Slides for a plenary address delivered at the 2011 African Studies Day, organised by the Netherlands Association of African Studies. The theme of the day was “Africa’s cultural heritage”.
This talk shows how biodiversity, cultural heritage, and linguistic diversity are inextricably linked — especially in Africa, haven of biodiversity and home to one third of the world’s languages. It starts out from the point of view of students in Kawu, eastern Ghana, who are prohibited from speaking their own language in school. This is basically the “Babel” view: linguistic diversity as the curse of mankind. But is diversity really a curse? In biology, we’ve learned it is not: after all, biodiversity is a way of “keeping options alive”: of adaptational strength. As it happens, biodiversity and linguistic diversity go well together: the most biodiverse regions of the world are also the most linguistically diverse. Is there perhaps a case to be made for the importance of linguistic diversity?
Three case studies help show why language diversity matters. The first is the case of medicinal plants and ethnobotany. Many bio-active compounds have been discovered thanks to knowledge encoded in the smaller languages of the world. Different cultures offer crucial independent data points on medicinal uses of plants; if the diversity is obliterated, we lose these evolved bodies of knowledge. The second looks at ideophones. Many African languages feature large vocabularies of these vivid sensory words. The ubiquity of these words is unexpected from a traditional linguistic point of view, and their use sheds new light on what is possible and probably in human language. The third case looks at the importance of language diversity for human prehistory. Africa’s linguistic diversity offers crucial clues in the search for the origins of symbolic culture.1
Taking a step back, I wonder what the use of all this is for our students in Kawu, eastern Ghana. For them, English has become the surpreme end goal and other languages (including their own) are mere obstacles. This points to a fundamental clash between on the one hand Africa’s cultural heritage, which has always nurtured complex forms of multilingualism and many forms of speech; and on the other hand its colonial heritage, which has imposed a strong monoglot ideology and embraced purist notions of ‘language’. The way forward is to embrace multilingualism, not just for the positive implications it has for linguistic diversity, but also simply because it stays close to how African societies have always been organised. With a slight tweak of Harmon (2002), we can say that diversity in nature and culture is what makes us human.
- Atkinson, Quentin D. 2011. “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa.” Science 332 (6027): 346 –349. doi:10.1126/science.1199295.
- Adegbija, Efurosibina E. 1994. Language Attitudes in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Sociolinguistic Overview. Clevedon, Avon ; Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.
- Aikhenvald, A. Y. 2002. “Multilingualism and ethnic stereotypes: The Tariana of northwest Amazonia.” Language in Society 32 (01): 1–21.
- Barni, Monica, and Guus Extra, eds. 2008. Mapping Linguistic Diversity in Multicultural Contexts. Berlin ; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Bletter, Nathaniel. 2007. “A quantitative synthesis of the medicinal ethnobotany of the Malinké of Mali and the Asháninka of Peru, with a new theoretical framework.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3 (1): 36. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-3-36.
- Blommaert, Jan. 1996. “Language Planning as a Discourse on Language and Society: The Linguistic Ideology of a Scholarly Tradition.” Language Problems & Language Planning 20 (3): 199–222. doi:10.1075/lplp.20.3.01blo.
- ———. 2006. Language Ideology. In Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, ed. Keith Brown, 510–522. Oxford: Elsevier. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B7T84-4M3C3K0-2N6/2/94613b0e240aad252d5a4b75fabe9a38.
- Brenzinger, Matthias, ed. 2007. Language diversity endangered. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Cheikhyoussef, Ahmad, Martin Shapi, Kenneth Matengu, and Hina Mu Ashekele. 2011. “Ethnobotanical study of indigenous knowledge on medicinal plant use by traditional healers in Oshikoto region, Namibia.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7 (1): 10. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-10.
- Delêtre, Marc, Doyle B. McKey, and Trevor R. Hodkinson. 2011. “Marriage exchanges, seed exchanges, and the dynamics of manioc diversity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1106259108. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/10/24/1106259108.abstract.
- Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. 2008. “Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent.” Language and Linguistics Compass 2 (5): 840–858. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00085.x.
- Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University. http://thesis.ideophone.org/.
- Evans, Nicholas, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2009. “With diversity in mind: freeing the language sciences from Universal Grammar.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 472–484. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999094X.
- Fishman, Joshua A. 1982. “Whorfianism of the Third Kind: Ethnolinguistic Diversity as a Worldwide Societal Asset (The Whorfian Hypothesis: Varieties of Validation, Confirmation, and Disconfirmation II).” Language in Society 11 (1): 1–14.
- Fishman, Joshua A., ed. 2001. Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?: Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.
- Giday, Mirutse, Zemede Asfaw, Zerihun Woldu, and Tilahun Teklehaymanot. 2009. “Medicinal plant knowledge of the Bench ethnic group of Ethiopia: an ethnobotanical investigation.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 5 (1): 34. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-5-34.
- Greenberg, Joseph H. 1956. “The Measurement of Linguistic Diversity.” Language 32 (1): 109–115. doi:10.2307/410659.
