Thoughts on constructed languages, interlanguages, and sankɔfa

My interest in constructed languages has been related to two queries. 1) Might we utilize a constructed language based off of African-languages to optimize language learning? 2) Can we use a mutually intelligible constructed language for intercommunication within the African world?

With respect to the first query, Afrihili or Guosa may be an examples of this. Though you have a great deal of advocacy for learning African languages in the US, few actually attain a high level of fluency. Part of the reason for this is the complexity of living languages.

My primary African language, Swahili, is a beautiful language, but none could claim that it is a grammatically simple language with its noun class system, affixes, and nature of agreement between nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In contrast, my third African language (of which I am still a rudimentary speaker), Twi, is one where I feel somewhat comfortable with grammar, but do have some difficulty with vowels, particularly tonal variation–a feature absent in the colonial language that I speak primarily.

If we look at the research pertaining to other constructed languages, particularly Esperanto, the time frames for acquisition are comparatively short. Attobrah’s creation of Afrihili, though imperfect, is an interesting model, one that could be augmented to optimize learnability.

However Dr. Edward Powe has stated that constructed languages have no natural base from which to spread. These languages spread from a speech community whose activities–economic, political, migratory–impact its diffusion. Consider the diffusion of Swahili, Twi, Hausa, or Wolof.

There is also the problem of constructed languages not fulfilling the desire present within many African Diasporan language learnings, that is connecting to specific African cultural communities–often to whom one has ancestry.

My interest in Swahili was informed by its role in Pan-African & Black Nationalist movements. My study of mdw nTr was related to it being a repository of ancient African deep thought. I learned Twi because I wanted to learn a language from West Africa, one to which I may have had an ancestral connection. This desire has also pertained to other languages of groups to which, based on my studies, I possess genetic ancestry. Thus for all of the reasons stated, I consider the prospect of constructed languages satisfying the desire for sankɔfa among African people to be exceedingly limited.

Therefore, I consider the second query to be fundamentally different. That is, “Can we use a mutually intelligible constructed language for intercommunication within the African world?” This question was quite interesting to me for a while, particularly with respect to the possibility of such a language facilitating communication among Africans who speak the colonial languages: Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

To this end, I was intrigued by both Interlingua and Lingua Franca Nova. However of late I have become much more interested in Papiamentu, given that it has many of the things that I like about the latter, with some degree of intelligibility for Spanish and Portuguese speakers. I wondered if, such a language could be used as a textual medium, one enabling us to communicate in literary form with other segments of the African world.

I am reminded of Ama Mazama’s translations of some African-centered works into French as being demonstrative of a need for deeper and broader engagement with communities fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The idea is that by using some interlanguage, one might find a much simplified means of communication short of learning what would otherwise be a complex language. Again, this was a consideration born of practicality, whereas ideally we would be centered in using African languages, most logically Swahili for such a task. But again, the issue of learnability must be addressed.

I do not consider learnability to be an insurmountable challenge. I look at what Native Hawaiians have done to revive their language. They have created a network of schools to create primary speakers of their ancestral tongue. Similarly, I think that we have to consider building supplementary schools focused explicitly on this problem–after-school programs, Saturday schools, rites-of-passage programs, study/conversation groups, and so forth including independent African-centered schools. My point is that if we are serious about solving the language problem, the solution will have to be institutionally-based.

On investing in Africa and “uneven development”

I recently watched a video where a financial expert offered advice for diasporan Africans seeking to invest in Africa. She highlighted two areas of particular concern to the state and commercial interests: agribusiness and real estate. The agribusiness discussion touched on some things by which I was both surprised and unsurprised. One surprising element is the growing global demand for Ghanaian pineapples. According to my wife, they are quite good. It would appear that many folks in Eurasia agree.

With regards to real estate there’s great interest for housing developments for the cosmopolite elite. Apparently, though there is a great need for housing for the poor and laboring masses, it simply isn’t as lucrative to house them as the petty bourgeoisie. No surprises there. This is the same model that prevails in the hyper-developed west.

