English Is an African Language – Ka Dupe!

Biodun Jeyifo, a scholar of African studies and comparative literature, published an article that a kind reader brought to my attention, English is an African language – Ka Dupe! [for and against Ngũgĩ] (Journal of African Cultural Studies 30.2 [June 2018]: 133-147), which is a (to my mind) convincing response to the ideas of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o ([ᵑɡoɣe wá ðiɔŋɔ]; see this LH post for previous discussion) concerning the English language in Africa. The article is behind a paywall, but you should be able to get limited JSTOR access for free if you want to read it (which I recommend). Here’s the abstract:

In a radical departure from the orthodoxies of postcolonial African cultural and linguistic nationalism, the paper calls for acceptance of English as an African language with a central argument that insists that all languages widely used in Africa ought to be classified as either indigenous or non-indigenous. This argument rests on a vigorous critique of what the author identifies as the principle of absolute autochthony as the only determinant of which languages are African and which are not. As the most eloquent and influential proponent of this principle, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the central focus of the paper with regard to both the positive and negative aspects of his ideas and positions on the language question in colonial and postcolonial Africa.

And here are a few excerpts:

A literal, uncomplicated translation of the Yorùbá phrase ‘ka dupe’ would be ‘let us give thanks’. But this ignores or erases the complex etymological and discursive uses and history of the phrase. Such ‘history’ would begin from the phrase’s liturgical use in traditional Òrìṣa a worship with regard to giving thanks to the gods and the ancestors for life itself; it would then go through the invocation of the phrase and its many variant forms both in common, everyday use and in weighty philosophical discourses on the phenomenon of unearned grace in human existence; and it would perhaps end in contemporary ludic usages of the phrase that entail a corrosive bitterness in expressing ironic ‘thanks’ for the reversals, defeats and tragedies we sometimes encounter in the course of individual or collective human life. Against this profuse etymological background, each instance of the use of the phrase would alert the knowing and sophisticated listener or reader to be on guard, to detect which particular contextual semantic register is intended – straightforward and uncomplicated expression of thanks; ironic imputations that cast a pall of doubt on the act of giving thanks; or densely ambiguous and perhaps even undecidable intimations in which expressing or receiving thanks might be unhinged from any referential subject or object.
[…]

The fundamental basis of my response to Ngũgĩ rests on a critique, indeed a refutation of this principle of absolute autochthony. As indicated in the title of this piece, I declare, against Ngũgĩ, that English (and French and Portuguese) can no longer be described or classified as a foreign language in Africa; it is in fact now an African language. However, almost at the same moment and with the same breath with which I say this, I immediately bracket this declaration with all the ambiguities, all the contradictions and indeterminacies of that appropriated Yoruba phrase, ‘ka dupe’. English is now an African language, I argue, precisely in the same manner in which it is now an Indian, Irish or Australasian language. In all these nations or regions of the world, English has not only been around for centuries now, it is a leading language in virtually all areas of life – the economy; education; politics; science and technology. If this is the case, there must be a compelling reason, a reason beyond disputation, to continue to label English a foreign language in these countries and regions of the world; and this is absolute autochthony.

He says “it is important, however, to note that the central theoretical framework of his paper is derived from Fanon” and goes on to discuss Fanon’s ideas at some length; he talks about the “innumerable works of creative writing, scholarship, journalism and jurisprudence in English, written by and for Africans, many of them of inestimable value to the prospects of Africa and Africans in the modern world,” adding:

Because he has just passed away and I am in deep mourning about his demise, I cite here the example of the scholarship of the Nigerian theorist, scholar and critic of oral literatures, Isidore Okpewho, all of them in English: The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of the Oral Performance (Columbia University Press, 1979); Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (Cambridge University Press, 1983) and Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony and Identity (Indiana University Press, 1998). These were all groundbreaking works of scholarship that brilliantly corrected long-held intellectual biases against the heritage of myth and orature in and of Africa.

I remember how thrilled I was to discover The Epic in Africa back in 1991; I still treasure and consult it, and I too mourn the loss of Okpewho. Jeyifo continues:

On this idea of the historicity of English in Africa, I have in mind here a pioneering book with a rather (appropriately?) longish title: Two Centuries of African English: A Study and Anthology of Non-Fictional Prose by African Writers Since 1769. The book was written by Professor Lalage Bown (1973) of the University of Lagos and was published in 1973. In some of the anthologized and chronologically ordered entries in this book, the reader can see some items that clearly indicate that English was very foreign to the writer(s) while in other items, only an arbitrary and externally imposed conception of foreignness would lead one to say that the given writer found English a foreign language. My point here with regard to the example of Isidore Okpewho is that he comes in the long line of this evolving historicity of English on its way to becoming an African language that only a total disregard for history of the order of Ngũgĩ’s principle of absolute autochthony would ignore or even deny.

From the sublime to the banal, and from the elevated to the mock-absurd: on its way to losing its foreignness in Africa, English in our continent has produced a rich and extensive discursive order of playful, ironic or ludic meta-commentary on the very idea of its being foreign. In other words, in this phenomenon, the very idea and reality of the foreignness of English is made an object of signification. […]

Long before Zebrudaya and ‘The New Masquerade’, a tradition of deliberate and wilful signification on the foreignness of English had surfaced in West Africa, from The Blinkards (1916) of the Ghanaian dramatist and Pan African thinker, Kobina Sekyi to This Is Our Chance (1956) by James Ene Henshaw (1964), and from Ken Saro-Wiwa in Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1985) to Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation (2005). In all of these texts and others like them, in the mouths of a character or a group of characters, or indeed the entire linguistic universe of plays, novels or poems, the text is pervaded by skilful and transformative use of catachresis. The result is that we get a distinct sense that though in Africa English may have strayed far from its own autochthonous homeland, it has become a language that the ‘locals’ have domesticated through a therapeutic ‘containment’ of the errors and slippages that always seem to lie in wait for non-native users of the language.

In the section “For Ngũgĩ: uncompromising idealism in the promotion of indigenous African languages,” he says of Ngũgĩ:

He is a robust, witty and canny theorist of ethnocide, this being a war of extermination not directly on the physical existence of a people but on their language, their way of life, their mode of being-in-the-world-with-others, to use a Heideggerian term. Irish Gaelic linguistic nationalists have invited Ngũgĩ to share with them his views and positions on the situation in Africa and other parts of the world. In the specific African context, Ngũgĩ is unquestionably the greatest advocate for rational and progressive state policy and action for the promotion of indigenous African languages against the indisputable advantages of languages of European derivation like English, French and Portuguese.

