African Languages, Development and the State

By Richard Fardon; Graham Furniss | Go to book overview

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Introduction

Frontiers and boundaries—African languages as political environment

Richard Fardon and Graham Fumiss


MAKING LANGUAGE PROBLEMS APPEAR

That parts of Africa 1 have a food problem seems indisputable when people are starving. That there is an environmental problem seems equally clear from the evidence of once fertile land that can no longer support cultivation. But no such, apparently hard, evidence exists to underline the immediacy of the language problem’ believed also to be Africa’s lot. 2 When people have organized empires and trading diasporas over several millennia, adapted older languages and adopted new ones, contributed with distinction to world poetry, novels, drama, films, music and numerous academic disciplines, and continue to develop popular cultures with astonishing multilingual competence, it could not be more apparent that Africans are starved neither of words nor of the capacity to use them with skill and purpose. A language problem, to labour the obvious, has to be made to appear historically in relation to some deficit—specifically the deficit between what language (under some definition) should be ‘doing’ and what it is felt actually to be ‘doing’. A language problem’s solution is called forth by the desire to make good this deficit. This is not to suggest that problems of food supply or environmental degradation are simple, either in terms of their causation or solution, but in their starkest forms both are imagined as conditions of dearth. By contrast, Africa’s language problem, like its problem of ‘tribalism’, is imagined at the extreme as a condition of plenty. When Africa is not thought to suffer from undersupply, its fate is to suffer from oversupply; in short, Africa seems to be marked by dearth or glut, but never a just or appropriate measure, and both dearth and glut produce a ‘problem’. Africa is claimed to have too many languages (plenty), but none of them ‘do’ what they ought (dearth). But who has the right to make such judgements, relative to what, and what is to be done about it? What makes a ‘language problem’ appear? Perhaps the most pernicious aspect

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