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African languages and literature
Thread poster: Fabio Descalzi

Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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Aug 16, 2007

African literature consists of the traditional oral and written literatures together with the mainly 20th-century literature written mostly in European languages but also to an increasing extent in the many languages of the sub-Saharan region. Traditional written literature is limited to a smaller geographic area than is oral literature; indeed, it is most characteristic of those sub-Saharan cultures that have participated in the cultures of the Mediterranean. In particular, there is literature in both Hausa and Arabic from the scholars of what is now northern Nigeria; the literature of the likewise Muslim Somali people; and literature in Ge'ez (or Ethiopic) and Amharic of Ethiopia, the one part of Africa where Christianity has been practiced long enough to be considered traditional.

The relationship between oral and written traditions and in particular between oral and modern written literatures is one of great complexity and not a matter of simple evolution. Modern African literatures were born in the educational systems imposed by colonialism, with models drawn from Europe rather than existing African traditions. The modern African writer thus uses tradition as subject matter rather than as a means of effecting a continuity with past cultural practice.

A special case is South Africa, which was colonized by Europeans against the resistance of Africans and was for some time afterward a battlefield between Briton and Boer. Indigenous South African literature effectively began in the late 19th century and became fairly copious in the 20th century. Much of the work by persons born in South Africa was limited in its viewpoint; often these writers only dimly apprehended the aspirations, perceptions, and traditions of South Africans belonging to a people other than their own. English-speaking South African writers are mainly urban and cosmopolitan; their culture is English, and they often have a wider audience among English-speaking communities abroad. By contrast, Afrikaans writers belonged for many decades to a close-knit community—born of a defensive posture—with shared experiences (including rural roots), shared aspirations and religion, and a strong sense of nationhood. Only in the 1960s did a major break with this tradition become apparent.

source: Britannica Concise


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Alan R King
Local time: 06:53
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The languages of Africa, a universe unto itself Aug 16, 2007

There are very many more languages in Africa than Europe, and many of these are of course still not well known to the wider world.

Europe, taken in its broadest sense as extending as far as the Urals, is considered to have about 200 languages which mainly belong to three language families: Indo-European, Finno-Ugric and "Caucasian". (Finno-Ugric, or Uralic, used to be grouped together with Altaic, which includes Turkish and many Asian languages, as "Ural-Altaic", but that is now widely rejected. The Caucasian languages are not believed by most linguists all really to belong to a single language family.)

Now let's look at Africa. Modern scholars acknowledge four great "macro-families" or phyla (singular: phylum) in the continent. Together these phyla contain between 1,500 and 2,000 languages, according to different estimates.

Over a thousand of these are grouped into the great Niger-Congo phylum, which spreads over the southern two-thirds of Africa. The southern half of the continent is home to the Bantu language family, actually a sub-sub-sub-sub-...-branch of Niger-Congo. There are something like 500 Bantu languages. Swahili (in eastern Africa) and Zulu (in southern Africa) are the best known. Historically this is the result of spectacular Bantu expansion in pre-colonial times, originating from somewhere in the northwest, whereby many non-Bantu languages must have been wiped out.

One example of a well-known NON-Bantu member of the Niger-Congo language phylum is Yoruba, spoken by over twenty million people in western Africa.

Prior to the spread of the Bantus, probably in most of the southern third of the continent languages of a completely unrelated phylum were spoken. These are the Khoisan languages. Some of these languages that had survived Bantu expansion were wiped out by European colonialism in southern Africa, but today a few dozen such languages are still spoken by small groups, surrounded by Bantu languages and/or Afrikaans and English. Yet Khoisan languages are found today as far north as Tanzania! (Khoisan languages were distinguished by the use of click-consonants, an unsual phonological feature which was subsequently borrowed into some southern Bantu languages such as Zulu.) These are not well-known languages, but include the language of the people known to the English-speaking world as the Hottentots.

Another completely separate group of languages that are not very widely known to the outside world make up the Nilo-Saharan phylum, which occupy a wide but relatively narrow west-to-east belt in central Africa, separating the Niger-Congo languages to the south from those of the Afro-Asiatic phylum to the north.