But then he goes on the attack again:

First, there is Ngũgĩ’s seeming total unawareness of, or indifference to, the enormously crucial fact that an African writer – or indeed any writer in any region or nation of the world – does not simply move from interest, skill and expertise in her or his language to writing in the given mother tongue but must necessarily go through the existing and flourishing infrastructure of writing in the mother tongue. If there is no such infrastructure in existence, the move is impossible. In the light of this observation, consider the underlined sentence in the third of the four epigraphs to this commentary from none other than Professor John Mugane, Head of the African Language Program at Harvard and one of Ngũgĩ’s self-avowed ardent followers: ‘Most of the languages (i.e. of Africa) are primarily oral with little available in written forms’. Expressed in a simple and uncomplicated form, this observation boils down to the following crucial question that Ngũgĩ has absolutely never posed in all his writings on language: what should a would-be African writer do who wishes to write in the indigenous mother tongue but whose language neither has a writing script nor print capitalism of even an embryonic form? On the expert evidence provided by Mugane, this in fact applies to the vast majority of the indigenous African languages. I assert again that Ngũgĩ has never given this massively important fact any consideration in his extensive writings on the language question.

He says “Ngũgĩ pays absolutely no attention at all to factors internal to language on its way to producing and being received as literature. The starkest and indeed somewhat very brutal expression of this particular aporia is that at one level Ngũgĩ is dismissive of or indifferent to anything new, refreshing and innovative in developments within English as a medium of African literature while, at another level, he gives no specifications at all of the same phenomenon within writings in indigenous African languages.” He cites Joyce for his “stunning acts of creative de-formation of English as a literary language”:

This is far from the path taken by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who writes in English now apparently because he feels that he must, and then only as a supplement to his primary concern with his writings in and concern for the real or ‘true’ African languages. He is absolutely without equal among all Anglophone writers of the past and the present in his total indifference to the present circumstances and future prospects of the bequeathed colonial language(s) in his homeland and his continent. All he cares about, all he is unwaveringly dedicated to is the development and promotion of African languages, where ‘African’ implies autochthony of belonging.

He says “contrary to Ngũgĩ’s perennial affirmations of the far greater resources devoted to the development of foreign or European languages in relation to indigenous languages, as a matter of fact and at a deeper level of long-term consequences, all languages without exception are very badly or poorly taught in African schools and universities today” and continues:

Second, Ngũgĩ misrepresents and greatly oversimplifies the structure of power, hierarchy and advantage between languages in use in Africa. While the old colonial divide between the languages of colonial imposition and the indigenous African languages has not disappeared, it has been massively complicated by postcolonial and neoliberal mutations that we ignore only at our peril. For instance, over all the other languages of colonization, English now exercises a hegemony across all states in Africa and the world that it did not have before it effectively became the language of neoliberalism worldwide. As a consequence of this, in Africa some countries that were historically Francophone or Lusophone have either formally become Anglophone or have effectively become Anglophone without the formal declaration, as in, respectively, the case of Mozambique that has actually joined the Commonwealth and that of Rwanda that has not made the formal declaration but is to all intents and purposes practically now ‘Anglophone’.

The paper opens with four epigraphs, two of which particularly appeal to me:

Ko si ede t’olorun ko gbo (there is no language that is unintelligible to God)
Yorùbá aphorism of vintage idealist metaphysics of language

There is no language which is more of a language than another language.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “The Politics of Translation: Notes Towards an African Language Policy”

Thanks, Adrian!

Comments

  1. January First-of-May says

    Previously on LH.

    (/lh)

    [EDIT: for the record, the comment immediately above the one linked refers to “French, admittedly one of the more aberrant West African languages”.]

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Unfortunately I can only get the first page with my JSTOR access, but your excerpts are interesting.

    It seems to me to be a thumping false antithesis; while English certainly is an African language, that in no way precludes the use and development of others.

    the following crucial question that Ngũgĩ has absolutely never posed in all his writings on language: what should a would-be African writer do who wishes to write in the indigenous mother tongue but whose language neither has a writing script nor print capitalism of even an embryonic form?

    This is a very good question, however. In fact, the problem is worse: it can be hard to see the point of even becoming literate in your own language if there is nothing to read but literacy materials and possibly the Bible (which you can probably read in English or French if you’ve been to school, anyway.)

    But just because the problem is hard, it hardly follows that all attempts to solve it are either foolish or doomed. Without the polemic and activism of people like Ngũgĩ, it certainly won’t happen: that is hardly a reason for criticising him.

    Hausa has a flourishing publishing industry, though admittedly it was a written language before the British and French invasions (though in a different script with wholly different associations and traditions) and moreover is a major world language in terms of sheer numbers of speakers. Even so …

    I think the fundamental issue is a race between increasing prosperity and language loss.

    I recall a toxic Swiss expat in Ghana informing me that, as one of the many signs of the fundamental inferiority of the indigenes, “They don’t read books.” (This was the same lady who informed me that Ghanaians don’t love their children, incidentally. I wish I’d been ruder to her.) She grossly overestimated the degree to which Europeans read books for pleasure (though perhaps Switzerland is very different from the UK in this respect), but more particularly did not seem to appreciate that reading books is not so straightforward if you don’t have a library and a typical book would set you back a fortnight’s wages.

    I agree with Biodun Jeyifo that lack of the capitalist infrastructure to support mass literacy is a big issue; I think that will improve, and languages that survive the process (which will involve a lot of urbanisation) will develop this support, as with Hausa.

  3. that is hardly a reason for criticising him.

    He’s not criticizing him (in the sense I suppose you mean); I even quoted a passage of praise to ward off that possible misunderstanding. He thinks Ngũgĩ is “unquestionably the greatest advocate for rational and progressive state policy and action for the promotion of indigenous African languages,” and there is much more praise for him that I didn’t quote. He’s merely disagreeing with him about a particular issue, which I trust is permitted?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I was evidently extrapolating incorrectly from the extracts. It may be that he’s saying pretty much the same thing as I was (though with greater expertise.)

  5. DE: I don’t know where in Switzerland she was from, but if she was a speaker of Swiss German (or worse, Romansh), she likely was not well-read in her native language, either.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    She was German-speaking, but I don’t recall where from exactly.

    In fairness, I think she was basically having a pretty hard time, as expats very often do in West Africa unless they contrive to set up in some expat ghetto in a big city. She and her husband were in a fairly out-of-the-way place in Brong Ahafo (which is not exactly metropolitan) with no expat colleagues, and were fairly new to West Africa.

    It’s natural (if deeply unfortunate) to start blaming the locals for your unhappiness in these circumstances, especially as everywhere there actually are some unscrupulous and unpleasant people, so a few bad experiences can get generalised to “they’re all like that at the end of the day.”

    Even people who avoid this often end up circling the psychic wagons and limiting their social interactions with locals, sometimes arriving at a sort of steady state they can keep up for years. Missionaries, too … very sad.

    I recommend working hard at learning the local languages as an antidote.

  7. I recommend working hard at learning the local languages as an antidote.

    And so say all of us!

