Creating 'Union Ibo': Missionaries and Igbo Language

By Berselaar, Dmitri van den | Africa, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Creating 'Union Ibo': Missionaries and Igbo Language


Berselaar, Dmitri van den, Africa


Most of the earliest descriptions of African ethnic groups were produced by missionaries. They were often the first -- or among the first -- Europeans to visit African communities and, for many years, their information shaped the Westerners' perception (and that of many Africans) of Africa and its peoples (Stipe, 1980; Trouwborst, 1990: 33, 40). Missionaries produced what are still considered valuable and important documents of anthropological information (Mudimbe, 1988: 64-6; Trouwborst, 1990: 41). It took a while, however, before the public began to fully realise that the missionaries who wrote these descriptions (people who actually went to Africa in order to convert people, that is: to change them and their society) were never just observers, but were also themselves actors in the societies they portrayed (Leach, 1989: 41).

The impact of missionaries upon African societies did not stem solely from their efforts at change and conversion. It began in a far more subtle and far more basic way with the missionaries' `being there' and with the logistics of their daily living. Often missionaries also constituted a very real political and economic power. Even when they merely tried to describe the society, this act itself led to subtle changes. Nowadays it is generally accepted that missionaries helped to shape and create not only the `modern' African societies of today but also the `traditional' ones of yesterday. Research into the history of ethnicity in Africa has suggested that missionaries contributed to the creation of ethnic groups and languages even when they were only trying to describe ethnic groups and reduce their existing vernaculars into written languages. It has been argued that certain African ethnic groups owe their existence to the `invention' of their language by missionaries.

Here two examples from the literature are briefly presented to illustrate the chief mechanisms thought to be involved. The first in the case of the Luba in the Belgian Congo: Bogumil Jewsiewicki has described (1988) how what was originally an aggregate of migrants from varying regions acquired its own language and identity through the efforts of missionaries. The latter assumed that the different languages spoken were actually dialects of one language, and created a written standard Luba, which they used for education.

In the second example, that of the Manyika in Zimbabwe, missionaries did not create one language out of several. Instead they isolated one written language out of a larger area where people spoke different dialects of the same language. A number of these dialects were amalgamated into one language, while a sharp, and rather arbitrary, boundary was drawn which distinguished missionary chiManyika from the other dialects (Ranger, 1988). Similar processes have been described for other African languages such as Shona, Tsonga and Venda in southern Africa, and Yoruba in Nigeria.(1) Of course, Africa is not exceptional in this respect; the literary standards of many European languages are likewise based on a Bible translation in the vernacular (well known examples are Dutch, German and English).(2)

The available literature thus indicates a major role for Christian missionaries in the creation of languages (and ethnic groups) in Africa. Their role can be summarised as follows. First, missionaries created a written dialect -- based on one or more vernacular(s) -- into which they translated the Bible. Its creation led to the use of this language for education in mission schools and later also in government schools. The Bible dialect consequently became the accepted standard language of the ethnic group and acquired the function of one of its prime identity markers.

However, the development of a written dialect on the basis of a vernacular is itself not without problems. Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that the stage of the formulation of a language will always and automatically lead to the acceptance of that language, or that the language will consequently define an ethnic group. …

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