- Greene, Robert Lane. 2011. You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity. 1st ed. New York: Delacorte Press.
- Harmon, David. 2002. In Light of Our Differences: How Diversity in Nature and Culture Makes Us Human. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.
- Hellinger, Marlis, and Anne Pauwels, eds. 2009. Handbook of Language and Communication: Diversity and Change. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Hornberger, N.H. 2002. “Multilingual language policies and the continua of biliteracy: An ecological approach.” Language Policy 1 (1): 27–51.
- Hutchison, John. 1994. “Review: Language repertoires and state construction in Africa.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 27 (1): 168–171. doi:10.2307/220992.
- Knip, Karel. 2011. “En breng je eigen cassave mee: Huwelijksgebruiken verklaren verschil in genvariatie in Gabon.” NRC Next, November 3, sec. Wetenschap.
- Laitin, David D. 1992. Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Maffi, Luisa. 2005. “Linguistic, Cultural, and Biological Diversity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (1): 599–617. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.34.081804.120437.
- McLaughlin, Fiona. 1991. “Review: Language repertoires and state construction in Africa.” Anthropological Linguistics 33 (4): 466–468.
- Moore, Joslin L., Lisa Manne, Thomas Brooks, Neil D. Burgess, Robert Davies, Carsten Rahbek, Paul Williams, and Andrew Balmford. 2002. “The distribution of cultural and biological diversity in Africa.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 269 (1501): 1645 –1653. doi:10.1098/rspb.2002.2075.
- Mous, Maarten. 2003. Loss of linguistic diversity in Africa. In Language death and language maintenance: theoretical, practical and descriptive approaches, 240:157.
- Myers, Norman, Russell A. Mittermeier, Cristina G. Mittermeier, Gustavo A. B. da Fonseca, and Jennifer Kent. 2000. “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.” Nature 403 (6772): 853–858. doi:10.1038/35002501.
- Nettle, Daniel. 1996. “Language Diversity in West Africa: An Ecological Approach.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 15: 403–438.
- ———. 1998. “Explaining global patterns of language diversity.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17: 354–374.
- Newman, Paul. 1998. “We has seen the enemy and it is us: The endangered languages issue as a hopeless cause.” Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 28 (2).
- Pool, Jonathan. 1972. National development and language diversity. In Advances in the Sociology of Language, ed. Joshua A. Fisham, 2:213–230. The Hague: Mouton.
- Reyes-García, Victoria. 2010. “The relevance of traditional knowledge systems for ethnopharmacological research: theoretical and methodological contributions.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 6 (1): 32. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-6-32.
- Sands, Bonny. 2009. “Africa’s Linguistic Diversity.” Language and Linguistics Compass 3 (2): 559–580. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00124.x.
- Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. 2000. Linguistic Genocide in Education, or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
- Smith, Donald. 2000. “Dreams of a United Africa.” National Geographic News, September 21. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2000/09/0921_africa.html.
- Sperber, Dan, and Lawrence A. Hirschfeld. 2004. “The cognitive foundations of cultural stability and diversity.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (1): 40–46. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2003.11.002.
- Attentive readers will note that I cite here a much debated study by Atkinson, which has since come under fire for its methodology (Cysouw et al. 2012; Hunley et al. 2012). This presentation was prepared in October 2011 for an audience of non-specialists, and I have left the reference intact. Though I would probably choose a different example now, the conclusion that Africa’s linguistic diversity offers clues to the past will not be disputed by anyone.
Cysouw, Michael, Dan Dediu, and Steven Moran. 2012. “Comment on ‘Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa’.” Science 335 (6069): 657. doi:10.1126/science.1208841.
Hunley, Keith, Claire Bowern, and Meghan Healy. 2012. “Rejection of a serial founder effects model of genetic and linguistic coevolution.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2296. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/01/24/rspb.2011.2296.abstract.
3 responses to “Curse or blessing? Africa’s linguistic heritage in the 21st century”
Mark, Really nice presentation and perspectives! I often think of the struggles of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia to recuperate and preserve languages and knowledge when I see where Africa’s language policy and sociolinguistic trends pointing. The monolingual focus undercuts one of Africa’s strengths – its multilingualism – which has been shown to have benefits on other levels such as cognitive development. It arguably leads to and perpetuates an intellectual stratification of society where elites can’t communicate their knowledge effectively back to the milieux where “Europhone” languages are not spoken. Much more can be said, and it all should influence development programs from ag extension projects to efforts to expand schooling.
A side note from the bio side: Having worked in forestry in Africa, I noted long ago the analog to monoglot policies – the idea of planting only one exotic (lingo for non-native) species on land to be reclaimed for whatever purpose (wood production, watershed protection, etc.). There are African tree species – including some very useful ones – that are as endangered as some languages there are.
Well put, Don. Thanks for your comments. Re: the tree point, Roger Blench made a similar observation about edible fruits some time ago: such a rich variety of edible fruits in West-Africa, but it’s all getting replaced by the mass production of mangos, bananas etc.
À really interesting presentation