On Pan-African Languages

In this discussion, Dr. Souleymane Bachir Diagne advocates for multiple Pan-African languages. While he includes the colonial languages along with Swahili in his formulation, he also suggests Manding and Fula.

His recommendation of Manding, which I would broaden to include the Mandé languages generally, is a logical one. These languages possess a high degree of mutual intelligibility.

His recommendation of Fula surprised me, though perhaps it should not have. When I was in grad school, a colleague of mine, Rama who was from Senegal, told me that she considered Fula to be an ideal candidate as a Pan-African language. Consider that it is enjoys a wide geographic dispersion (see the map below).


I consider Dr. Diagne’s suggestion that the colonial languages are acceptable vehicles of Pan-Africanism problematic for reasons that may be obvious. If they are not, you can read my thoughts on this here: http://libjournals.unca.edu/moja/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/MOJA21-v2i1-Rashid.pdf. I do accept that such languages are a part of our social milieu, however I also recognize that the impacts of languages extend beyond their utility and includes the political, economic, and conceptual. I contend that we leave the fetters of colonialism on our social systems and our minds by remaining wedded to these languages.

These criticisms notwithstanding, it is a worthwhile dialog.

Pan-African Forums – The Question of Language (23 Feb 2021) https://youtu.be/_BdKKOxYkdQ

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.

Languages and revolution

One of the most interesting aspects of the revitalization of African languages among African Americans has been that these languages have been used as vehicles of revolutionary political, economic, and cultural discourse prior to having become institutionalized as daily means of mundane communication. Examples abound, such as ujamaa, sankɔfa, aṣe (axe in Brazil), Htp (Hotep), asante, abibifahodie, mAat (Maat), kujichagulia, and so forth. While these terms have entered the African American lexicon, they have become islands of African cultural practice in that most often we lack even a rudimentary fluency in the languages in question.

While our use of African terminology (including greetings and the like) is a very positive development, we must go the necessary step further of institutionalizing these languages as tools of daily communication. Of the languages featured above (Kiswahili, Twi, Yoruba, and mdw nTr (Medu Netcher), Kiswahili’s existing status as an international language make it the most attractive as a Pan-African language; Twi and Yoruba (to say nothing of Igbo, Kikongo, Wolof, and so forth) are important as languages which facilitate cultural (re)connection or re-Africanization given the West and West-central African origins of most African Americans; and mdw nTr is best positioned to serve as our classical African language, providing an epistemological framework that will aid in the decolonization of both ourselves as well as the language(s) that we adopt.

It should be clarified that I am not arguing that these languages are destinations unto themselves, rather that they are vehicles that might facilitate our movement from where we presently are towards where we desire to be. As such, the movement beyond our present use of African languages towards greater fluency may facilitate a range of unanticipated developments. The Maori of New Zealand have found that the revitalization of their language has led to a renewed interest in their indigenous technologies among other things. We might “discover” models of governance that aid us in our organizational work and professional lives. We might reclaim models of economic organization wherein women controlled major sectors of economic activity as a means of ensuring their self-determination–which helps in the larger ujamaa project that we are engaged in. We might acquire paradigms of marriage that are beyond the relatively superficial bases that are normalized in the West, which often leads to the formation of unstable family units. We might put into practice methods of struggle that augments the depth of our vision and refines the intelligence of our methods. We might devise new ways of understanding ourselves, our community, and our movement through time and space. In short, the serious study of African languages could be nothing less than revolutionary.

Africans in America and the decolonization of language

I watched the PBS documentary Language Matters last night and was particularly struck by the efforts of native Hawaiians to preserve their language. They believed that without their languages, they would cease to exist as a distinct people.

While we have been stripped of our ancestral tongues, we, like any other people require a language that affirms our culture and our humanity. A language reinforces a sense of identity, a sense of tradition, even a sense of political destiny–this is why languages are such a prominent part of many nationalist movements around the world. Language revitalization has been a prominent feature of the efforts of many groups engaged in campaigns of self-determination such as the Basque (France and Spain), Maori (New Zealand), Welsh (UK), and so on. Language becomes a way of not only marking group identity, but of reinforcing the notion that a people has a shared history and destiny distinct from other cultural groups.

