Acquiring Igbo.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes affectingly about growing up in Nigeria speaking English:

None of us children spoke Igbo, our local language. Unlike the majority of their contemporaries in our hometown, my parents had chosen to speak only English to their children. Guests in our home adjusted to the fact that we were an English-speaking household, with varying degrees of success. Our helps were also encouraged to speak English. Many arrived from their remote villages unable to utter a single word of the foreign tongue, but as the weeks rolled by, they soon began to string complete sentences together with less contortion of their faces. My parents also spoke to each other in English – never mind that they had grown up speaking Igbo with their families. On the rare occasion my father and mother spoke Igbo to each other, it was a clear sign that they were conducting a conversation in which the children were not supposed to participate. […]

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, […] replaced Chinese with English as the official medium of instruction in his country’s schools […]. “With English, no race would have an advantage,” he wrote. “English as our working language has … given us a competitive advantage because it is the international language of business and diplomacy, of science and technology. Without it, we would not have many of the world’s multinationals and over 200 of the world’s top banks in Singapore. Nor would our people have taken so readily to computers and the internet.” […]

My parents shared Lee’s convictions. They hoped English would give their children an advantage. But, as potent as that reason might be, my father admitted to me that it was secondary. He had an even stronger motivation for preferring English: “We spoke it to set ourselves apart,” he said. “Those of us who were educated wanted to distinguish ourselves from those who had money but didn’t go to school.” […]

I still remember strangers staring and smiling at us in wonder whenever my family talked among ourselves in public. Speaking English was just one way of showing off, especially when one lived, like my parents, in what was then a small, little-known town. Some of my parents’ contemporaries distinguished themselves by appending their academic qualifications to their names. Apart from academics and medical doctors, it was common to hear people describe themselves as Architect Peter or Engineer Paul or Pharmacist Okoro.

My father’s first degree was in economics, while my mother’s was in sociology. They met during the civil war between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist Igbo state of Biafra, and they spoke to each other in English throughout their three years of courtship, long before any of their children were born. “That was one of the things that attracted your daddy to me,” my mother said. “The way I spoke English fluently.” […]

This longstanding battle between the mind and the wallet is probably why Igbo has suffered the most among Nigeria’s three main languages. The other two, Yoruba and Hausa, despite facing threats from English as well, seem not to be doing as badly. Yoruba is one of the languages on a list of suggestions for London police officers to learn, while the BBC World Service’s Hausa-language operation has a larger audience than any other. Meanwhile, Igbo is among the world’s endangered languages, and there is a rising cry, especially among Igbo intellectuals, for drastic action to preserve and promote our mother tongue. […]

My difficulty in communicating with Daa [the author’s grandmother] was not the only disadvantage of not being able to speak Igbo as a child. Each time it was my turn to stand and read to my primary school class from our recommended Igbo textbook, the pupils burst into grand giggles at my use of the wrong tones on the wrong syllables. Again and again, the teachers made me repeat. Each time, the class’s laughter was louder. My off-key pronunciations tickled them no end.

But while the other pupils were busy giggling, I went on to get the highest scores in Igbo tests. Always. Because the tests were written, they did not require the ability to pronounce words accurately. The rest of the class were relaxed in their understanding of the language, and so treated it casually. I considered Igbo foreign to me, and approached the subject studiously. I read Igbo literature and watched Igbo programmes on TV. My favourite was a series of comedy sketches called Mmadu O Bu Ewu, which featured a live goat dressed in human clothing. After studying Igbo from primary school through to the conclusion of secondary school, I was confident enough in my knowledge to register the language as one of my university entrance exam subjects.

Those are just a few bits; there’s much more, including a thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of African authors writing in their native languages. She ends by saying that it was only after she left home that she really learned Igbo: “In Ibadan, away from Igbo land and from the laughing voices, away from those who either did not allow me to speak Igbo or who did not believe I could speak it, I was finally free to open my mouth and express the words that had been bottled up inside my head for so many years – the words I had heard people in the market speak, the words I had read in books and heard on TV, the words my father had not permitted around the house.” (We discussed a similarly fraught relationship with Igbo in 2016.) Thanks, Kobi!


  1. Architect Peter or Engineer Paul

    How lovely.

  2. @SFReader: The use of profession titles like that was one of the most characteristic elements of “lad speak,” the Igbo-influenced English used by 419 advance fee fraud scammers. (The name “lad speak” comes from the fact that, among scam baiters, the scammers were known as “the lads from Lagos,” usually just shortened to “the lads.”)

  3. AJP Crown says

    Architect Peter or Engineer Paul
    How lovely.

    Postman Pat.

  4. David Marjanović says

    was one of the most characteristic elements

    Don’t speak of 419 spam in the past tense – I still get some.

    (Usually from Aisha Gaddafi these days. Eight years, and she still hasn’t found a place to park her megabucks.)

  5. Also, Farokh Engineer.

    I believe it was relatively common in certain parts of India for people to acquire last names corresponding to their profession. I think there was another cricket player with the last name ‘Contractor.’

