PERPLEXING AFFILIATIONS.

An idea I tend to harp on is the irreducible messiness and variety of the human world and the importance of dealing with it by digging into the details and using a variety of perspectives rather than by trying to cram it all into a simplistic schema. For that reason I was delighted to read the opening to Chapter Two, “Language Groups and Social Organizations,” of George E. Brooks’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630, which I’ve had for years but am only now starting to read:

Scholars studying western Africa are challenged by conundrums involving relationships between languages, social groupings, and cultures. People in western Africa define themselves principally according to kinship and occupational affiliations and only secondarily in linguistic terms. Indeed individuals and families change their languages and modify their social and cultural patterns in ways that are often perplexing to outsiders. Individuals may change their family names to assert their affiliation with elite families (captives once adopted slavemaster names), to express client relationships, apprenticeships, or religious affiliations, and for other reasons [...]. In his study of Senegambian oral traditions concerning Mande- and West Atlantic-speaking societies, Donald R. Wright remarked, “Determination of one’s ethnicity seems to have been more a matter of cultural lifestyle than of parentage or ancestry” [...].

In his discussion of West Atlantic- and Kruan-speaking societies 1,000 km to the south, Warren L. d’Azevedo commented that interrelationships between groups in the past “did not involve confrontations between massive and unitary entities.”

It involved, rather, interrelationships among small independent human groups spreading out and merging with other groups to form new units in which any one of a number of “ethnic” traditions might predominate, depending on historical circumstances. In such a context the term “tribe” in its standard definition can scarcely comprehend the realities. Cultural pluralism, multilingualism, and multiple local traditions of origin and “ethnicity” obtain within situations that are only superficially—and frequently only temporarily—characterized by a predominant “tribal” orientation. . . . Throughout northern and western Liberia institutional structures and most cultural features are so generally distributed that it is no exaggeration to suggest that tribal identification is as much a matter of individual choice as of the ascribed status of birth, language, or distinctive customs (Azevedo 1971:18).

In short, western Africans opportunistically redefine their identities in response to changing circumstances. Remote, even fictive, kinship ties, special bonds between groups such as “joking relationships,” indeed any social or cultural advantages one can claim or contrive have for centuries facilitated human relationships and expedited trade, travel, migration, and settlement in western Africa.

It can’t be said too often: there are no fixed identities; people, like languages, are constantly in flux.

Comments

  1. In short, western Africans opportunistically redefine their identities in response to changing circumstances.
    Much like Americans. I myself belong to the tribe of hackers.

  2. des von bladet says:

    There is said to be a literature on the reification of “traditions” (“tribes” in Africa, “castes” in India) as a result of interaction with colonial administrations. If you have some, I’d be glad to hear about it.
    Meanwhile, I continue to assert that not only am I an impeccable Belgian – I speak mediocre Dutch, bad French and abominable Cherman – I would actually make a pretty good king of Belgium. I’d even promise not to ravage any Congoes! But they’re all “Oh, you weren’t born in Belgium; you’ve never lived in Belgium; we don’t have a box for ‘irreducible identity flux’”. Sigh.

  3. I don’t think von Bladet is a very Belgian name. You’d better change it to Magritte or something chocolate-sounding.

  4. Nothing compared with my spam problem. Over 7,000 spam in an 18-hour period.

  5. des vandekontx says:

    Well, _I_ don’t think Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounds very… Uh, point taken.

  6. More than 7,000 a day is a big audience. You should be able to make some money by selling them something.

  7. “castes” in India) as a result of interaction with colonial administrations. ”
    This part of it is a litle shaky. It kind of has a God Alighty White Man feel to it.
    Considering that there’s pretty solid material supporting the caste system in all kinds of inidgenous texts and considering that in at least one such colonial interaction, the experience with the Mughals and dominant Islam, the caste system had enough inner mojo to survive among converts to Islam. Apparently in Pakistan and India all Muslims are equal in the sight of God, but some are still just a leeeettle bit untouchable.

  8. John Emerson says:

    This is the book that turned me against the Whorf thesis (language essentialism). In the Caucasus, with its dozens of languages from 5 or so major language families, a mixed marriage is regarded as one between different religions. Any combination of native languages is OK, and trilingualism and above is common.
    In one area the culture language is Russian, the national language is Georgian, the common local language is Avar (a Caucasian language probably unconnected to the Avars and the pseudo-Avars of history), and there are a number of lesser languages.

  9. John Emerson says:

    I also favor a geographical definition of ethnicity, with descent and language secondary. For example, Hawaiian Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese are more like one another than any of them is like the people of their homeland. (There may be an exception for Japanese Hawaiians since there is a major Japanese Japanese presence there.)

  10. marie-lucie says:

    JE: the Whorf thesis (language essentialism)
    I think that Whorf was pushing his thesis hard to make a point in a largely monolingual society.