What are today referred to as the Afro-Asiatic languages used to be called the Hamito-Semitic family, a name which is considered quite unscientific and is progressively falling completely out of use, based as it is, ultimately, on the Old Testament account of the sons of Noah and the nations supposedly descended from two of them (Ham and Sem). Its best-known branch is the Semitic family originally spoken in the Middle East, from where Arabic later spread across northern Africa. Amharic and other languages of Ethiopia also belong to the Semitic group.

The other Afro-Asiatic languages cover the rest of northern Africa. They number about 240, and include the Berber languages (in the north of Africa), Hausa (in the northwest), and Somali (in the northeast), to mention just the most familiar names.

sources: M. Ruhlen, A guide to the world's languages; Wikipedia


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Parrot  Identity Verified
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Of interest: the 19 traditions of intangible heritage proclaimed by UNESCO in 2001 Aug 16, 2007

http://www.unesco.org/bpi/intangible_heritage/backgrounde.htm

We owe the thrust towards a revaluation of oral tradition largely to the pioneering work of an African linguist and folklorist, presented here by way of introduction: http://www.ese.upenn.edu/~rabii/toes/BaAspectsTOC.html



[Edited at 2007-08-16 10:02]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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Comments Aug 16, 2007

Fabio Descalzi Sgarbi wrote:
Modern African literatures were born in the educational systems imposed by colonialism, with models drawn from Europe rather than existing African traditions.

source: Britannica Concise


Yes, and this makes their writings accessible to Europeans and other places colonised by Europeans, thereby ensuring them a more global market for their efforts.

But I find the author's choice of words subjective. All educational systems are imposed by governments of the day, so why use the loaded word "imposed" in what should really be an objective, encyclopedic article?

And the author is being silly, too, when he compares apples and oranges in this sentence: "...models drawn from Europe rather than existing African traditions". If he had said "models drawn from European traditions rather than African traditions" I would have had some respect left for him, but instead he tries to trick the user into falling for his equating of the concept "models from X continent" with "models from X continent's traditions".

By referring to the "existing traditions" he deliberately creates the impression that the models from Europe had replaced something in Africa. The fact is, however, that African traditions were not replaced by European traditions, and the European model didn't relace an African model because an African model in those particular countries didn't exist (as the author himself acknowledges in his first paragraph).

Don't waste your time on this source Fabio -- it has a political agenda.


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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TOPIC STARTER
A future for African diversity? Aug 16, 2007

Alan R King wrote:
There are very many more languages in Africa than Europe, and many of these are of course still not well known to the wider world.
...
Now let's look at Africa. Modern scholars acknowledge four great "macro-families" or phyla (singular: phylum) in the continent. Together these phyla contain between 1,500 and 2,000 languages, according to different estimates.

Thanks Alan for sharing here too.
Indeed, Africa has one of the most fascinating diversities one can imagine.
Alan R King wrote:
Swahili (in eastern Africa) and Zulu (in southern Africa) are the best known

... and for the ordinary public, maybe the ONLY known languages from sub-Saharan Africa, if we exclude Amharic and some other Ethiopian languages.
Then, if you are a person interested in languages, you have already heard about Yoruba, Hausa, Swazi, Xhosa, and many other names.

Today, very early in the morning, I started this thread with a very general article (actually, two articles, cut-and-pasted). But when I think about African diversity, I think about: all those languages (and dialects) spoken by relatively few. And not quite widespread!

According to Ethnologue, Africa has some 900m inhabitants, of whom 170m speak Arabic, 6m or more Afrikaans, 5m English, 5m other European languages... and then, the remaining 700m or so, speak 2,000-odd languages - in average, 350,000 speakers of every language.
If we exclude the "top 10" among the "pure African" languages:
· Hausa 34m
· Oromo 19m
· Somali 34m
· Amharic 26m
· Malagasy 18m
· Igbo 26m
· Yoruba 23m
· Kongo 30m
· Shona 12m
· Zulu 12m
then we have 480m speakers for the remaining 2,000 languages - an average of 250,000 speakers per language.

By comparison: Maltese, one of the 24 official languages of the EU, has less than 400,000 speakers.

Is there a future for so many languages? How lively are they?

[Edited at 2007-08-16 13:04]


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Alan R King
Local time: 06:53
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What's in a number? Aug 16, 2007

Fabio Descalzi Sgarbi wrote:

If we exclude the "top 10" among the "pure African" languages (...) then we have 480m speakers for the remaining 2,000 languages - an average of 250,000 speakers per language.

