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