While Africa is home to more language diversity than any other place on Earth, and our ancestors doubtlessly spoke a myriad of languages, most African languages are more or less ethnic languages–that is the language of a single group. The exception to this are languages that have become diffused as the second language of a wider population. Some languages have become “lingua francas” within a single territory. Asante Twi and Wolof are examples of ethnic languages that have become diffused in their respective territories, Ghana and Senegal respectively.

Kiswahili and Hausa on the other hand have become diffused internationally, as each is spoken across territories and ethnic groups. Hausa speakers can be found in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Chad, and Burkina Faso. According to Ethnologue, approximately fifteen million of Hausa’s over forty million speakers speak it as a second language

As the official language of Tanzania and Kenya, and as a second language in parts of Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, and elsewhere Kiswahili is perhaps the most effective example of an African language that has become more or less ethnically neutral as the vast majority of its speakers use it as a second language (approximately eighty million of its estimated ninety eight million speakers according to Ethnologue). Moreover, its adoption by many speakers (or aspiring speakers) in the African diaspora, and its common association with  Pan-Africanism adds a degree of conceptual or ideological import to Kiswahili that is absent in the broader perceptions of other African tongues. For instance, its association with various African liberation movements as reflected in common slogans such as “Uhuru sasa” (Freedom now), “Tutashinda bila shaka” (We will conquer without a doubt), “Elimu kwa kujitegemea” (Education for self-reliance), and terms such as kujichagulia (self-determination), imani (faith), ujamaa (familyhood), umoja (one-ness or unity) and so forth all capture the degree to which Kiswahili has been embraced as a language of liberation.

For these reasons and perhaps others, Kiswahili is perhaps best positioned to serve as a primary African language in the diaspora. It is not to say that other languages should not be studied. They should. The growing proliferation of Yoruba and Akan among diasporan Africans is both encouraging and interesting, so too the study of mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt. Yet despite this, Kiswahili’s broad diffusion, diversity of learning resources, development as a suitable tool for technical communication, ability to express ideas that are philosophically and conceptually germane to African cultures and communities, and relative neutrality make it a very attractive and viable candidate as the primary African language of the diaspora, in addition to being an auxiliary language for the African continent itself.

One feature of the film Language Matters was the strategy adopted by native Hawaiians to diffuse their language in the 1960s and 70s. They focused on educating small children to speak native Hawaiian. Linda Tuhiwai Smith has discussed a similar initiative among the Maori that centered on children as language learners given their facility for language acquisition. I believe that such a strategy is highly instructive for Africans in America that are desirous of seeing an African language such as Kiswahili becoming more widespread. While the Black Power era saw the diffusion of Kiswahili among Africans in America, the depth of this diffusion has been mostly limited to single terms and phrases. Thus it is not uncommon for someone to have knowledge of greetings such as “Habari gani?” (What’s the news?) or “Hujambo?” (How are you?), or to use statements of affirmation or negation such “ndiyo” (yes), “hapana” or “la” (no), or even “sijui” (I don’t know), to refer to familial roles such as baba (father), mama (mother), kaka (brother), or dada (sister), or to refer to concepts using the language such as the “Nguzo Saba” (the “Seven Principles”, as created by Dr. Maulana Karenga), “asili” (“essence” or “seed” as popularized by Dr. Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu), and so forth. What has been lacking has been an effective diffusion of knowledge sufficient to promote greater fluency in the language.