By comparison: Maltese, one of the 24 official languages of the EU, has less than 400,000 speakers.

Is there a future for so many languages? How lively are they?

[Edited at 2007-08-16 13:04]


To play the devil's advocate for a change...

(1) I doubt the 250,000 average you cite is itself meaningful, since this average figure may still include some languages spoken by several millions and others spoken by 1000? 100? 10? It's just a number. Like the average family that has two-and-a-half children, or something...

(2) As I recently pointed out in another thread (if you recall), "normal" in the real world out there is not what the western official nation-states say is normal; if it is normal (really normal) for many people in the world to be multilingual, then it can also be normal for some languages NOT to be spoken by millions upon millions of speakers, right? What is wrong with a language being spoken by "only" 250,000 people? Or only 250 people, for that matter?

(3) Vitality and a wholesome state of affairs for a given language is not per se an issue about quantity, but quality, justice and security. There would be nothing wrong with a language community having 250 people in it if it weren't for the fact that such a community's future survival is likely to be threatened by encroaching globalisation (or colonial aggression in any other shape or form), by a world less and less tolerant and respectful of diversity and a more and more invasive "mainstream culture", etc. Smallness is not bad; defencelessness is the problem.

Well, just playing the devil's advocate, as I said.

Alan


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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Defencelessness - you name it! Aug 16, 2007

Alan R King wrote:
To play the devil's advocate for a change...
I doubt the 250,000 average you cite is itself meaningful, since this average figure may still include some languages spoken by several millions and others spoken by 1000? 100? 10? It's just a number. Like the average family that has two-and-a-half children, or something...

Hi Alan,
thanks for sharing your views.

Of course, you are 100% right. If one takes a further look at the same information whereof I took those "cold numbers", it's exactly like that: there is an interesting series of languages spoken by a good 2m to 10m speakers, and then there are many "clusters" of small language communities (notably: the Khoisan languages of the South or some groups of Nubian languages, to name a few).

Alan R King wrote:
Vitality and a wholesome state of affairs for a given language is not per se an issue about quantity, but quality, justice and security. There would be nothing wrong with a language community having 250 people in it if it weren't for the fact that such a community's future survival is likely to be threatened by encroaching globalisation (or colonial aggression in any other shape or form), by a world less and less tolerant and respectful of diversity and a more and more invasive "mainstream culture", etc. Smallness is not bad; defencelessness is the problem.

And here we are that resounding word which best describes the situation of "all those not-quite-spoken" languages: DEFENCELESSNESS.

I deliberately put the example of Maltese with "less than 400,000" to exemplify a language that "has gone far in spite of not being so widespread" (just like Welsh, to name another wonderful example of a "small but strong" language community). Maltese, Welsh, Euskera, Icelandic, Faeroese, even Sorbian, are very lively, protected languages in 21st century Europe.

And of course, there are striking differences.
South Africa has nowadays several official languages. Relatively protected languages, we could say.
Whereas, on the other extreme, some countries facing war, famine, etc. see at the very same time hundreds of language communities in danger of disappearance.

That is part of the enormous difficulties the African continent must yet overcome.

[Edited at 2007-08-16 21:44]


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Parrot  Identity Verified
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OT: "Two-and-a-half-children" and other statistical quirks Aug 17, 2007

Alan R King wrote:

To play the devil's advocate for a change...

(1) I doubt the 250,000 average you cite is itself meaningful, since this average figure may still include some languages spoken by several millions and others spoken by 1000? 100? 10? It's just a number. Like the average family that has two-and-a-half children, or something...


My own doubts about statistics have to do with the consideration that language communities are not closed. We cannot say, for instance, that of 250,000 speakers of a language, all of them are monolingual. In fact, I'm hard-put to recall any group that is so endogamous as to preclude more-than-occasional intermarriage, producing nuclear and/or extended families that may speak as many as four or more languages within them.

(2) As I recently pointed out in another thread (if you recall), "normal" in the real world out there is not what the western official nation-states say is normal; if it is normal (really normal) for many people in the world to be multilingual, then it can also be normal for some languages NOT to be spoken by millions upon millions of speakers, right? What is wrong with a language being spoken by "only" 250,000 people? Or only 250 people, for that matter?