  6. Found him: Nari Contractor.

  7. I learned on WP that the Igbo traditionally didn’t use surnames (they started to appear in mid 20th century).

    Then it’s not surprising at all. Mongolians also refer to people by first name and profession title, but that’s the only possible way in Mongolian, because they don’t use surnames.

    Architect Peters or engineer Paulson are perfectly normal in English, it’s the use of familiar Christian first names which makes it sound strange.

  8. Trond Engen says

    In Norway it’s quite common to speak about people as “[Forname] [function]”. It’s informal and irreverent in the way that modern Norwegian uses informality and irreverence to convey respect. In my work in the construction industry, I might be “Trond ingeniør” or “Trond RIB”. It’s the same for volunteer functions in civil society. If I were training a kids’ ski or fotball team, I might have been called “Trond trener”, and if I were conducting a choir or a marching band, “Trond dirigent”.

  9. John Cowan says

    At various schools I have been addressed as “Irene’s dad” and “Dorian’s grandfather” by school personnel. I don’t think of this as a title, though.

    Architect Peters or engineer Paulson are perfectly normal in English

    I wouldn’t say so, though Governor Cuomo and President Orange certainly are. Architect Peters is Time magazine style (nowadays Dan Brown style) and Architect John J. Peters is more general journalese. I certainly would never use either in ordinary speech or in prose not tightly constrained by a word count. (Links also to a great piece on Yoda-fronting that article does, showing that the canonical Yoda word order Pred-Subj-Aux is.)

  10. @David Marjanović: I still get the emails too, but I tend to think of the phenomenon in the past tense, because my own time as an elite* 419 fighter is so far in the past now. Speaking of Aisha Gaddafi: Whenever a Middle-Eastern or African dictator died, there was always an informal contest among the baiters to see who could produce the first scam email from the widow.

    * I was a member of the most important white hat anti-419 group, but I was nowhere near the level of many of the other members. I got into the organization since my wife was already a member (and our main North American spokesperson) and because I was willing to stay on the phone for hours with victims we had identified (and sometimes their relatives) to convince them they were being conned.

  11. David Marjanović says

    from the widow

    Or the sons who didn’t understand how their names worked, like ZUMA SEKO MOBUTU. Ah, good times…

    …How did you identify victims?

  12. @David Marjanović: It required getting access to the scammers’ email accounts. That could usually be done by simple social engineering, since the lads were often just as gullible and computer illiterate as their victims. For more sophisticated scammers, especially from the boss (oga in Igbo) class, there were more advanced white hat hacking techniques.

  13. David Marjanović says

    the lads were often just as gullible and computer illiterate as their victims

    Oh dear.

  14. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    In my distant youth it was alleged that it was common to suffix Welsh surnames, many of which were “Jones” or “Evans”, with a disambiguating professiononym, such as in Ivor the Engine (a children’s animation of a previous century)’s driver, Jones the Steam.

  15. Welsh surnames, many of which were “Jones” or “Evans”

    The Welsh didn’t have surnames until the English marched all over them. They had patronymics.

    The English for the purposes of administration imposed so-called surnames. But “Jones” or “Evans” amount to “John” or “Ian” (which is just another form of “John”).

    (The English in Wales were just practicing for Scotland, Ireland, India, …)

  16. John Cowan says
  17. Africa is a failure. Why have independence if you’re just a black version of England? The only nations who seem to fight for their languages are the Afrikaans-speakers and maybe Swahili and Bambara/Manding contiuum. All other native language speakers worship at the alter of English or French. There’ll be no living functioning African languages by the end of the 21C except maybe Swahili.

    How awuful, Africans thinking they are superior to their own family because they speak just one language (English/French) and can’t speak their own langaue. Whilst European and Asian languages and the Jews have adapted and built their languages (often, in the case of Hebrew, from nothing) or against great pressure and prejudice (Welsh – my language, Estonian, Slovene, Finnish, Basque Slovak to various degrees and at different periods) the black Africans think there is something inherently deficient in their own languages. They want to be white men with black faces and maybe, now and again, some local colour with a few onomatopeaic words or curses in their native language.

    African anti-colonialism is a failed project. They may as well have stayed under colonial rule and worked as subalterns.

  18. Not even Amharic and Somali would survive?

    {thinking} no, probably they wouldn’t. Ethiopia is a very fragile country and dominance of Amharic is not assured, they just might get rid of it after the end of the current regime.

    And Somalia as an English-speaking country is probably not far-fetched either.

    No doubt they would speak English with Minnesotan accent

  19. David Marjanović says

    At the moment, Somalia as a country is far-fetched…!

  20. I’ve read a few articles which claimed (don’t know how seriously) that Somalia is our bright anarcho-capitalist future.

  21. I’m fond of Somaliland myself, but nobody officially admits it exists.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Africa is a failure.