Ghana reflects something a bit different from what Walter Rodney postulated (underdevelopment), which I call “uneven development”. This is the pattern that enables the educated elite to enjoy all of the conveniences and privileges that the 21st century offers, while others live a century or more removed from such opulence. You can see this first hand when you go to Accra, two centuries side-by-side. Its very interesting.

Of course my reason in posting this is not simply to critique the inevitable social malformations that capitalism produces, but to highlight the emergent economic forms of the global south where increasingly the diaspora is returning home, armed with cultural and commercial capital, and building edifices to the vapid western model of development.

Yes we should invest in African economies (both on the continent and in the diaspora), but I fear that if we do so absent a vision of economic development that produces Anderson Thompson’s African Principles, that is “the greatest good for the greatest number”, then we are simply playing a game of hegemonic musical chairs–where we take the place of the west as the lords of Black misery. We have to be better than that.

Legitimacy, authenticity, and the African martial arts

I suspect that the debates regarding authenticity & African martial arts stem from the maafa and its assault on African culture in the U.S. The idea that only traditional African combat arts are authentic suggests that African American cultural production is somehow less African. To suggest that Africans in the U.S. lack this form of cultural agency is a specious notion to say the least.

Tradition expresses itself in two forms. First, it is expressed in cultural traditions that are contiguous through time. For now we’ll call these “contiguous traditions”, that is, traditions whose intergenerational transferral have been seamless. However there are also traditions that are reconstituted in a different time and place from their initial formulation. These “reclaimed traditions” are often characterized by broken lines of transmission. Yet while they may appear to die off, “reclaimed traditions” are informed by contexts, collective wills, and various forms of cultural memory that enables their reformulation.

The whm msw in ancient kmt, the founding of the Ashanti Federation, and Palmares could all be argued as examples of “reclaimed traditions”. The whm msw sought to restore kmt to its magnificence from the Old Kingdom. The founding of Ashanti initiated a period of expansion that echoes the glories of the great Ghana Empire. Palmares represents an effort to reconstitute African state formations in the midst of the Maafa. In each of these contexts people looked to their past for some indicator of what their future should be. Having identified an instructive historical paradigm, they sought to institutionalize that model in their present.

Despite the passage of time and the pain of spatial dislocations, traditions can be reclaimed. Africans in the U.S. in the 1950s-1970s created martial systems which were, in effect, attempts to reclaim a martial tradition thought long-suppressed by the Maafa. Once these “reclaimed traditions” were juxtaposed with “contiguous traditions” these claims of inauthenticity gained expression. However I argue that to cede the question of legitimacy only to “contiguous traditions” is to deny the Africanness of Africans in the U.S. It is to deny our own cultural agency, and suggests that U.S. born Africans have been both dispossessed of authentic cultural knowledge, and further, have been dispossessed of the capacity to reconstruct and reclaim that knowledge. Much of the work of many U.S. born Africans, from the 1950s to the present has involved an on-going effort best expressed by the Akan concept SankOfa–that is an attempt to reclaim that which has been lost. This process has produced many emergent traditions, both contiguous and reclaimed that convey what the African-Centered psychologists have called the African personality, and what others have called the African Worldview. This suggests that these two parallel traditional forms are not oppositional, in fact they may be complimentary, for in any society, contiguous and reclaimed traditions can coexist and contribute to the forward flow history.

With regards to African martial arts, I suspect that there is room for both these notable traditions. To respect the “reclaimed traditions” is to affirm the legitimacy and dignity of our struggle for self-determination and those Africans who sought to craft dynamic solutions to this problem. Furthermore, to respect the “contiguous traditions” is to honor our esteemed ancestors and their struggle for self-determination, as they to sought to apply their martial knowledge in the service of African liberation. In both instances an African warrior tradition was invoked as a necessary element in our liberation struggle. The African maroons of Jamaica, the denizens of the dismal swamp, and the cultural nationalists of the Black Power Era were all drawn to a similar call, what the Akoto’s refer to as “an ancestral summons”, to recognize “the reality of war” and to steel their bodies and minds for struggle that lay ahead.