  8. Ngugi’s L1, in which he has published, is Kikuyu (to use one English spelling among several contenders), which is claimed to have around 8 million native speakers, fewer than Swedish but more than Danish. Only about a dozen “autochthonous” languages in Africa have more speakers, although of course there are borderline cases. (Arabic is obviously non-autochthonous; but Swahili seems arguable given heavy non-autochthonous influence; what about Malagasy? etc.)

    Kikuyu is also the L1 of the historically most dominant ethnic group in a more-prosperous-than-most sub-Saharan African nation-state with a reportedly good-for-the-continent educational system.* So it’s not obviously crazy (especially if you gloss over the “infrastructure” points) to imagine a future with a flourishing Kikuyu literature, if only a few attitudes and policies would change. But quite a lot of autochthonous African languages have orders-of-magnitude smaller numbers of L1 speakers and are spoken by communities with much less economic and political clout, actual or potential. What are the would-be novelists in e.g. the Sandawe-speaking community across the border in Tanzania supposed to do?

    *One of the changes in attitude Ngugi might need is an end to government promotion of Swahili alongside English in the educational system etc. as a “safe” (because not ethnically-marked) non-European language.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    More people speak Kusaal than speak Welsh (though I’m not sure quite how encouraging that is for Kusaal); and the numbers are increasing faster (assuming that the numbers of Welsh speakers are even increasing at all, which I think is by no means as clear as is sometimes suggested.)

    Mooré is spoken by more people than speak Finnish.

    I think that Biodun Jeyifo is quite right that the problem is economics as much as anything.

    Swahili is undoubtedly fully autochthonous (though some ethnic-Swahili fantasists* like to suggest that it began as an Arabic creole, this is nonsense); and the Arabic component in Swahili is much less than the Latin and French component in English.

    * The late Prof Ali Mazrui was well into this; his scholarship on this played second fiddle to his ideology.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Many more people speak Chadic languages than Uralic languages …

  11. Even setting economics aside, the population-critical-mass needed to sustain a long-established literary culture in a language might be quite less than the population-critical-mass needed in a start-up situation. Although obviously quite a lot of smallish Eastern European languages that are now official tongues of their own low-population nation-state had minimal such cultures before 19th-century nationalism but were local illiterate-peasant languages in multi-ethnic empires where literacy generally involved learning to code-switch into an entirely different language.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    An interesting parallel …

    Though a disturbing one. It’s greatly to be hoped that ethnonationalism, brutal wars and ethnic cleansing are not actual prerequisites for successful promotion of low-status languages to a secure official and cultural position.

    Though, on reflection, some at least of the European examples probably reflect success despite, rather than because of, such calamities.

    In Africa both Hausa and Swahili seem to have spread by trade and cultural diffusion much more than military adventures. In fact the wildly militarily successful Fulɓe jihadists of the Caliphate of Sokoto ended up largely losing their own language … (like the Normans in England.)

  13. David E.: You got another plan? Ethnonationalism, in particular, is the pretty obvious semi-efficient way to get potential writers to think it is their moral duty/obligation to write in their ethnically-particular L1 and help Build Up the Glorious Nation instead of taking the often-simpler path of writing in a higher-status tongue with an existing literary tradition/industry/infrastructure (and broader potential audience) offering entry-level positions.

    My 18-year-old is currently wrestling with Descartes (in translation) in one of her college classes, and this reminds me that I should point out to her that 400 years ago even Frenchmen felt obligated to write in Latin rather than their L1 if (in some genres/domains) they wanted to be taken seriously and reach a wide (relevant) audience. And you could write an empirically-grounded-if-reactionary essay demonstrating that the switchover of the French intelligentsia to writing in their L1 (or, rather, a somewhat artificial high-falutin’ register of the same) led inexorably to the guillotine and the Terror and Napoleon disrupting the affairs of an entire continent. Thinking of Napoleon of course makes me wonder about the language policies of His Imperial Majesty the late Emperor Bokassa I, but the internet is not helping me out very much, other than advising me that Greenberg is now thought by some overambitious for having swept the Ubungian languages into his Niger-Congo construct.

  14. And the “trade” via which Swahili expanded its geographical footprint in East Africa was originally in large part the Indian-Ocean slave trade, innit? With Omani-ruled Zanzibar (Swahili HQ as an L1 rather than L2) as a major location for exporting the merchandise obtained from the hinterlands.

  15. Neither English nor Kikuyu are African languages, actually – they are not spoken in the place your colonised epistemologies refer to as Tunisia…

    But seriously, everyone knows English is an African language in terms of facts on the ground – that’s hardly the point. Writers on Africa need no encouragement to choose English or French or the like: such choices have the weight of a whole school system behind them, and a whole global economy behind that. Saying that English isn’t an African language is a way of suggesting that maybe it doesn’t have to be – that maybe Africans could and should have the same privilege as Finns or Albanians or Tamils, of writing in their own mother tongues. Focusing one’s efforts on making people feel even less guilty for writing in the official/colonial languages instead just seems kind of unnecessary.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Greenberg is now thought by some overambitious for having swept the Ubangian languages into his Niger-Congo construct.

    Greenberg’s Adamawa-Ubangian is a perfect example of the worthlessness of his classification methods: it’s a regular Frankenstein’s monster. Bits of it (like Gbeya) are definitely Volta-Congo; other bits, no evidence at all.

    Try it for yourself with the handy table in WP:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubangian_languages#Comparative_vocabulary

    Cf Kusaal nyin “tooth”, nɔɔr “mouth”, tiig “tree.”

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Neither English nor Kikuyu are African languages, actually – they are not spoken in the place your colonised epistemologies refer to as Tunisia…

    An excellent point. I propose the impeccably indigenous name “Kusago” for the Continent Formerly Known as Africa.

  18. Saying that English isn’t an African language is a way of suggesting that maybe it doesn’t have to be – that maybe Africans could and should have the same privilege as Finns or Albanians or Tamils, of writing in their own mother tongues.

    That side of it is fine, of course. The problem comes with the inevitable (people being what they are) corollary that Africans who do use English are traitors. It would be disingenuous of Ngũgĩ, or anyone insisting on the simplistic catchphrase, to say “Oh, but that’s not what I meant at all!”; it’s like people who say God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman trying to disclaim any responsibility for gay-bashing. It’s great to promote indigenous writing; it’s not so great to do so with untruths that can trigger some of humanity’s worst instincts.

  19. To Lameen’s examples, the Tamil literary tradition is millennia old, predating not only the arrival of the Brits but the arrival of the Mughals and other such post-Vedic invaders of the subcontinent.* And the historical processes by which it became customary for Finns and Albanians to write in their mother tongues were closely bound up with the processes by which Finland and Albania emerged as independent nation-states overwhelmingly dominated by speakers of those tongues.

