanistik Online 7, pp. 1–11