2019 is the UNESCO year of indigenous languages. It is also a year that sees indigenous people under an unprecedented level of attack, through nationalist governments and through drastic attacks on their rights and on the environments in which they live. Writing from the UK, 2019 is also a year in which funding for teaching and studying languages at universities, and the interest in learning languages in general, is dramatically decreasing. And this is a global tendency.
(West) African languages have long been studied within a colonial paradigm that can still be felt in the way in which we define and analyse languages. We have arrived at a turning point where there is a growing momentum to decolonise the study of African languages, wanting to overcome the limits of a single perspective. Initiatives to open up African studies and African linguistics to multiple perspectives and benefits and research outcomes that are not only defined by Northern stakeholders and collected in archives in the Global North are increasing. Ironically, (but certainly not coincidentally) at this very moment the interest in these aspects of knowledge on Africa is waning. Decolonisation as it is happening in many cultural and educational institutions is a cutting of ties, an unlearning of languages, a revisionist restitution of looted cultural objects, a disengagement from those African knowledges that are not of immediate strategic or geopolitical importance for the North or for African elites, who remain the only interlocutors. As a linguist, I can only convince you of the importance of African languages by showing their beauty and creativity.
Through the blog posts on this site, I want to celebrate those aspects of indigenous knowledge I know best, those that are expressed through the languages of West Africa. I want to showcase ways of thinking, signing, speaking and writing that are little known to bring out their intricacies, surprises, diversity and originality. Indigeneity is a condition imposed on people through external and internal colonisation, turning them from the unremarkable locals into a weird and exotic category – the Other. It is not my intention to play into exoticising indigenous West African languages. My definition of indigenous languages is therefore a very broad one: any language, register or semiotic practice that is used in daily life by West Africans qualifies. This means that I include creoles and pidgins, and also languages of colonial provenance, in the various ways in which they have been appropriated by (West Africans), and that I draw on connections created through over five hundred years of interaction with Europe (in writing systems, identity imaginations and between places).
African languages are rich and diverse articulations of what makes us human. I hope you enjoy exploring some of their facets on this blog with me.