    Which part do you have in mind, O Wise One? Or is it all the same as far as you are concerned?
    You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    There was some wild internet speculation early in the current administration that maybe a Trump administration willing to ignore the conventional pieties in foreign policy would just go ahead and recognize Somaliland. Hasn’t happened yet, but you still occasionally see pro-Somaliland-recognition buzz in right-of-center DC think tank circles. Here’s an example from last month.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    But to go back to the original situation here, maybe the historical what-if is what the linguistic result have been if Biafra’s attempt at independence had succeeded rather than been violently squelched? You might think having an Igbophone-dominated polity rather than a polity in which Igbo was just another major regional language and definitely not the most important one would be good for the vitality of Igbo, but if the Igbophone elite was already even before that shifting toward raising monolingual Anglophone children to a greater degree than other ethnolinguistic elites in Nigeria, there’s that too.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Sorry, Hat. Unparliamentary language …

    Let’s just say that the idea that Africa is full of people who want to be black Englishmen is not in accordance with, er, reality. (There are some that actually do regard themselves as black Frenchmen; a reflection of different attitudes on the part of the colonialists, rather than Africans.)

    There are scores (at the very least) of African languages not currently threatened at all (including smallish ones like Kusaal, I am glad to say.) In Senegal and northern Nigeria it is Wolof and Hausa that are eating smaller languages, not French and English.

    Igbo seems to be something of a special case, given its current millions of speakers; this may have something to do with Igbo culture, but I am no kind of expert on that. I think it’s fair to say that it is strikingly individualistic compared with many of its neighbours. There was also an early and vigorous tradition of English-speaking education via the missions (pretty much the exact opposite of the position in the north, where the Brits banned Christian missions.)

  26. John Cowan says

    But “Jones” or “Evans” amount to “John” or “Ian”

    WP says that the -s is short for son, but I wonder if it might actually be the Saxon genitive in Welsh order, thus James Jones ‘James of John, John’s James’.

    Siôn (a name of impeccable English origin, minimally adapted to Welsh spelling, though I myself am not at all English): The matter is not so simple as you paint it. See this post by Lameen Souag (a non-black African) that attempts to translate a short passage of technical English into French (almost trivial), Standard Arabic (harder), and Algerian Arabic (impossible). The last paragraph:

    That’s one reason why having “no word for X” can matter. The absence of the word – or more precisely, of a fixed expression for it – impedes translation, and hence impedes the transmission of foreign ideas to monolingual speakers. And fixing the problem isn’t just a matter of inventing or borrowing a word; to be able to do either, you need to have formulated the corresponding concept, and, in the case of abstract words like these, that presupposes putting a lot of speakers into an originally foreign system of education, with a lot of associated time and expense and all-round hassle.

    Lack of vocabulary is a problem that can be solved, but it takes real time and has real costs. It’s not an accident that Israeli students, who speak a language that is certainly neither despised nor threatened, have to use textbooks written in English — there is simply no profit in translating them into Hebrew.

  27. OK, here are a few facts about Nigeria which I learned from the CIA Factbook and Ethnologue:

    English is an official language and also the language of instruction, school life expectancy (the total number of years of schooling (primary to tertiary) that a child can expect to receive) – 9 years (2011), English was spoken as L2 by 50% of population in 2003, 42.45% of population is in 0-14 age group.

    Put together, these facts indicate to me that the entire generation of Nigerians going to school right now will grow up English-speaking (quite possibly speaking English better than their L1 language) and in twenty years or so their children will be native English speakers.

  28. David Eddyshaw says


    is quite illuminating on the history of the use of Hausa as part of the colonial strategy of divide et impera, and also on just why boko is such a potentially toxic topic (cf Boko Haram.)

    It is also sound on the topic of that 24-carat bastard Lugard.

  29. Sorry, Hat. Unparliamentary language …

    That’s OK, normally I prefer civility, but I confess I had the same reaction to Siôn’s uninformed rant. “Africa is a failure” is one of the most repellent of the post-colonial colonialist cliches.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    these facts indicate to me that the entire generation of Nigerians going to school right now will grow up English-speaking

    That’s because

    (a) you’re picturing a system that works as effectively as as the school system in a Western European country.
    (b) you’re assuming that proficiency in English will inevitably lead to the abandonment of other languages.

    The latter point is at variance with how these things actually work in at least the bits of West Africa I know (which certainly do not, however, generalise to “All Africa”, admittedly.) There at least, it is perfectly usual for people to work out stable language ecologies in which different languages serve different roles. It’s been like this in much of that part of the world since long before the Europeans added their languages to the mix.

    JC’s example of Israel is perhaps parallel: no prospect of Israeli students stopping using Hebrew even though their textbooks are in English. SImilar in Lameen’s case, too.

  31. AJP Crown says

    I thought Siôn’s rant was worth it simply for the response ‘O Wise One’.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    I should also point out that figures about what proportion of the population speak English in Nigeria should be treated with considerable caution; in fact, estimates of the size of the population should be treated with considerable caution. There just isn’t the infrastructure there to get accurate figures. (As anybody who’s ever worked in Nigeria will confirm, laughing.)

    The CIA factbook is only as good as its sources; they have no privileged information in these matters. Ethnologue, too, is only as good as its sources (the entry for Kusaal leaves a lot to be desired …)

  33. Found the Ethnologue source. It’s David Crystal’s “English as a global language”, Second edition, 2003.

    The book is available online and I learned from it that

    In the Nigerian sources, for example, occupation titles are reported to cover a wider range of cases than in British English (e.g. Engineer X) and to allow different combinations (e.g. Dr Mrs X, Alhaja Engineer Chief X).