    But there are comparatively few nations in the Continent Formerly Known as Africa where even 51% of the population has the same autochthonous mother tongue, meaning nation-building (with the creation of a mythic/fictive common national identity) and mother-tongue-boosting are in tension with each other rather than mutually-reinforcing. There are some countries where there’s a quite widespread common L2 of localish origin (Swahili in East Africa, Sango in Emperor Bokassa’s former domain). But Ngugi wants to write in Kikuyu rather than Swahili. And there is an inherent tension between Kikuyu particularism and Kenyan nationalism that the Kenyan government understandably wishes to keep tamped down. What are the European languages that have a functional literary tradition without dominating a nation-state? Formerly Yiddish, languages like Welsh and Breton that used to have their own independent or near-independent polity with a vernacular literary tradition dating back that far and maybe Basque almost fits that description. But what else?

    That said, there are *some* modern nation-states in TCFKAA where a single autochthonous mother tongue has overwhelming market share. Botswana, for example, and Somalia. Don’t know how literary culture in those tongues is doing (or, in the case of Somalia, was doing before the last three decades and change of Times of Trouble).

    *I do wonder if the examples/models of Tamil and Bengali etc etc may have made it easier for other regional languages in India that did not already have literary cultures/traditions before the Brits arrived to develop such cultures more recently. If so, I would be highly unsurprised if it were only languages that were “scheduled,” i.e. given official status in their relevant part of the country by the national constitution and thus well-situated for support and patronage by the state-level government.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think Breton has ever had a major continuous literary tradition in the way that Welsh has; nor Basque.

    There are a number of African countries where, although no one language is the L1 of a majority, nonetheless there is an indigenous language which is a de facto common language: Ghana, for example, has Akan.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akan_language

    (Nice map.)
    Ghanaians who aren’t native Akan speakers but who have been exposed to enough schooling to speak English can also speak Akan much more often than not. Still, I must concede that that is not the rule.

    However, if you allow two indigenous languages, then Burkina Faso (for example) qualifies: between Mooré and Dyula you could get by in most places (more so than with French, certainly.) Similarly, between Hausa and Zarma you can communicate in most of Niger (especially the bits where people actually live.)

    But yes, that’s why I too don’t think parallels in the language situation between Africa and Central/Eastern Europe work very well. At least, I hope they won’t

    But that is not the only way languages can spread and establish themselves. Aramaic didn’t spread all over the Near East because of Aramaic L1 speakers conquering all their neighbours, for example. In fact, it seems to be a bit of mystery exactly how it came about …

  21. The story I recall re geographical spread of Aramaic is that it ended up being used as an administrative language by the Persian Empire (once that empire expanded westward) in lieu of the Persians having to master multiple different Semitic languages of their various subject peoples or the various Semites having to master Persian. Not altogether unlike Malay being promoted by the Dutch as the lingua franca of their East Indies, which the post-Dutch regime then renamed Bahasa Indonesia. Or the experience in Paraguay of a single indigenous language becoming a common L2 and then largely crowding out the prior variety of indigenous L1’s.

    But again, imagine an L1 Kusaal speaker who is reasonably fluent in both Akan and English as L2’s. Is it any better for him to write a novel in Akan than a novel in English if it is deemed infeasible for him to write one in Kusaal and expect to get it published? He is still faced with a choice between his mother tongue and prospects of success in the wider world. (Of course, he’ll still never get read in the neighboring countries unless translated into French …)

  22. I thought it was because Aramaic-speakers were literate and their neighbors (notably Persians) weren’t, or were only marginally so.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably the Persian adoption of Aramaic as the official language of their western provinces came about because the Babylonian empire had become Aramaic-speaking by the time Cyrus conquered it; but then, how had that happened?

    What’s wrong with speaking good old Akkadian, like our forefathers did? And why Aramaic? those people don’t amount to anything

  24. Bah. Sumerian, now there’s a language… (And where is ə de vivre, anyway?)

  25. I am not sure what is meant by “print capitalism”: texts can totally be distributed in electronic form. Books are nice, but smartphones are already there (even illiterate people are using them).

    Also consider audio. If you have oral literature, distribiting stories on CDs totally makes sense.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Is it any better for him to write a novel in Akan than a novel in English

    There’s nothing much in the way of a market for novels in Akan, either …

    I think this is partly (alongside the sheer brutal economics of the situation, that Biodun Jeyifo rightly adduces) because of the way multilingual Africans deploy their languages: languages have their own appropriate niches, within which they are often perfectly stable, but they show no sign of spreading beyond them.

    Kusaal (for example) is the ordinary language that Kusaasi of all ages use for communicating among themselves (and is used as a local lingua franca similarly by groups like the Bisa.) But in the market in town you would probably speak Hausa; and nobody would describe servicing a car in Kusaal – they would use Hausa or English.

    And nobody would have a technical medical discussion in Kusaal: there is nothing to stop someone borrowing or just inventing the necessary technical terms (the language just loves compound nouns, after all) but why would you? Anybody who would be participating in such a conversation knows English anyway …

    Now: novel-writing is not a traditional Kusaasi (or Ashanti) activity either. It’s an imported art form. So it is natural to adopt an appropriate imported language for it too: that fits the local language ecology just fine.

    I’m not sure how novel-writing in Hausa took off historically. Literary production existed in Hausa before the European invasions, but it was largely Islamic poetry and chronicles. I think the impetus to other genres may well have had something to do with the fairly vigorous promotion by the British of Hausa as what they hoped would be a local interlanguage divorced as far as possible from its previous Islamic associations (with all the murky story behind boko, which really was a British plot, at least on some level.)

    Also consider audio. If you have oral literature, distributing stories on CDs totally makes sense

    Now pop music in African languages is flourishing and clearly commercially viable. Not sure how that fits my argument, if at all …

  27. It’s an imported art form. So it is natural to adopt an appropriate imported language for it too: that fits the local language ecology just fine.” – You are quoting a PS that I choose not to send:)

  28. He appears whenever ancient SW Asian languages are mentioned!

    The replacement of Akkadian by Aramaic most likely happened for similar reasons that Akkadian replaced Sumerian: multilingual population movements (brought about by the violence of attempts to centralize political power) settling on a new lingua franca.

    The Assyrian and Babylonian empires of the first millennium BC moved a lot of people around: both as punishment (such as the Biblical Babylonian Exile) and to import mercenaries (West Semitic speakers had been imported into Mesopotamia since at least the 3rd millennium as a way for centralizing polities to undermine the power of local institutions). Given the mix of languages in the greater Mesopotamia of the first millennium, shift to a West Semitic language was probably the most likely outcome (they seem to have already been dominant in the north of the Levant and most of Upper Mesopotamia). But why Aramaic (as opposed to, say, Amorite [which Wikipedia tells me was distinct from Aramaic]) is a good question.

