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Curse or blessing? Africa's linguistic heritage in the 21st century

D9aa7aec6bbdb4d8ba6a6b7f7dd07df6?s=47 Mark D.
November 05, 2011

Curse or blessing? Africa's linguistic heritage in the 21st century

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.

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.

The talk was given as an invited keynote at the Annual African Studies Day of the Netherlands Association of African Studies (NVAS), Berg en Dal, November 5, 2011.


Mark D.

November 05, 2011

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  1. Curse or blessing? Africa‟s linguistic heritage in the 21st century

    Mark Dingemanse — Max Planck Institute
  2. how biodiversity, cultural heritage & linguistic diversity are inextricably linked

  3. some background facts • Africa holds 13% of the world‟s

    population, but 30% of the world‟s languages (±2000 out of ±6500) • most African languages are spoken by populations of 3,000—50,000 (cp. Frisian with 500,000) • each African nation has on average 40—50 languages spoken on its territory Blommaert 2009, Blench 2009
  4. I do fieldwork in Kawu, eastern Ghana, with the Mawu

    who speak Siwu, an underdescribed GTM language Dingemanse 2009, 2010, 2011a,b
  5. suppose you‟re a student in Kawu

  6. no Siwu in class!

  7. no Pidgin either!

  8. blessing or curse? as a student in Kawu, you‟ll know

    the answer
  9. the Babel view: linguistic diversity as the curse of mankind

  10. but is diversity really a curse?

  11. None
  12. None
  13. Africa harbours massive biodiversity Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania

  14. diversity is evolutionary significant as a way of “keeping options

    alive” — adaptational strength Maffi 2001
  15. biodiversity the reservoir of variation the fuel of evolution the

    fount of life
  16. what‟s language got to do with it?

  17. plant diversity and language distribution Maffi 2005

  18. linguistic diversity & biodiversity go well together

  19. biogeographic factors geophysical barriers tropical climates sociocultural factors smaller groups

    more adaptable complex networks of multilingualism
  20. two thousand languages: as many natural experiments in biocultural coevolution

  21. “any reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of

    our species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw” Bernard 1992
  22. three ways in which language diversity matters

  23. case study 1 ethnobotany and medicinal plants

  24. small linguistic communities accumulate detailed knowledge about the environment

  25. most of it is not in books like this

  26. but in minds like this A.Y. Wurapa, 84, Kawu, Ghana

  27. this knowledge has been culturally transmitted for generations …and will

    be lost if not documented Kawu, Ghana, 2009
  28. the search for medicinal plants with bio-active compounds is ongoing

    in recent approaches, cultural diversity turns out to be essential
  29. If several unrelated cultures use closely related plants to treat

    the same disease, these discoveries of the effectiveness of the plants are more likely to be independent Bletter 2007
  30. the point: different cultures offer crucial independent data points this

    would not be possible if the diversity had been obliterated
  31. case study 2 languages as process and product of human

  32. kɛlɛnkɛlɛn it shines ‘glittery’

  33. sinisinisinisini it holds itself together ‘closely woven’

  34. ideophones sound paintings: words that sound like what they mean

  35. booom kerplop sound swoosh tòlontòlon sound kɛlɛŋkɛlɛŋ vision sinisinisini texture

    gadaragadara movement nyagbalaa taste krɔkrɔkrɔ smell fɛfɛrɛfɛ weight miɔmiɔmiɔ shape ...and hundreds if not thousands more English Siwu
  36. None
  37. ideophones make it possible to talk with high precision about

    sensory imagery shed new light on what is possible and probable in human language Dingemanse 2011
  38. “Without these words, speech is buààà [tasteless] — you need

    to pepper it.” Ɔɖimɛ Kanairo
  39. ] case study 3 language diversity and human prehistory

  40. comparing languages across the world Atkinson 2011, Science

  41. the data point to a “founder effect” — rapid expansion

    out of Africa
  42. Africa‟s linguistic diversity offers crucial clues in the search for

    the origins of symbolic culture
  43. Africa‟s languages are 1. reservoirs of adaptability 2. monuments to

    human creativity 3. clues to the human past
  44. so what?

  45. suppose, again, you‟re a student in Kawu

  46. no Siwu in class!

  47. no Pidgin either!

  48. if you go to school in Kawu, linguistic diversity buys

    you nothing English is the supreme end-goal; other languages are mere obstacles
  49. this reveals a fundamental clash

  50. Africa‟s cultural heritage complex multilingualism many forms of speech Africa‟s

    colonial heritage a strong monoglot ideology a purist notion of „language‟
  51. part of the solution abandon the monoglot ideology embrace multilingualism

    1. children handle multiple languages well 2. education in native language is more effective 3. non-standard varieties are part of the communicative ecology
  52. “not diversity is the problem, but common perceptions of uniformity,

    i.e. the denial of diversity.” Blommaert 2009
  53. “If you do not speak Siwu to me in my

    home, I will not pay your school fees!” Timothy Akuamoah, Kawu, Ghana, 2008
  54. “multilingualism [should be] used as a potential for communication and

    an opportunity for meaning construction, not as an obstacle to learning or a threat to language standards” Blommaert 2009
  55. diversity in nature and culture is what makes us human

    Harmon 2002
  56. thank you email mark.dingemanse@mpi.nl visit ideophone.org

  57. backup slides

  58. case study 4 kinship systems & genetic diversity

  59. None
  60. kinship systems in Gabon shape exchange networks and guarantee diversity

    in manioc types Delêtre et al. 2011, PNAS
  61. not “one type to rule them all” — genetic diversity

    spreads risk and enhances food security
  62. languages are knowledge systems that support biodiversity and food security

  63. usage notes Please do not distribute slides and photos without

    permission. All Ghana-related photos © Mark Dingemanse.