  34. John Cowan says

    Well, since the etymology ‘YHWH is gracious’ is hardly relevant to me, perhaps I could be addressed as “O Wiseass” henceforth.

    David E: I hoped you would step in, though Siôn was not to know that he would be blindsided by a fellow-countryman. Tolkien, though himself “a Sayce and not a Waugh” praises the learning of the Welsh, who had (at least in his day) “not learnt to associate art or knowledge solely with certain classes.” But he goes on to say: “But the Welsh for all their virtues are contentious and often malicious; and they do not always whet their tongues against ‘foreigners’, they often turn the sharp edge upon their own kind (who do not readily forgive).”

    I should also add that he wrote these sentiments in a private letter to his aunt; they were never meant for publication, though he does speak of the “litigious lists of the Welsh scholars” in “English and Welsh”, which he says (in the same letter) was a necessary disclaimer that he did not belong to any of their factions.

  35. And the following sentence is simply baffling

    In the Zambian and Ghanaian studies, terms such as father, mother, brother, sister and so on are shown to have different ranges of application, reflecting the internal structure of the family (e.g. the name father can be given to more than one person).

    Can you explain what kind of families they have in Ghana – with more than one father?

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t explain about all of Ghana, on grounds of sheer ignorance; broadly speaking, the south is as different from the north culturally as Turkey from Scotland. The Ashanti are matrilineal and often marry cousins; the Kusaasi and their neighbours are patrilinial and have to marry outside their own clan.

    I can say something about the Kusaasi system (which is very much the same as in the neighbouring groups, though rather surprisingly the actual terms aren’t all that stable, even between closely related languages.)

    Your father’s elder brother is your saamkpeem “father-elder” and your father’s younger brother is your saampit “father-younger-same-sex-sibling.” You could call your father and his brothers your saamnam “fathers”, I think, but I never came across this that I recall.

    The same terms are used both for your mother’s sisters and her co-wives: if senior to your mother they are your makpeem, if junior, your mapit or mabil; you certainly can say manam “mothers” to refer to all your father’s wives.

    “Mother’s brother” is the wholly different word ansib. This is in accordance with the guiding principle of the system: there are three basic words for “brother and sister”: bier “elder sibling of the same sex”, pitu “younger sibling of the same sex”, and taunn “sibling of opposite sex, regardless of age.”
    The terms do not themselves refer to the sex of the person they apply to.

    There aren’t any special words for aunts and uncles by marriage. Even sophisticated English-speaking colleagues found the English usage of the same terms as for blood relatives so bizarre that they didn’t quite believe it.

    The system basically conflates same-sex siblings in terminology: so, for example, two women married to brothers are “co-wives”, using the same term as if they were married to the same man.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Urs Niggli’s rather nice Mooré dictionary does in fact list for the Mooré cognate of saam “father”:

    sàambá: Plural: saam-dãmba (synonyme: baaba) Nom. père, oncle paternel

    so: yes. You can call your father’s brothers “father.” If you’re Mossi, anyway.

  38. David Eddyshaw says


    On the Welsh and scholarship, I am reminded of this fine testimonial to a senior colleague by Simon Evans in the preface to the English version of his Middle Welsh grammar:

    … the late Professor G J Williams [… ] this generous and righteous scholar, certainly one of the greatest Welsh scholars of all time.

    I would like to be a righteous scholar, but I lack the moral earnestness (to say nothing of the scholarship.)

  39. John Cowan says

    Righteous sounds bizarre to me; I would have written upright.

    Lewis Henry Morgan’s kinship systems, some of which do and some of which don’t merge names of different relationships. English does this only for cousin.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    Sounds bizarre to me too, which is why I remembered it: I wondered if it were a carry-over of some kind from the Welsh version, but I checked and it’s not (the English version isn’t a straight translation, but expanded and adapted quite a bit.)

    Still, righteous. Yeah. Yea, even.

    Pirahã (what else?) is supposed to have only two relationship words, IIRC: elder-relative-of-any-sort and younger-relative-of-any-sort. It probably comes of staying awake all night so the snakes don’t get you.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    English does this only for cousin.

    Well, it also has wholesale conflation of my spouse’s relatives with mine and my relatives’ spouses with my corresponding relatives, which is pretty atypical in world and historical terms; I seem to remember reading that this is a specifically Christian thing, arising from the teaching that a married couple are “one flesh.”

    Others will Actually Know.

  42. David Marjanović says

    I’ve read a few articles which claimed (don’t know how seriously) that Somalia is our bright anarcho-capitalist future.

    Mentioning Somalia has long been the standard tactic to shut up libertarians on the Internet.

    I wonder if it might actually be the Saxon genitive in Welsh order

    I bet it’s the Saxon genitive in Saxon order: “James, John’s [son]”. Identical last names (plus spelling quirks: Richarz) can be found in Germany, plus ones formed from place names (Wiens).

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    Somalia is our bright anarcho-capitalist future

    Do you mind? I come here to get away from the news about Brexit!