  11. Ethnicity is what it is: partly voluntary, partly involuntary. Geography is no more determinative than language or descent, otherwise all New Yorkers (other than recent arrivals) would belong to the same ethnicity, something that is palpably not true. It’s more about the belief in common factors than it is about actual common factors, as clan membership (or, for that matter, family membership) is about belief in relatedness as opposed to actual genetic relatedness.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t think this is true across the board of “West Africa”, which is a region of enormous cultural and linguistic variation, much more than Europe.
    Where I lived in Bawku, in northeastern Ghana, language and tribal self-identification correlated pretty well, at least for people outside towns, which in that part of the world have mostly grown up around (notionally) Muslim trading communities.
    On the other hand, I must admit that it was usually a good guess to address someone dressed as a Muslim in Hausa, and I knew several self-identified Mamprussi who spoke only Kusaal and not Mampruli (though there are pretty clear reasons for that in the recent history of the area.)
    But then Europe too was much less given to the reflex identification of language and ethnicity before the rise of the thrice-accursed doctrine that ethnicity is the only valid basis for a nation state, in the nineteenth century. Think of all those proud German-dialect-speaking Frenchmen of Alsace … come to that, think of Switzerland even now.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    On the same lines, after the disastrous war between the Greeks and Turks in 1922 when there was wholesale transfer of populations, the criterion for whether you ended up as a “Greek” or a “Turk” was whether you were an Orthodox Christian or a Muslim, not whether your mother tongue was Greek or Turkish.
    As so often, it’s the modern West which is aberrant; in so far as West Africans show more linguistic flexibility, they’re just normal.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    As a sort of reductio: according to Alexandra Aikenvald’s Tariana grammar, in the Vaupés region of Amazonia, there is (was?) a tradition of strict linguistic exogamy, wherein marrying someone with the same language was basically incest.
    Your “own” language is your father’s, which of course is different from you mother’s; you normally address someone in his/her “own” language, and he/she replies in yours. (So your mother will never speak to you in your mother tongue, though you will speak it to her.)

  15. John Emerson says:

    “Otherwise all New Yorkers (other than recent arrivals) would belong to the same ethnicity, something that is palpably not true.”
    I was think of smaller geographical units than ten million people, and I was trying to get away from self-identified ethnicity. Being ethnic is a sort of hobby in the US, and often enough it’s meaningless. To me an Irish-American living in South Boston or an Irish neighborhood in NYC is Irish American, but a fifth generation person with Irish ancestors living in Wyoming probably isn’t, regardless of whether they claim to be.
    There’s a bit of confusion about the word “ethnicity”, which in the US means an American descended from this or that immigrant group (or native Americans), but elsewhere usually means citizens of a nation-state who are of a different nation than the defining nation in the state, e.g. Tatars in Russia. Even in that case, a Tatar family living in mixed neighborhood in Moscow for a few generations might lose most of the Tatar identity.

  16. Well, ethnicity can be either self-identified or other-identified. On the one hand, there is the American who’s stopped in Belfast during the troubles by an unidentified armed group and asked “Catholic or Protestant?” Not sure what the safe answer is, he finally shouts, “I’m a tourist!” On the other hand, Jews are only as Jewish as they want to be, up to the point of open Antisemitism: as Hannah Arendt says, “if you are attacked as a Jew, you have to respond as a Jew, you cannot reply, ‘Excuse me, I am not a Jew; I am a human being.’ That makes no sense.” And indeed, this is true even if you don’t happen to be Jewish, as in the case of my mother-in-law.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    In one area the culture language is Russian, the national language is Georgian, the common local language is Avar (a Caucasian language probably unconnected to the Avars and the pseudo-Avars of history), and there are a number of lesser languages.

    …where “lesser” includes such phenomena as seven-village languages (like the famous Archi – though that’s not quite the area you’re talking about, even though Avar is spoken next door) and one-village languages, all quite distinct from their neighbors.

    So your mother will never speak to you in your mother tongue, though you will speak it to her.

    How do you learn it then?

  18. marie-lucie says:

    So your mother will never speak to you in your mother tongue, though you will speak it to her.How do you learn it then?
    Presumably from your father (it should be called your “father tongue”). Perhaps the mother speaks IT too while the child is very young, then switches to her own when the child reaches a certain age. If there are several children, I guess they will all have the same “father tongue” and speak it between themselves.
    This custom seems to be an extreme example of patriarchy. All the men in a family, descended from the same patriarch, can communicate through the same language, but the women added through marriage all speak their own fathers’ languages, making it difficult for them to communicate between themselves and with their husbands and children.

  19. I don’t think this is true across the board of “West Africa”, which is a region of enormous cultural and linguistic variation, much more than Europe.
    Yes, of course, but the point was not “This is what West Africa[—all of West Africa, which is totally uniform—] is like [as opposed to anywhere else],” but rather “This is what [much of] West Africa [like much of the world] is like [which is difficult for many Westerners, used to the aberrant situation in the modern West, to get a handle on].” The author is trying to explain a complex situation, not reduce it to uniformity.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Re Vaupes & strict linguistic exogamy:
    I don’t know, guys. Ask Alexandra Aikhenvald …
    Just guessing, but I imagine that a child would hear plenty of its mother’s language from other family members, who will all be talking to its mother in that language, after all.
    I’ve no idea if Vaupes traditional society is even more patriarchal than ours, but I don’t think that follows from their linguistic practices. Wasn’t there a thread either here or on LL about someone who’d rashly opined that the fact that Arabic makes you classify everything as masculine or feminine “explains” Muslim oppression of women?
    Republican Roman women didn’t even have formal individual names, but they were notably more free socially than contemporary Greek women, who did. Polybius was shocked …
    @Hat: fair enough. My post actually mutated from reflex irritation at anyone generalising about “Africa” to thinking the author was basically right, though more because *our* society is odd than because of anything about West Africa.

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