  29. It’s comforting to know that the Schwa-Signal still works.

  30. He also got a new job, which unfortunately cuts into his commenting on LHat time :((((

  31. Damn the iron fist of capitalism! (But congratulations!)

  32. Now pop music

    pop gen.pl of popa “butt”.

  33. A fortunate English word, because it is the genre of music such that the comparison to butts does not look like a compliment or criticism, but rather as a precise description.
    Dance music (any) also is so.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    Another case of a single indigenous language being spoken by the majority of an African country: I was just looking at William Samarin’s nice grammar of Sango (a Ngbandi creole): he reports that (as of 1962) that in the CAR, the “entire population except for very old women in remote areas” spoke Sango. This was largely as an L2, but he says that there was already a sizeable L1-speaker population in Bangui who knew no other African language.

  35. @David E.: Ahem, certainly some of those L1 Sango-speakers in Bangui also had some fluency in the perhaps aberrant West African language known as French, which was adverted to upthread? But Sango (as mentioned in passing in one of my prior posts) largely gets you back to the issue of why Ngugi’s position that to be authentic he ought to write in Kikuyu rather than English implicitly rejects writing in Swahili as some sort of pragmatic compromise. The dividing point being whether you frame the choice as “writing in your own L1 versus anything else whatsoever” or as “writing in *some* autochthonous language even if not your personal L1 versus writing in some language of extracontinental origin.”

  36. Focusing one’s efforts on making people feel even less guilty for writing in the official/colonial languages instead just seems kind of unnecessary.

    i generally agree with Lameen on this point, but i think it sidesteps a part of the argument (that i have mixed and complicated feelings about, as a 2nd-generation child of deliberate language suppression in favor of an official & colonial language): that speakers and writers of african englishes should stop looking to the u.k. and u.s. as reference points for what english(es) look(s) like. that, to my eye, is what makes the difference between a

    i think (sticking within the afro-atlantic world) of u.s. writers like suzan-lori parks and latasha n. nevada diggs, and anglo-caribbean writers like linton kwesi johnson and kamau brathwaite, as well as writers from the continent like amos tutuola, as examples of what that can look like. parks, diggs, brathwaite, and johnson have gotten away with it in the publishing world because their work is seen as performance rather than literature, and because of specific political circumstances in their time/places of emergence as artists. tutuola, i think, got away with it because his writing doesn’t look as far from british english as it actually is – in particular, he doesn’t adjust spelling to reflect actual speech the way the diasporic writers do.

    but (echoing a number of folks) what makes a readership possible is not writers. it’s things to read that are not only printed but distributed (and i do think that the physical media matter here differently, as well as more, than digital ones). which is to say: economics.

    but economics can be slippery things with cultural work. which is something arkady martine has gotten solidly right in the Teixcalaan books, which feature comix as a narrative-writing wedgepoint for a small-population vernacular spoken on the imperial fringe and not considered a proper literary language, precisely because they don’t cost much to make and so are affordable, as well as interesting, specifically to young people.

    and i think that’s also part of the eastern european story, in ways that make the analogy a bit more compelling. i very much doubt that lithuanian (for example) went from a tiny language with no noticeable literary presence to a small language with a National Literature primarily by means of writing in high-prestige literary forms. i’d bet heavily on the literary writing that made the difference being primarily works specifically made to feed lithuanian-medium schools (didactic short stories and poems; short biographies of historical figures; historical novellas; etc), alongside newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, folksong collections, and other such paraliterary ventures.

    European languages that have a functional literary tradition without dominating a nation-state? Formerly Yiddish

    i would’ve expected this to be the one place where i wouldn’t run into the canard of yiddish as a dead or dying language. yiddish has at least two (largely separate) functional literary traditions at the moment, both expanding rapidly, and still doesn’t have an army* or navy, much less a nation-state.

    .
    * yes, in nyc there are hasidic paramilitaries that operate hand-in-glove with the nypd (but adding extra racism, misogyny, and queer-hatred, which is impressive). but they haven’t as yet managed to establish either lubavitsh or satmar yiddish as a Language rather than a Dialect, so weinreich’s dictum seems to stand: it takes an army and a navy.

  37. Tutuola is interesting. Was he a fluent speaker of a divergent variety English? Or did he write in English because that was the language in which one committed writing novels?

    WP has taught me that Raymond Queneau translated The Palm Wine Drinkard into French, attempting to pass the oddity of the syntax through; and that Daniel O. Fágúnwà wrote the first Yorùbá-language novel, in 1938.

  38. January First-of-May says

    pop gen.pl of popa “butt”

    Of course Russian поп can also mean “priest”, in which meaning it is a cognate of English pope (and ultimately derived from the multilingual root papa “father”).

    Botswana, for example, and Somalia.

    AFAIK also Lesotho and Swaziland/eSwatini, and I think maybe Burundi but not very sure? I’ll have to look it up.
    Madagascar would qualify but it’s not continental, and in any case it’s so far east that it’s got a multi-century literate culture thanks to Arabic traders.

    (Looked up Burundi, it does indeed qualify, as surprisingly does neighboring Rwanda. I thought the Hutu and the Tutsi spoke different languages, but apparently their “languages” are even closer than Serbian and Croatian, and are usually considered dialects of the same language, Kinyarwanda.)

  39. I’ve been using the “limited JSTOR access for free” for a while, but (as David E found) it excludes some articles, and this is one of them. However, googling the title will turn up various places where the whole article is reprinted or reposted.

    speakers and writers of african englishes should stop looking to the u.k. and u.s. as reference points for what english(es) look(s) like.

    Yes, and I thought they were already stopping. At least, that’s the impression I’ve gotten from the OED’s blogs on East African English, Nigerian English (distinct from Nigerian Pidgin), and South African English, which cover not just vocabulary but pronunciation systems and (for Nigerian English) grammar. Their World Englishes hub is work in progress, but they’re evidently putting a lot of resources into these efforts and blogging about them a lot.

    Amos Tutuola is currently cited 12 times in the OED, one of which is for a regional Nigerian word, “money-doubler”. And that Wikipedia article also quotes somebody pointing out another classic of creative de-formation of English, Huckleberry Finn.

  40. somebody

    Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language? Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is written in seven dialects, he tells us. It is acknowledged a classic. We accept it, forget that it has no “grammar”, and go ahead to learn his “grammar” and what he has to tell us. Let Tutuola write “no grammar” and the hyenas and jackals whine and growl. Let Gabriel Okara write a “no grammar” Okolo. They are mum. Why? Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination. Some of these minds having failed to write imaginative stories, turn to that aristocratic type of criticism which magnifies trivialities beyond their real size. They fail to touch other virtues in a work because they do not have the imagination to perceive these mysteries. Art is arbitrary. Anybody can begin his own style. Having begun it arbitrarily, if he persists to produce in that particular mode, he can enlarge and elevate it to something permanent, to something other artists will come to learn and copy, to something the critics will catch up with and appreciate.