  44. John Cowan says

    just why boko is such a potentially toxic topic

    The article dates from 2004, which is why fn. 8 unfortunately gives us the (now shown to be false, unless I am out of date again) etymology boko < Eng book. Indeed, the 2013 paper on the etymology by Paul Newman (no, not that one) cites Philip’s paper linked above as one instance of this highly persistent error.

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Paul Newman (no, not that one)

    What, Mallam Sabo has a namesake? Whatever next?

  46. AJP Crown says

    Whatever next?

    Richard Burton?

  47. John Cowan says

    Indeed, which is why I now see Our Man in Arabia (though of course he went elsewhere as well) called Richard Francis Burton. I should also add that Newman, with an admirably equal-handed spirit, denounces himself as a former spreader of the false etymology.

  48. Thanks for the replies, though. I was thinking more of sub-Sahara Africa, and wouldn’t include Somali nor Armahic as they, seem to me, to have state status, local prestige and are vibrant, literate venaculars. Maybe the same is true of Wolof and Hausa too.

    My ‘rant’ wasn’t a “most repellent of the post-colonial colonialist cliches”. I am a Welsh nationalists who was born in Zambia where my parents were teachers – my father being non-Welsh speakin Welshman (though he later learnt Welsh) and my mother a first language speaker.

    One thing which changed my father into a Welsh nationalists (that is wanting Wales to be independent and Welsh language to have status) was the fact that:

    1.children would go on their knees to him because he was white
    2. children were given an English name to register rather than a name in their own language (this ties in to the other discussion on this thread on Siôn/Ieuan = Jones in Wales). The first of these he felt deeply embarrassed by and the second (adopting dominant language norms) he, as a non-Welsh speaking Welsh person, saw reflected to some extent in Welsh history and society.
    3. thing which made him a Welsh nationalist and supporter of Welsh language rights was that despite Bemba being the main language in the area, Kitwe/Chingola everything in Zambia was in English.

    I understand that Zambia has many languages and I can understand the sentiment to unite a newly formed state, but as my father believes, there will be no native spoken languages in Zambia within 2 generations. That, to me is a cultural tragedy and I also believe an economic one as outsourcing one’s languages means outsourcing one’s economy, especially in the information economy to a large extent (and yes, populations can be bi or trilingual, including in a global language like English – as most of Europe is).

    David Eddyshaw: I was refering to language use and rights in particular, and it has been a failure in that respect. Again as a nationalist, I wouldn;t bother fighting for Welsh independence if it meant Wales was just an English speaking region. What’s the point of that? It’s not worth the bother? I understand the situation in Africa was very different (and that Welsh people, including my own grandfather’s uncle who fought at Rourke’s Drift against the Zulus – what was a Welshman doing killing Zulus?!) have played a part in the colonialism. But I see Black South Africans campaiging against Afrikaans-medium eduction but not for Zulu or Xhosa medium education. Bizare.

    Your comment about people using more than one language and “stable language ecologies” is a valid one. My concern, is that, for language survival, most African languages don’t have a “stable language ecology” and their states have failed (or in Zambia’s case) refused to adopt them. That is, the situation (like with Welsh language in 19C and early 20C) was stable whilst you had a big cohort of monolingual native langauge speakers, but then it collapses very quickly when people find they are more comfortable in expressing themselves academically, then socially, in the other prestige language.

    As this website is about languages, I’d like to have seen some responses about how those “stable language ecologies” – native language medium education; print media; official status and use; media; articles in native langauge on Wikipedia – anything really to disprove me. If you’re interested in languages then, one presumes you’d also be interested in language rights, too. Or, am I missing something?

    I’m genuinely ready to learn. I’ve read and have brought several pamphlets by CASAS ( ) read articles Kwesi Kwaa Prah and Neville Alexander, am interesed in the N’Ko alphabet and Salamana Kante (in fact, I’ve written the posts about them on Welsh language Wikipedia). I’ve also written on Wicipedia about Sheng and Sotho as my little contribution to raise interest in African issues though the medium of Welsh.

    The Welsh nationalist cultural group, AWokEN ( of which I am a member) will be discussing ‘Things fall Appart’ in their next book club.

    We’re interested in language and know from bitter experience here in Wales, that languages and their diversity, can only be saved with political will, strategy and fight.

    Hardly anyone responding to me ‘rant’ has disproved my great fear that there is no future for the majority of sub-Sahara. I hope I’m wrong and I would dearly like to be pointed in the direction of signs of language sustainability and revitalisation. Maybe, there’s just a misunderstand here, for many people on this site, languages are exotic niche interest, maybe, if, like me you’re from an actually endangered language, it’s more personal.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    There is indeed a certain congruence between the Burtons. Not so much, I feel, with the Newmans; the actor strikes me as a bit too cerebral to play an action hero like the eminent Chadic scholar. Bruce Willis would probably be a better fit.

  50. I wouldn;t bother fighting for Welsh independence if it meant Wales was just an English speaking region. What’s the point of that?

    What an odd question. Why did the American colonies fight to be independent? Why did the speakers of (various dialects of) Serbo-Croatian fight to be independent from each other? Should Austria rejoin Germany because they both speak German?