The movement from rudimentary linguistic knowledge to greater fluency begins with the requisite will and desire, and continues with the formation of a suitable institute devised to carry forth this charge on as broad a scale as possible. Such an institute can then coordinate the development of a body of highly-trained individuals who have attained a high degree of fluency in the language, the development of curricula for different age groups in the community, and the creation of an educational infrastructure in the form of classes and institutes. From this nucleus can also spring forth literature and other media designed to aid language learning. While the first item requires a substantial investment of time and effort, the second requires an understanding of effective language learning strategies for children and adults. The third necessitates a range of resources, both technical and spatial enabling knowledge to be diffused. For instance, the use of the internet as a vehicle of language learning cannot be understated. Dr. Obadele Kambon’s Abibitumikasa has become the premier African language learning institute with courses in Asante Twi, mdw nTr, Wolof, Yoruba, Kiswahili, and other languages. This resource and others should be effectively utilized. In the Chicago-area groups such as The Swahili Institute of Chicago , the Kemetic Institute of Chicago, and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations Midwest Region are fine examples of what grassroots language institutes can aspire to accomplish (the latter two promote the learning of mdw nTr). Each of these organizations has also developed teaching and learning materials.

In closing, the diffusion of African languages in the Americas in fact is an act of cultural reclamation, a decolonization of the language of those whose estrangement from their ancestral homeland has made the quest for linguistic empowerment all the more fervent. The last fifty years illustrate the degree to which African languages have served the ends of spiritual enlightenment, scholarly inquiry, political education, and casual discourse. This process, despite its uneven outcomes to date, has been one that remains pregnant with possibility as it offers a path towards a potential decolonization of the African mind, a simpler means towards international communication within the global African community, and a mechanism to engage more fully with the deep thought of African culture as these are conveyed by language. As such language is a vital component in the process of Re-Africanization, but its effective utilization towards such an end can only be maximized via a greater degree of organization than what has yet transpired.

To this end, the creation of a Taasisi ya Kiswahili kwa Waafrika Merikani or a Swahili Institute for Africans in America will be a necessary step in this process. This must be followed by the creation of a scholarship fund and institutional connections to facilitate the training of a first generation of instructors. The third stage will be the creation of a body of instructional resources followed by the establishment of a network of instructional vehicles in the form of Saturday schools, after-school programs, rites-of-passage programs, and other mechanisms to teach primarily children, in addition to adults. This fourth stage should occur parallel to the fifth, which is the diffusion of literature (i.e., comics, fashion magazines, political education materials, scientific articles, art publications, news organs, and so on in the language so as to utilize it as a conduit of information. These steps are, I maintain, a process that can lead to both the institutionalization of Kiswahili (or any other African language) in the African diasporan community and its diffusion over the span of time.

Esperanto, la universala Afrika lingvo? Esperanto, the universal African language?

Cxi ne estas malbona ideo, sed gxin havas iu limigoj. This is not a bad idea, but it has some limitations.

The good part is that Esperanto would be easier to learn. While English, French, and other European languages are official languages in many African countries, many people cannot speak them properly. In some ways the European languages, the colonial lingua francas, have remained the languages of the cosmopolite elite as they are generally the ones who have been afforded the opportunities to learn them. Moreover with the curricular changes in some countries to primary school instruction being in local languages primarily (say in Ghana and Tanzania), English and French will become even more imperiled as languages used fully among the masses.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. By that I mean that the decline of the old colonial languages, while dysfunctional in the sense that it removes a common medium of communication, also allows for that role to be supplanted by other languages. In some places this transition is taking place organically. Take the spread of Asante Twi in Ghana as it is quickly becoming the defacto lingua franca of that country. Swahili is also slowly spreading into central Africa and north and south beyond the bounds of Kenya and Tanzania. Again these are promising developments as English (or French) were insufficient as organic mediums of communication in many respects.

This question of organicity is in fact the challenge of Esperanto. Esperanto does not necessarily have an organic base from which it can naturally spread. There are some groups in Africa who are teaching the language. On Facebook recently I was intrigued to see an Esperanto-Swahili dictionary, but the language lacks a foothold. This is something that can only be mediated by institutions or a living and thriving speech community.

