Saturday, 16 October 2010

Togo - An Introduction to African Linguistics

Apologies to regular readers of this blog, as I walked the West Highland Way in Scotland this month and didn't have any time to blog about Togo.  I thought I would kick off again with one of my favourite subject areas, Linguistics.  I have a degree in Linguistics and find the subject fascinating, although it's been many years since I studied it in a formal way.  As I've been reading about Togo, I've got more and more into the language side of things and the general picture of language in Africa.

The study of Language

I guess Linguistics, like many academic sciences, was born from the great 19th century desire to classify everything and put things, whether species or types of behaviour or languages, into convenient little 'boxes'.  The 20th century seemed to take this to a whole new level, not only wishing to categorise things, but also to minimise the number of categories and draw comparisons between things that are, in my humble opinion, very different.  For example, it still amazes me that we readily accept the term Indo-European and believe that somehow languages such as Icelandic and Hindi belong to the same language family, when it's obvious to anyone that they are incredibly different languages.  If you have a look back on my blogposts about Rajasthan, you'll read about the influence of British Indian orientalists on the concept of an Aryan race that somehow justified the British colonisation of India and I think this can be extended into the field of Linguistics and theory of an Indo-European language family. 

My point is that, far from being a 'black and white' empirical science, the study of Linguistics is very much a product of the culture of the Linguist.  Is an English linguist more likely to gloss over the influence of native British-Celtic languages on the language of the Saxons, Jutes and Angles who made England their home?  Is a Japanese linguist more likely to prefer a theory of Japanese as an 'independent' language, unrelated to Mongolian or the Turkic languages of Siberia and north Asia?  Well, of course they are.  The classification of languages depends a lot on who is classifying them and the culture and generation of the classifier.  It makes Linguistics more exciting in many ways, as I believe each generation needs to make its own contribution to the study of languages, with reference to past theories, but also taking into account historical prejudices.

Greenberg and the classification of African languages

The American linguist, Greenberg, is probably the greatest figure in African linguistics and developed a classification that is, more or less, universally accepted.  He divided African languages into the following sub-categories:

Afro-Asiatic - previously this was called Hamito-Semitic, after Noah's sons, Ham and Sham - Ham being African, Sham being the Middle Eastern one.  Arabic is, by far, the most prominent of the languages in this language 'family', but it also includes Hebrew, Maltese and African languages such as Somali and Hausa.  It's a controversial grouping in many ways, as it links up language speakers who are incredibly diverse in terms of their ethnicity, religions and cultures.  What I like about this grouping is that it recognises a shared history between the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa.

Chari-Nile languages - this family contains lots of relatively small languages from the Nile valley, reaching into the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Chad.  It's the language of the Nubians and the Masai people of Kenya. 

Niger-Congo - this is the biggest language family in Africa and covers most of the African languages that you will be aware of, probably the most famous being Swahili.  The family is further divided into branches, which are pretty much geographical and spread all the way from the Atlantic languages (eg. Wolof, Fulani) in Senegal to the massive Bantu family (eg. Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa) spreading all the way down to the southern end of Africa. 

Khoi-san - are the languages of the Bush people in southern Africa, which have defied classification by linguists, but have been happily grouped together as a language family.  This family includes Hottentot or Nama and San, which is the language of the bushmen of Namibia and Botswana.  The Khoi-san languages are famous for their clicking sounds, some of which have been 'borrowed' into neighbouring Bantu languages.

Austronesian - interestingly on Madagascar, they speak a language which belongs to the Austronesian family and is much closer to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia, than to anything which is spoken on the African continent.

Indo-European - European languages, such as English and French, are spoken everywhere in Africa, however Afrikaans, which comes from the Dutch settlers on the Cape, is considered to be a 'native' Indo-European language. 

Lazy linguistics?

As far as I can see, lumping the vast majority of African languages into one convenient family 'Niger-Congo' smacks of incredibly lazy linguistics and I call for someone to do a little bit more work on the classification of African languages.  Interestingly, if you compare this to the work that has been done on Native American or Australian languages, there has been no attempt to lump all of these into one language family but, rather, recognition of the diversity of languages and the need for separate classifications.  I think it will take an African-born linguist to open up the subject properly and give us a new classification for the 21st century. 

Linguistic policy in Africa

With over 2,000 languages, Africa is incredibly diverse.  What's more, levels of bi-tri-multilingualism exist on a scale that we in Europe can only ever dream of.  When I lived in Uzbekistan, my students switched from English to Russian to Tajik to Uzbek with relative ease and, in an increasingly competitive global economy, I think proficiency in languages will be something akin to a commodity in this new century.  In Africa, French and English still prevail and are official languages in most African countries.  At another level though, there are many alternative lingua francas and Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, Igbo, Yoruba and Amharic are also spoken by millions of people as a second or third language. 

Language in Togo

Togo is a good example of how language works in Africa and this is partly why I became so aware of the general situation.  A country of five million people, Togo has more than thirty native languages.  French is the official language, the written language and language of education but, since independence, both Ewe and Kabiye have risen to prominence, being the two native languages with most speakers.  There is a real north-south divide in Togo and, although most languages, fall into the Niger-Congo family, the southern languages, including Ewe, are loosely connected to the coastal Kwa languages of Ghana and Benin (eg Akan, Fon and Ga).  The nothern languages, including Kabiye, are related to other inland languages of the Volta river such as More and Gurma, the languages of Burkina Faso.

Of course, when the European colonial powers were dividing up the map of Africa in Berlin in 1884, language didn't always come into it and, to be honest, the complexity of how languages are spread around West Africa would defy any attempts to create nations out of the main languages (something that was enforced, to an extent, in Europe).  Initially, most Ewe speakers ended up in the same country, German Togoland, but the further sub-division of Togoland, means that Ewe speakers are now in two different countries, with approximately 2 million speakers of Ewe in Togo and 2 millon in Ghana. Of course, language is a continuum and doesn't really recognise political boundaries.  I think this is less obvious to a European, where French is spoken in France, Italian in Italy - the reality being that French and Italian are in a continuum of dialects that flow from one country into another and don't just change on the border!

I would love to see the result of having had European languages classified by Africans in the 19th century and whether they would have come to the conclusion that we all basically sound the same, or whether they would have found immense differences and classified European languages in a radically different way. 


A lot of my research for this blog was done on the web, through Wikipedia and other sources, however I also referred to Kenneth Katzner's book The Languages of the World (the 2003 edition published by Routledge). 

Both maps are from Wikimedia Commons and are being shared using the Creative Commons License. 

The Linguistic map was uploaded by wikiuser Seb az86556 - you can see the original and other maps by Seb at the following URL

The map of the Ewe and other Gbe languages was uploaded by Mark Dingemanse who works for the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and is based in the Netherlands.  Mark's website and blog are great sources for those of you interested in learning more about African linguistics.  His page on Wikimedia Commons also has some interesting facts about African languages.
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