    Taban Lo Liyong, “Tutuola, son of Zinjanthropus”, in Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola, edited by Bernth Lindfors, Three Continents Press, 1975.

    The annonation to the volume (on Libgen) is funny:

    “Amos Tutuola is one of Africa’s most controversial authors. The reviews and essays in this volume are grouped chronologically to allow the reader to follow Tutuola’s literary career and his unsteady journey to respectability.”

  41. Taban Lo Liyong (born 1939) is a poet, academic and writer of fiction and literary criticism from South Sudan. His political views, as well as his outspoken disapproval of the post-colonial system of education in East Africa, have inspired both further criticism as well as controversy since the late 1960s.

    Sounds promicing. I didn’t know him.

  42. “In 1946, Tutuola completed his first full-length book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, within two days.”

    Oh. That is impressive. The Russian translation is not very literal. Of course it is not clear what a translator should reconstruct in Russian: Tutuola as he appears to English readers, or as he appears to… ???
    The Russian translator just created a different voice.

    Когда мне исполнилось десять лет от роду, я стал специалистом по пальмовому вину. И вот я ничего другого не делал–только целыми днями пробовал вино. В то время мы не знали никаких денег, кроме КАУРИ–это такие ракушки,– и все стоило очень дешево, а мой отец слыл первым богачом в нашем городе.
    Детей у отца было восемь человек, и уж такие работяги — лучше не пожелаешь, а я, как старший, стал мастером по вину и заслужил себе имя Пальмовый Пьянарь. Я пробовал вино с утра и до вечера и с вечера до ночи и с ночи до утра. А воду я и вовсе пить перестал: на воду у меня просто времени не хватало.
    Когда отец понял, какой я великий знаток — я ничего не делал, а только пробовал вино,–он нанял винаря и подарил мне ферму: три мили в длину и три в ширину, и там произрастало 560000 пальм.

    I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town.

    My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm-wine drinkard. I was drinking palm-wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By that time I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine.
    But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine tapster for me; he had no other work more than to tap palm-wine every day.

    So my father gave me a palm-tree farm which was nine miles square and it contained 560,000 palm-trees…

  43. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    This doesn’t follow from the very interesting discussion above, but was suggested by the title of the thread.

    Yesterday I was looking (for reasons utterly unrelated to LanguageHat) at the Wikipedia article on Wendy Beetlestone, nominated by Obama as a Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. I was surprised to see her listed in the category of “African-American judges”, because as far as I can see she is neither African nor (by birth) American. Is it sufficient to be born in Ibadan to be African? Her father was certainly not African in any sense; I don’t know about her mother, but I suspect she wasn’t (isn’t?) African either. I have a recently deceased cousin by marriage who was born in Jos (Nigeria): I don’t think he ever said he was African. Is my niece, born in Hong Kong, Chinese? I don’t think anyone has ever said she was Chinese.

    As for “American”, OK, she is probably naturalized, but she was born to British parents and educated in England.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know about her mother

    Nor I, but she might very well have been Nigerian. By the peculiar criteria Americans use for such things, that would surely make the judge “African American”, this being current Americanese for “black.” In fact, even if her mother was only half Yoruba by descent, I believe that would suffice.

    I know an Igbo man who has the right of Aliyah to Israel (in fact he is actually halachically Jewish.)

    Anyhow, George Orwell was a great Bihari writer, and Spike Milligan was a famous Maharashtri comedian. And we can happily disclaim all responsibility for the abominable Frederick Lugard, who was from Tamil Nadu.

  45. January First-of-May says

    Perhaps there is some further Native African (for lack of a better term) ancestry; otherwise I agree that she wouldn’t/shouldn’t qualify as African-American any more than (e.g.) Elon Musk (who was technically born in Africa too).

    [Partially ninja-ed by David Eddyshaw.]

  46. Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination.

    All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

  47. @AC-B. The “American” in “African-American” typically just means “currently residing in the U.S.” and does not necessarily imply anything about citizenship status. But apparently Judge Beetlestone’s mother was a U.S. citizen so she would have had a claim to U.S. citizenship from birth even though born abroad, at least if her parents did the right paperwork when she was a kid. The “African” in “African-American” typically refers to racial ancestry and not to place of birth — the South-African-born actress Charlize Theron, whose Dutch and Huguenot ancestors came to the continent as far back as the 17th century, doesn’t count, except perhaps jocularly and it can be a risky topic to get jocular about. Ditto for Mozambique-born Teresa Heinz Kerry (maiden name Simões-Ferreira), who would have been the first African-born First Lady if her husband’s political campaign in 2004 had worked out a bit better.

    And of course “African” means the “sub-Saharan” sort. I have met American children of immigrant Coptic families (whose ancestors had likely lived in Egypt back into prehistoric times) who professed to be puzzled as to why they weren’t “African-American,” but the fault was theirs for assuming that a specific idiom ought to have a transparent and compositional meaning.

    I do not know the details of Judge Beetlestone’s family tree, but I would be modestly surprised if it were 100% white. If the “African-American” label had been afffixed to her solely on the basis of birth in Ibadan, a substantial number of Americans (including in the subset who get outraged about things on the internet …) would consider that misleading-to-fraudulent. Of course the vast majority of “African-Americans” (recent immigrants being a notable exception) are of racially mixed ancestry, with the proportions varying considerably.

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    All that is solid melts into air

    Preach it, Karl!

    But as Michael Flanders says:

    The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend The Palm-WIne Drinkard to anyone who hasn’t actually read it. I’m not sure that “novel” quite captures its genre, mind …

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    The Duke of Wellington was born in Dublin (probably); unfortunately he seems never to have actually said “And had I been born in a stable, would that make me a horse?”, but I think that it is fair to say that he did not self-identify as Irish.

  51. “Just because the cat has her kittens in the oven doesn’t make them muffins”: dismissive proverb by old-timey Vermonters re the Vermont-born kids of rich-and/or-bohemian/hippie folks from New York who had moved there recently. Or so I was once told by someone who had been one such kid.

  52. At her Senate confirmation hearings in 2014, Judge Beetlestone mentioned that her brother Philip, who at least at the time lived and worked in Botswana, happened to be visiting the U.S. and was present in the room. This webpage has a photo of him if you want to assess family resemblances. https://siwi.org/staff-member/philip-beetlestone/ His “native language is English, and he is also conversant in German.”

  53. man is at last compelled to face with sober senses

    And who said something about opium?

  54. January First-of-May says

    I do not know the details of Judge Beetlestone’s family tree, but I would be modestly surprised if it were 100% white.

    Her father’s obituary, her apparent mother’s interview. Neither mentions race one way or another, but I got the impression that both parents were probably white.

    [EDIT: I found her mother’s Facebook page – not linking but it shouldn’t be hard to find – and judging by the photos she does appear to have been African-American. In retrospect the references to Brown v. Board of Education in the interview should have clued me in.]