I never lost sleep over the health of Ivatan, which had something like 12,000 speakers when my father introduced that item in my upbringing. Having been the son of a legal translator (Spanish-Ivatan-Spanish, married to a Mexican lady, on top of that), he was quite insistent on my getting to know my roots -- all of them. In this he was pitted against my Aklanon-speaking nanny who had won my total devotion, and my English-Spanish-Tagalog-speaking lexicographer mother, who had already lost track of her father's Catalan. For me, it was simply a question of sorting out priorities in the course of survival. I remember speaking Ivatan from four to eight, succumbing to diglossia and complexes ten years later, and still being able to sit out social gatherings with a passive knowledge after 20 with respect to that particular language. By that time, Ivatan was much "healthier" in terms of population, although almost none of its speakers were monolingual.

So that brings up two questions:

1. Do statistics take these things into consideration?

2. Has anyone ever considered studying the diversity within such minority groups, to complement the typical approach of measuring the diversity of minority groups within larger majorities? (What end would such a measurement serve without the other, if we are to speak of language dynamics?)


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Alan R King
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No and yes Aug 17, 2007

Parrot wrote:

So that brings up two questions:

1. Do statistics take these things into consideration?


Of course not! (A rhetorical question, I assume.) Not, at least, the kind of statistics cited by Fabio.

2. Has anyone ever considered studying the diversity within such minority groups, to complement the typical approach of measuring the diversity of minority groups within larger majorities? (What end would such a measurement serve without the other, if we are to speak of language dynamics?)


Probably yes, but perhaps definitions get slippery now, because when we study (sub)-minorities within a minority, the latter minority may take on the guise of a relative "larger majority" (or at least "larger minority"). One example might be studies, such as one I mentioned a few days ago, of the linguistic behaviour patterns of recently-arrived (and still arriving) immigrant minorities (e.g. from Africa) within the Basque Country with particular attention to how that behaviour fits in with the situation of Basque as a "heritage" minority language in this country.

Today nearly all Basque speakers are bilinguals (either Basque + Spanish or Basque + French, depending on which European state they are born in). In some border areas there may be trilinguals. English language teaching is becoming more and more important everywhere (I recently translated another sociolinguistics article on the subject of what is being called "trilingual education": Basque, Spanish and English). Needless to say there are internal sociolinguistic issues in such a society and these have been studied intensely.

But then, sociolinguistic issues are high on the political agenda of Basque government authorities (and, as this affirmation presupposes, there EXIST Basque government authorities that are able to have such an agenda), and such studies receive strong public and academic support. After all, it is the Basques themselves who are most interested in issues internal to their own ethnic/national language and affecting their society. Is it surprising that a government in Madrid (for example) should not share the same agenda?

So, the bottom line seems to be: enfranchisement (and locally controlled resources). Put simply: even small language communities will fare better if they are allowed and able to take charge of their own (linguistic and other) affairs. Research is not the impartial pursuit of knowledge: it obeys agendas. Whose?

These comments do not directly address Africa because I don't know enough about things there, but I'm sure others can think of applications...

Alan


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oromia
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African languages and literature Jan 28, 2008

According to Ethnologue, Africa has some 900m inhabitants, of whom 170m speak Arabic, 6m or more Afrikaans, 5m English, 5m other European languages... and then, [/quote] the remaining 700m or so, speak 2,000-odd languages - in average, 350,000 speakers of every language.
If we exclude the "top 10" among the "pure African" languages:
· Hausa 34m
· Oromo 19m
· Somali 34m
· Amharic 26m
· Malagasy 18m
· Igbo 26m
· Yoruba 23m
· Kongo 30m
· Shona 12m
· Zulu 12m
then we have 480m speakers for the remaining 2,000 languages - an average of 250,000 speakers per language.

By comparison: Maltese, one of the 24 official languages of the EU, has less than 400,000 speakers.

Is there a future for so many languages? How lively are they?

[Edited at 2007-08-16 13:04] [/quote]

Your data is somewhat wrong. To cite a few, afaan Oromo speakers number about 35m, Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages in East and Central Africa. You can't also determine the number of speakers of a language in by mathimatical average. You need to get the correct data.


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