I think that Swahili is a stronger contender for an indigenous language that might become a continental language, and in some ways this would be better. While no one owns Esperanto, it is still a European-derived language, and its advance in Africa does little to satisfy the decades old challenge of “modernizing” African languages as tools of creative and intellectual production (read Ayi Kwei Armah’s “Our Language Problem”). The fact that creative writers, legislators, and scientists still rely on Western languages to capture and communicate their knowledge would not be solved by the adoption of Esperanto. They would simply move their dependence from one European language to another (albeit an artificial one), while failing to facilitate this necessary development in their indigenous languages. I would consider such an outcome to be a profound waste of potential.

Language and sovereignty

The acquisition of sovereignty is not simply a political process, in fact the actualization of statehood is one of the later stages of this arc of national development. One might argue that it begins more squarely in the minds of the people, in their conscious recognition of their right to be independent, to be the arbiters of their collective affairs. Part of the social psychology of nationalist struggle is embedded in the language that the people employ to express their aspirations for freedom.

Martin Delany, in his book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States,

In our own country, the United States, there are three million five hundred thousand slaves; and we, the nominally free colored people, are six hundred thousand in number; estimating one-sixth to be men, we have one hundred thousand able bodied freemen, which will make a powerful auxiliary in any country to which we may become adopted—an ally not to be despised by any power on earth. We love our country, dearly love her, but she don’t love us—she despises us, and bids us begone, driving us from her embraces; but we shall not go where she desires us; but when we do go, whatever love we have for her, we shall love the country none the less that receives us as her adopted children.

Delany establishes three major points in this passage. First is that we, African people in the U.S., are powerful force, one that is capable of contributing favorably to any society. Second is that we are loathed by that same society. That this loathing denies us comfort sufficient with equating this society with the intimacy and warmth that we associate with home. Third he advocates that we find a home, that we chart a future for ourselves free of the fetters of degradation.

Central to Delany’s advocacy for independence is the use of language as a way of demarcating the social milieu wherein such struggle is to waged. In so doing he articulates a very specific image of African Americans: A powerful collective, persecuted, yet aspiring towards a sovereign reality.

The second stage in the arc of national development is the formation of social movements for the acquisition of sovereignty. Two historical examples that illustrate this are the tradition of maroonage during the era of enslavement and the movement for the establishment of independent cities and towns in the immediate aftermath of enslavement’s supposed abolition. In each of these contexts the people, in word and deed, affirmed their right to be free. These actions were an outward manifestation of an underlying belief in the legitimacy of independence and the viability of sovereignty as a response to the oppressive state apparatus of U.S. society.

The maroon tradition is indicative of the unwillingness of Africans to acquiesce to European dominance. One apt example of this comes from the account of a maroon named Mango from Virginia. They state.

I escaped my master’s plantation. It was so easy. I tried to convince my close friends to leave with me. Only three did so […] To keep the remaining slaves in check, master told the slaves we were ruthless, unchristian and not to be trusted.

When we raided plantations, the slaves ran from us faster than the whites. We have twenty-seven men and twenty-eight women now. At one time we had as many as forty-eight men and thirty women before their deaths. We have lost only four men during raids and on the many plantations we have raided, we could only get six slaves to run with us. And they were all women. The whites will never catch us…

Mango expresses little ambiguity about the legitimacy of struggle against an oppressive system, of divesting that system of the human fuel that powers it. Mango’s account is simultaneously critical of the state apparatus and the mass of Europeans invested in its survival, as well as instructive of what is perceived to be the most practical response—independence and sovereignty.

Though the maroon movement is typically considered only a feature of the era of enslavement, the response of our people to continued oppression after enslavement’s supposed end reflects certain affinities with the maroons’ view. On April 17, 1880 Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, leader of the movement of Blacks to the western United States, was called to testify before Congress. When asked why he set out to establish this movement he stated:

Well, my people, for the want of land–we needed land for our children–and their disadvantages–that caused my heart to grieve and sorrow; pity for my race, sir, that was coming down, instead of going up–that caused me to go to work for them. I sent out there perhaps in ’66–perhaps so; or in ’65, any way–my memory don’t recollect which; and they brought back tolerable favorable reports; then I jacked up three or four hundred, and went into Southern Kansas, and found it was a good country, and I though Southern Kansas was congenial to our nature, sir; and I formed a colony there, and bought about a thousand acres of ground–the colony did–my people.