    All that is solid melts into air

    Previously on LH. Apparently it’s an extremely free translation of the original.

  55. To return to the original post, if English is to be considered an African language, it surely follows that English is also a Polynesian/Indian etc etc language. Is this what the author intended or was s/he concerned only with its classification as an African language without considering the wider implications? Nobody has yet mentioned the mainly Dutch-derived Afrikaans, a prime candidate for classification as an African language because its indigenous speakers have lived in Africa for a couple of centuries now.

  56. Apparently it’s an extremely free translation of the original.

    It is good vibes for people who know nothing about history.

  57. Or did he write in English because that was the language in which one committed writing novels?

    if i remember right from the introduction of my edition of The Palm-Wine Drinkard – which i join DE in heartily recommending, though i think the more interesting genre question* is “what is a novel, given that this is** one?” – he wrote it in english (and wrote it at all) because there was a cash prize to be won. which seems very much to the point!

    and i completely disagree with most of the taban lo liyong passage:

    tutuola is not in any way ungrammatical. he is simply writing in english as she is spoke, and not in the written-language-without-speakers that we should perhaps call High University Anglic (which i’m mostly using right now). his writing is not arbitrary in any way, and not primarily a matter of personal style: it’s a specific spoken english, put on the page with all its consistencies and variation (and the dance between them) more or less intact.

    writing in an actually-spoken english (tutuola), writing in High University Anglic with dialogue in actually-spoken english/es (twain), and self-consciously experimental writing based in english/es (joyce) are quite different things, and pretty much impossible to mistake for each other unless your only categories are “Correct English” and “Bad English” (which, to be fair, is a widespread condition, though not around here). a lot of experimental writing piggybacks on elements of actually-spoken english***, which muddies the line a bit, but how they operate, for writers, for readers, and most importantly for the publishing industry, is distinct and largely non-overlapping.

    i think liyong’s [should the short form be “lo liyong”? i can’t tell from the internets] core point is important, though: who the author is understood to be, socially – their race, class, nationality, gender, and cradle-tongue, mainly – is what determines how their writing will be treated if it diverges from High University Anglic. an amos tutuola will be called “ungrammatical” even by his defenders, while an irvine welch (who to my ear sits on the formal border between twain and tutuola) will be called an innovator.****

    .
    * the same way that one of the more interesting questions about its language seems to me “what is english, given that this is written in it?”.

    ** i do not think there are, or can be, textual criteria that would draw a clear line around novelness (aside, perhaps, from randall jarrell’s “a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it” – though arguably that also includes The Wealth of Nations, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, and De Civitate Dei), and PWD has all of the extra-textual markers that define the form.

    *** in ways that can be parasitic and exploitative or generative and powerful, largely depending on the writer’s relationship (or lack thereof) to the folks whose speech they’re drawing on – pretty much exactly the same dynamic as the relationship between european (& settler-colonial) modernist non-objective art (to use my painter/sculptor grandmother’s phrase) and “primitive” art from the rest of the world.

    **** the same analogy to modernist art applies: the contrast between the treatment of salvador dalí and wilfredo lam, who shared a teacher, is especially instructive, but so are looser parallels like the treatment of toyen or claude cahun & marcel moore in contrast to marcel duchamp or rené magritte.

  58. @January: There are a few other hints in the interview of the mother (like Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance personalities being frequent guests at her grandparents) but it’s kind of fascinating that the interviewer got through that long an interview without asking questions that would have forced an explicit specification of the interviewee’s race.

    I see that the mother and I have a mutual facebook friend, but that’s probably because the judge’s younger siblings (after the marriage broke up and the mother came back to the U.S. with the younger kids while the future judge went to university in the U.K.) went to the same high school as my friend at about the same time. [EDITED TO ADD: And the same friend of mine is facebook friends with the judge’s brother Philip whom I mentioned above. Also note that the Guardian obit of the father was indeed written by the judge.]

  59. I don’t know if Tutuola’s writing actually reflects what he spoke, or whether he spoke the Nigerian English of his time comfortably enough to be considered fluent in it. I recall that some expressions sounded to me very obsolete-bookish.

    (I wish there was a term for the state of knowing a language effortlessly. “Thinking in language X” is one common metaphor, or contrarily, “speaking in X without thinking about it”. I myself think of “swimming in X”.)

  60. Sorry for writing this banal comment, but I think it should be said in this discussion. Judging Tutuola’s work on different principles than that of other English writers seems wrong (maybe condescending). As was mentioned, plenty of writers used something different from the Standard Written Idiom (I should find another big word starting with N and then append “English” to make an acronym) for various reasons and there is no need to assume that the only reason for Tutuola writing the way he did is because it was his English. The reasons might be plenty, from the desire to entertain his readers with local color (and I would not condemn him for that), to the mentioned fact that it was (close to) his native way of speaking, to speech characterization of his protagonist, to the political aim to introduce a new variety of English to distinguish African writing from other types of writing. Whatever were his reasons, he is entitled to them and as any product of art it has to be judged on its own merits. A reader has no right to tell the author how to write and an author doesn’t have a right to tell a reader what to read. Everyone will be happier this way.

  61. NB that “Nigerian English” is potentially ambiguous as between what is sometimes called “Nigerian Standard English,” viz. a regional variety of standard English with some distinctive phonology and loanwords/calques, on the one hand, and the local English-lexifier creole (variously called Naija, Nigerian Pidgin, or Broken), on the other. These are quite different, although obviously lots of Nigerians can and do code-switch between them. The BBC has a website delivering news written in the latter, which is fascinating to read. Example current headlines: “Wetin Russian annexation announcement mean for Ukraine and di rest of di world” and “PDP explain afta claims say dem give bribe to members.”

  62. @D.O.

    for my part, one of the things i love in tutuola’s work is precisely that his choices as a writer are not the ones i dislike in most “literary fiction” (which at this point is, functionally, a brand name for writing in High University Anglic by people with MFAs in ‘creative writing’). everyone writing english fiction could write in ways that actively reflect the spoken languages around them. tutuola does, and while i’d find it interesting to know something about the relationship between his written english and his own spoken languages, that’s not what drives my appreciation of his writing. by contrast, what “literary fiction” generally means is an absolute refusal to do so, except when it can be clearly marked as Exotic – as we can see by the bizarrely overblown responses to novelists who let spoken englishes into their work in more extensive ways, even just in dialogue (the first to come to my mind were jonathan safran foer and ernesto quiñonez).

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination.

    It ain’t necessarily so. Thank God. Indeed the exact opposite is also possible. Experto crede.

    Tutuola is not in any way ungrammatical

    At all, as Ghanaians say (calquing the Twi koraa.)
    Someone should write a thesis on “the grammar of The Palm Wine Drinkard.”