  51. Why did the American colonies fight to be independent?

    They fought for the right to pay more for their tea!

  52. AJP Crown says

    Not making tea properly was one of the long term consequences of American independence. I hope they think it was worth it.

    Not quite as good as Burton or Newman, but for a while when she started getting written up a lot around the time of the Iraq war I thought that this friend of Lawrence of Arabia Gertrude Bell must be a hitherto little-known member of the Bloomsbury group.

  53. David Eddyshaw says


    I just wrote a long post in reply to you which has been eaten by the system. If it doesn’t resurface I may repost such bits of it as I can remember and don’t seem too silly in retrospect.

    The important bit was : Welcome back, and glad to see from your non-rant above that I misjudged you.

  54. Alas, your long post is neither in moderation nor in the spam folder; I don’t know what happened to it.

  55. “Africa is a failure” thesis is unfortunate and inaccurate if we are talking about language shift.

    Because indigenous languages in Africa are threatened exactly by the ongoing economic and social progress in the continent – urbanization, mass schooling, literacy, spread of the Internet and mass media, etc.

    Not by state failure.

    I suppose, hardly anything threatens local languages in places where no progress occurred since independence.

    In fact, it is in failed countries where the state is not strong enough to enforce its official (European) language that local languages have the greatest chance of survival.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    I’d like to have seen some responses about how those “stable language ecologies” – native language medium education; print media; official status and use; media; articles in native langauge on Wikipedia – anything really to disprove me

    That’s not the way such ecologies work. Confining myself to the (only?) example I know about, the Kusaasi whom I used to live among all speak Kusaal. I never met a Kusaasi person who couldn’t speak the language. Two Kusaasi will always speak the language to each other, unless they are being polite to a third person who they know won’t understand, or if they are discussing something technical for which English seems appropriate, like medical care or car repairing. The language has getting on for twice as many speakers now as in the 1990’s when I lived in the district. It is also a local lingua franca. It’s in no way endangered.

    Hardly anybody reads or writes the language. When I was learning to communicate in Kusaal, colleagues would interrupt me sometimes to tell me that the person I was talking to was “literate”, meaning that they spoke English.

    There are any number of examples of peoples who routinely use a different language for writing from the language they use for speaking. It is by no means inevitable that the spoken language will be supplanted by the written (it will never happen with Arabic, for example.)

    So you’re looking for the wrong kind of disproof, because you’re making assumptions about what constitute the proper role of a language which actually only reflect modern Western cultural preconceptions.

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    Having said that, Hausa has a thriving local press and media presence, a vigorous market for printed fiction, and is an official state language (of several.)

    But that is not really what I had in mind; Hausa is not typical.

    I agree with SFReader that urbanisation is the major actual threat to African languages, Hausa is pretty certainly safe there too; Kano (for example) is thoroughly Hausa-speaking. You can get by with English …

  58. Looked at major cities in Nigeria. So the largest city is Lagos which is primarily English-speaking, second largest city is Kano (primarily Hausa-speaking), third is Ibadan (primarily Yoruba), fourth Abuja (English), fifth Port-Harcourt (English), sixth is Benin City (Edo).

    So Igbo, the language of the largest ethnic group in Nigeria, is not the main language of any major city.

    There is definitely a reason to be worried.

  59. David Eddyshaw says


    Tony Naden, a Grand Old Man of Voltaic linguistics who specialises particularly in Mampruli, learns (or used to learn) Welsh to unwind.

    I once found (and bought, naturally) a copy of Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym in the University bookshop in Accra; I’ve always supposed that its somewhat mysterious presence there was something to do with Dr Naden, but come to think of it there’s no reason why a Ghanaian scholar might not take up an interest in cywydd.

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    Port Harcourt is really Nigerian Pidgin-speaking.

    I suspect Igbo is a special case for quite a number of reasons. It all comes down to the fact that although modern nation-states can and do deliberately kill minority languages, they cannot save them: only the speakers can do that, and if they don’t see the point of it, no amount of well-meaning state intervention (even) will help in the end.

    Languages can certainly go from millions of speakers to critical in a desperately short time: Breton is a classic case. Part of that was surely state hostility, but I doubt whether that can alone explain such a disaster.

  61. Should Austria rejoin Germany because they both speak German?

    Well, Austria never actually fought to be independent from Germany…

    OTOH, I suppose you could view the German unification process in the 19th century as a movement of various German regions fighting to be independent from the Austrians.

  62. Well, Austria never actually fought to be independent from Germany…

    Yeah, I’m not talking about history, just asking whether he thinks there’s no point to having separate countries if they speak the same language. (And, conversely, should Switzerland split up?)

  63. I thought Austrians spoke Bavarian language and the standard German based on dialects not natively spoken in Austria was imposed on them (not sure by whom exactly, but surely it can’t have been voluntary).

