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:

KanraxĂ«l – 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

A royal syllabary

In the mind of many, Africa is the oral continent. But Africa hosts some of the earliest writing systems in the world, and has remained a continent prolific in the invention of scripts since the times of hieroglyphs, Meroitic writing, Nubian, Ethiopian and Berber scripts that mark the earliest attestation of writing there.

Today, I look at one of the youngest scripts originating from Africa, the Bamum script of Foumban, a Sultanate in Western Cameroon. Its earliest incarnations go back to 1896, when it was invented by the Sultan Njoya the 17th. Six different versions of the script were developed over the years. The earliest ones were logographic – the signs depicted real-world objects. Later versions turned the Bamum script into a syllabic writing system, in which each sign stands for a syllable of the language. ‘Ideal’ syllabic writing systems should have a different letter for every syllable of the language(s) written with them, which can be a tall order. Most syllabic writing systems stop short of offering a complete inventory of signs.

Waiting for the Sultan to start his audience (you can see his throne in the doorway in the background to the left), Foumban 2004

Many sources state that Njoya developed the Bamum script under the influence of German colonial administrators, as Cameroon was a German colony during the first twenty years of his reign. But newer research has revealed a family of syllabic scripts invented all over Africa in the late 19th century, starting with the Vai script in Liberia. Syllabic scripts went out of fashion from the 1930s onwards, when the Africa alphabet created by linguists of the International Africa Institute became influential through the activities of missionaries, colonial linguists and administrators. Today, the Bamum script is little used, but retains a high symbolic prestige. When I visited Foumban in 2004, I obtained an audience with the current Sultan and his education minister and visited the palace school where it is taught. Currently, it is being documented in the Bamum script and archives project.

The Bamoum dynasty in the Latin and Bamum script
Sign in Foumban
More from the linguistic landscape of Foumban
It’s clear which language the military speaks/writes…

If you want to read more about the Bamum script and the family of 19th century syllabaries in Africa, you can read this article:

De Voogt, Alex. 2014. The cultural transmission of scripts in Africa: the presence of syllabaries. Scripta 6: 121-134