  64. that would surely make the judge “African American”, this being current Americanese for “black.

    The “American” in “African-American” typically just means “currently residing in the U.S.” [….] The “African” in “African-American” typically refers to racial ancestry and not to place of birth

    Well, people differ. To me, African American refers to a specific ethnic group: the descendants of people held in slavery in what is now the U.S. plus those (e.g. from the Caribbean and some American whites) who joined them over time. My grandson’s father is African American. When I asked him if he thought Obama (who was then only beginning to become nationally known) was African American, he replied no, even though his father was an African and he was born on American soil. Perhaps Obama is one now, by adoption; he’s certainly tried hard to become so.

    And why Aramaic? those people don’t amount to anything …

    Per contra. “My father was a homeless/wandering/fugitive Aramean, who went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien with a few others, until he became a great, mighty, and populous nation” (Deut. 26:5). But then again, in the Passover Haggadah, by a mere change of vowels, the first clause becomes “An Aramean destroyed my father”.

    Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English.

    Grrr. Words, my fellow Hattics, cannot express the depth of my feelings in this matter, as Augustus said when he couldn’t think of what to say next. Violence = fists, not words.

  65. January First-of-May says

    Perhaps Obama is one now, by adoption; he’s certainly tried hard to become so.

    It turns out that the maternal (white American) side of Obama’s ancestry apparently did include one (and AFAIK apparently just the one, as far as genealogists can tell) person held in slavery in what is now the US – namely the first, John Punch, who is a probable 13th-generation ancestor of Barack Obama II.

    Of course one ancestor 13 generations back (a roughly 0.012% fraction) would probably not be enough to establish any kind of ethnic identity by anything but the most literal versions of the one-drop rule.

  66. Ethnic identity is determined by members of the group and by outsiders. Obama AFAIK was considered AA by most black Americans, as well as by those who hate them.

  67. John Cowan says

    as well as by those who hate them

    That only counts sometimes. Yes, the Law of Return mirrors the Nuremberg laws: Jewish enough to be persecuted by the Nazis = Jewish enough to become an Israeli citizen immediately. But the man who murdered Balbir Singh Sodi four days after 9/11 did not get to define him as either Muslim or Arab.

  68. Of course the two don’t always match, but in Obama’s case they do.

  69. Taban Lo Liyong does say ‘no “grammar”‘, but then he says ‘his “grammar'”…

    We accept it, forget that it has no “grammar”, and go ahead to learn his “grammar” and what he has to tell us

    I suspect ‘no grammar’ are just words he’s putting into his opponents’ mouth (or as actrually heard from them) in the meaning ‘not the grammar that you expected’.

  70. J.W. Brewer says

    No one outside the U.S. should think that John Cowan’s oft-idiosyncratic worldview is a reliable guide to matters American or the perspective of a median or modal American. It is true that there is an increasing-if-controversial desire in some quarters to conceptually subdivide the U.S. black population into the descendants of those who were here before 1865 and more recent immigrants and their descendants (although of course the two groups have been known to intermarry …), but there is absolutely no consensus thus far on how to label either such group, although various internet-activist types of course have a variety of proposals and perhaps one day a consensus will emerge. Trying to take a label usually thought at present to cover both groups and insisting it really only applies to one seems IMHO unlikely to work as well as a matched pair of neologisms would. Separately, community perceptions of, and attitudes toward, Pres. Obama evolved over time. The one time he ever ran against a black candidate in an election with a majority-black electorate, he lost by a substantial margin, no doubt in part because of perceptions that he was “less black” (or less “authentically” so) than the winner – Congressman Bobby Rush (retiring this year after 30 years in office), who had been a goshdarn Panther back in the day, but as it became clearer that he might actually be a winner nationwide the desire to retcon him as a member in good standing of the community became overwhelming. (There are no doubt plenty of other examples of public figures whose membership in a particular ethnic group was sort of marginal – they get embraced if they do something good and high-profile; they get disavowed if they do something bad and high-profile.)

    Separately, it is increasingly common in various sorts of U.S. bureaucratic paperwork requiring a racial self-identification to have a “multi-racial” or “check all boxes that apply” option, which with the quite significant increase in children whose parents do not both fit into the same box per the U.S. schema of racial classification will probably have a variety of consequences linguistic and otherwise in another few decades.

  71. John Cowan says

    No one outside the U.S. should think that John Cowan’s oft-idiosyncratic worldview is a reliable guide to matters American or the perspective of a median or modal American.

    Or indeed a guide to anything else, but dammit I did say that people differ, by which I meant that their opinions differ. Though I was glad to see that the views of my former sin-in-law [sic], someone effectively uninfluenced by me, agreed with mine. I do not, of course, believe that anyone knows what the median/modal American believes, any more than I believe that the claim “most AAs think Obama is one” is grounded on anything that a even a sociologist[*] would call evidence.

    [*] “What’s a good euphemism for sociology?” [***]

    [**] “You think that’s ‘probable’, do you? Would you care to give a numerical estimate of its probability?” [***]

    [***] Authors forgotten, by me, that is.[****]

    [****] If I sound grouchy, it is because I am suffering from toothache. This has been going on for a few weeks now, though I will finally after much medico-financial fumfaing[*****] have my tooth pulled on Monday.

    [*****] The practice of saying “fumfa-fumfa-fumfa” or noises to that effect when one cannot think what would be acceptable to say. Not as articulate as the Emperor Augustus, to be sure.

  72. Better known as fumfering.

  73. John Cowan says

    Well, I heard it said by a non-rhotic New Yorker.

  74. J.W. Brewer says

    Certainly people differ and opinions differ, but the semantic scope of a common and frequently-used AmEng word is not a matter of opinion, but an empirical question of social convention. Now, one may dislike for any number of personal reasons the common meaning of a word and think it is used in a confusingly overbroad way. That’s an opinion. The polite thing to do in such an instance is IMHO to use synonyms (English is a pretty synonym-rich language) to avoid uttering the usage you personally dislike while refraining from criticizing or contradicting others who use the broader-scope usage you dislike.

    A bunch of perhaps-overthinking-it Harvard students have recently come up with “Generational African American” (with credit for the coinage going to one of them’s grandfather) to mean the specific ethnic thing that Barack Obama (among others) is not, and while that strikes me as clunky and odd-sounding I do think the students correctly assessed that just saying “actually, ‘African-American’ just means us and it doesn’t mean you, at least when we say it” would not be a successful strategy. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/10/15/gaasa-scrut/

  75. I had not heard of Amos Tutuola before reading this thread, but the excerpt drasvi posted from the opening of The Palm-Wine Drinkard made it clear that this was a book I had to read right away. Well, I’ve finished it now, and I’m reporting back to say: man, what a book!

  76. John Cowan says

    [******] I still have the damn tooth, dammit. Until the middle of next month.

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