  64. J.W. Brewer says

    The A’s will ceteris paribus be more inclined to want their own nation-state rather than be a second-class regional minority in a larger nation-state dominated by the B’s to the extent their sense of identity makes them feel sufficiently different from the B’s. A different language helps, but is neither necessary nor sufficient. One can imagine Welsh nationalism/separatism even in an overwhelmingly Anglophone Wales, but there might be less of it, as different people reach different judgments about whether Welshness is different enough from Englishness (or some meta-Britishness?) to want political arrangements to be changed. Some would think it’s still different enough, others like Siôn might not. Belgium exists in its current form because in the local context of 1830 religious difference trumped linguistic difference, so-Catholic-but-Dutch-speaking Flemings got put together with Catholic-but-French-speaking Walloons rather than sticking with the Dutch-speaking Protestants who had dominated the larger post-Napoleonic Netherlands that had proved unstable due to religious tension. After coming on two centuries of secularization, many Flemish nationalists no longer like that tradeoff not least because the relative weight given to language v. religion in their sense of group identity has shifted.

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    One can imagine Welsh nationalism/separatism even in an overwhelmingly Anglophone Wales

    Indeed yes; and in fact a political weakness in Welsh nationalism has been that the English-speaking majority has felt threatened (or been induced to feel threatened) by too much emphasis on the language issue. Not an issue in Scotland, where political nationalism is much more robust (though not for that reason.)

    My man on the ground tells me that the constituency meetings of our local Plaid Cymru take place in English (he’s Welsh-speaking himself.)

  66. A couple of years ago I had an issue with Mobicom, a Mongolian telephone operator. I bought a Huawei phone off them but found it had no option to input Cyrillic Mongolian, which I found very unsatisfying. I went back the next day to return the phone on the grounds that a phone in Mongolia should have the option to input Cyrillic. The lady at the counter refused. Eventually the shop manager entered the dispute and came up with a clincher:

    If you bought a phone in Zimbabwe, you wouldn’t be able to input Zimbabwean, would you?

    (If you’re wondering, plenty of Mongolians are happy to use Roman letters to input Mongolian and will willingly buy a Huawei for its lower price.)

  67. David Eddyshaw says


    I was once sitting in the Burkinabé embassy in Accra (as one does) getting a visa from an extremely helpful embassy official when his telephone rang. He apologised to us and answered it and had a conversation in French with someone to whom he explained that he was very sorry but that he was not really in a position to help.

    He explained to us afterwards that it was a lady in Canada who had asked to be put through to the [sic] African Embassy.

  68. Huawei uses Android OS and Cyrillic Mongolian input is available in Android language settings now.

    Iphone, however, does not provide Cyrillic Mongolian input, but Mongolians seem happy to pay more money to Apple for not being able to write in their own language.

  69. David Eddyshaw says

    (I presume that the operator in Canada had just got busy signals from Algeria, Angola, Benin and Botswana.)

    Mongolians seem happy to pay more money to Apple for not being able to write in their own language.

    Heh. The wonder of Apple. I suspect there is some supernatural element at work in this (as suggested by Charlie Stross …)

  70. All: My (wholly superficial!) impression is that the Igbo in Nigeria are very similar to the Kabyles of Algeria: in both instances their extremely pro-Western orientation (when compared to their fellow countrymen) is accompanied by neglect, if not indeed shame, when it comes to their L1, which in the case of both groups is considered a secondary aspect of their identity, far less important than mastery of the former colonizer’s language (cf. on the Kabyles’ embrace of French see my comment here (April 29) and Lameen’s reply (April 30): ). Can any hatter out there confirm, refute or refine the comparison?

    David Eddyshaw: State hostility in France does not explain all that much when it comes to the fate of Breton and other minority language of France, actually: it is telling to my eyes that political parties promoting any of these languages have miserably failed to *ever* attract *any* significant electoral support on the part of the native speakers of the languages in question. In the case of Breton it must be pointed out that French was the dominant written language in Brittany (competing with Latin, not Breton!) even in the days when it was a separate Kingdom, not least because neither of its two largest cities (Rennes and Nantes) was ever Breton-speaking. This goes a long way in explaining why the borrowed French element in Breton is *much* more important than the borrowed English element in any of the other (English-dominated) Modern Celtic languages.

    Siôn: Coming as I do from Quebec I definitely understand your puzzlement about many aspects of nationalism NOT involving promotion of the native language. But I do not share it: the thing to understand is that, while like you most Quebec separatists would see no point in having Quebec as a country if it were entirely English-speaking, most of them would also fiercely oppose a wholly French-speaking Quebec becoming part of France. You might say that Quebec defines its identity compared to its geographical neighbors much in the same way a Welsh-speaking nationalist does. But when it comes to relations with the broader (and, to us, overseas) French-speaking world, Quebec has a strong sense of a separate identity unrelated to its language, and thus I definitely can “get” (on an emotional, not just on a purely cerebral level) that a common language is not in and of itself enough to unify different groups whose self-image, founding myths and core values are distinct and at the core incompatible with one another. I can understand that this may be much harder for you, since outside of Wales there does not exist any other Welsh-speaking society.

  71. Ikon provide Mongolian Cyrillic input for iPhone that can be downloaded at no cost.

    The last time I looked at Huawei they didn’t provide Cyrillic Mongolian input (Russian yes, Mongolian no), but that was last year so maybe things have changed.

  72. John Cowan says

    Well, Austria never actually fought to be independent from Germany…

    The Seven Weeks War of 1866 was a war to make (Prussian-led) Germany independent of Austria. That should count too. (The objection to Austria was the huge number of non-Germans included in the Empire: though even in Grossdeutschland, Germans would still be a majority, that wasn’t enough for Prussians.)

    I suspect there is some supernatural element at work in this

    My empirical evidence is that when I bought my daughter a Samsung Galaxy, it broke repeatedly (and was replaced by insurance, but with a $50 ). I finally gave up and switched her to a non-top-of-the-line (now obsolete) iPhone, which has never broken.

    a common language is not in and of itself enough to unify different groups whose self-image, founding myths and core values are distinct and at the core incompatible with one another

    Precisely what keeps Anglo-Canada separate from the U.S. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not “peace, order, and good government”, as the U.S. invaders found out the hard way in 1813.

    outside of Wales there does not exist any other Welsh-speaking society


  73. The objection to Austria was the huge number of non-Germans included in the Empire

    I’m pretty sure Otto and Wilhelm would have been perfectly happy to have all those Magyars and Slavs in their empire, if the Prussians could be solely in charge—which was not going to happen.

  74. Argentina

    “Give us our rights or we’re all moving to Patagonia!”

  75. John Cowan says

    perfectly happy to have all those Magyars and Slavs in their empire

    I think you underestimate the effects of Pan-Germanism. The idea that Slavs were Untermenschen was by no means original with Hitler. That said, many historians don’t believe that Bismarck’s expressed ideas for the Seven Weeks War were his actual reasons; they think he blundered into war rather than planning it.

    “Give us our rights or we’re all moving to Patagonia!”

    More like “You won’t give us our rights? The hell with it: we’re moving to Patagonia.” An earlier plan to move to the U.S. was dropped on account of the high rate of assimilation of Welsh-speakers to English there (more than in Wales, in fact). For their part, the Argentine government was inviting European settlers en bloc in order to raise the non-indigenous population outside the immediate B.A. area.

  76. David Marjanović says

    I thought Austrians spoke Bavarian language and the standard German based on dialects not natively spoken in Austria was imposed on them (not sure by whom exactly, but surely it can’t have been voluntary).

    Well, in Vorarlberg and the Lech valley just east of it, the dialects are Alemannic, not Bavarian. I don’t understand all of them.

    Standard German formed very gradually, is based on a combination of dialectal features that is not quite understood (I suspect 14th-15th century Prague played a major role, as it did for Yiddish…), and its range of usage expanded very slowly. It started out as a kind of fashion among bureaucrats to write bureaucratic documents in, and that remained its main role for centuries. Around 1550 to 1750, there were a Protestant/northern and a Catholic/southern standard, but the two were quite similar and became more similar over time.

  77. John Cowan says

    Well, after WWI Vorarlberg voted by plebiscite to join Switzerland, but the united opposition of the Austrian government, the Allies, and the French and Italian Swiss made it impossible. Who knows but that they might get tired of it and try again?

  78. David Marjanović says

    Also, at the time, Vorarlberg was too poor to join Switzerland. That isn’t the case anymore.

    On the other hand, being an EU citizen does have its advantages.

  79. John Cowan says

    True, but anything can be negotiated. The EU’s external borders already run through a number of countries, including Cyprus and (the Kingdom of) Denmark. I see nothing inconceivable in a settlement that left the Autonomous Canton of Vorarlberg inside the EU and the rest of Switzerland outside, particularly given how much power cantons have in the Swiss system anyway.

    It’s by no means as weird as one universe away, where Oldenburg is part of both the HRE and the Scandinavian Realm, and therefore near the end of the Second Great War had to declare war on itself, twice. It decided to fight alongside the rest of the SR, not surprising since its First Family provided the SR’s reigning dynasty. Rygen was in the same situation and made the same response, and the resulting failed attack on hitherto neutral Scandinavia was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hessler’s ill-fated regime. Even the nuking of Łódź in 1948 (truly an act of desperation) could not save him, and the unified and Prussian-led Reich which the war was originally fought to establish was dismantled after the war, returning to more or less its post-Napoleonic situation.

  80. I think talking about Germans fighting for independence from Austria is an interesting angle, but not really a good characterisation of what happened. It would imply that Austria somehow ruled Germany, while in fact after the Napoleonic wars, it was in constant competition with Prussia for the hegemony over the German states (this competition didn’t preclude cooperation in e.g. putting down revolutionary movements). In this situation, a German nation state could only be achieved by revolution or be either Prussian or Austrian taking the lead. The first failed in 1848, because neither the Prussian nor the Austrian ruling elites wanted the existing system to be replaced by a liberal and democratic nation state. Then the Prussian elites (led by Bismarck) decided that they could harness the popular demand for a nation state while keeping and even expanding their power by creating the nation state without the liberal democracy, and changed the rules of the game – instead of the previous competition between two powers about who would dominate the German states, Prussia bagged all the states and excluded Austria from the competition.

  81. A good analysis.

  82. David Marjanović says


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