Here Singleton acknowledges the malaise of African people–incessant dehumanization and degradation. However he also articulates his view of the importance of land, that which Malcolm X said was the “basis of all independence”, and thus seeks to establish a land base for African people. Singleton stops short of waging war against the system set against African people (as advocated by the maroons), nor does he call for national independence (as does Delany), what he does however is to demonstrate the necessity and intelligence of creating the institutional framework requisite of any sovereign people.

Both of these accounts evidence the use of language in significant ways. Mango’s account exposes the oppressor as fallible and vulnerable in the face of opposition. He also demarcates the political sensibilities of the African masses as those who are willing to confront the enemy and those lacking in this resolve. He closes with a defiant assertion, “The whites will never catch us”, in effect stating that they will not be stopped. Likewise Singleton begins by framing the necessity of his actions in terms of futurity—“our children” and the absence of viable possibilities for their lives being a source of grief and sorrow. He also reveals that the Exoduster movement was not simply the effort of a charismatic, heroic individual, but a collective effort as he notes having received favorable reports from his agents of the suitability of Kansas for his people.

The third and fourth stages in the arc of national development are the creation of a sovereign state and the defense of that state from contrary forces. These are reflected in the Republic of New Africa’s New African Creed. For the sake of this discussion points 5, 6, and 8 are most relevant. These state:

5. I believe that the fundamental reason our oppression continues is that We, as a people, lack the power to control our lives.

6. I believe that the fundamental way to gain that power, and end oppression, is to build a sovereign Black nation.

8. I believe in the Malcolm X Doctrine; that We must organize upon this land and hold a plebiscite, to tell the world by a vote that We are free and our land independent and that after the vote, We must stand ready to defend ourselves, establishing the nation beyond contradiction.

These stages of struggle are interlinked. The realization of sovereignty necessitates a disruption of the existing apparatus of anti-African oppression, and as such represents a threat to the continued functioning of that system. Like Mango noted centuries ago, to deprive the existing system of African people—our labor, wealth, and our minds– is to deny it the fuel that drives it and enables our oppression. Thus the RNA clearly recognized that the most effective response to oppression is sovereignty, and that our efforts to attain sovereignty would not go uncontested.

We continue to refine our understanding of struggle, and this is reflected in our language and tactics. From “Uhuru Sasa” (“Freedom Now” in Kiswahili) in the 1960s to Abibifahodie (“Black Liberation” in Twi) today, language continues to be a contested domain, a frontier of struggle that reflects our efforts to define reality for ourselves. Ultimately language is more than a mere means of communication. It also becomes a way of demarcating space, reinforcing identity, and engaging in a process of symbol manipulation—that is the utilization of imagery for the sake of communicating certain ideas.

Language conveys layers of meaning, and these layers multiply as we move from colonial, to modern African, to classical African languages. The colonial languages are the existing frame via which we have sought to articulate much of our aspirations for freedom. These languages reflects the extent to which that struggle itself is embedded within the territorial context of European domination and the context of cultural penetration. The use of African languages within these struggles in the mid-20th Century represents both the contested nature of space—that we continued to reside in the spatial context of European domination, but that we had resolved to transform our culture to augment our capacity to resist it. These languages also symbolized a conscious process of re-Africanization, that is the reclamation of African culture in the wake European oppression. The growth of interest in the classical African language of 2nnamed001mdw nTr (Medew Netcher) in the late Twentieth Century represents an attempt to use language acquisition as a process to reconstruct and operationalize an African worldview as a prerequisite to both conceiving and actualizing a sovereign reality.

Language matters. It is not an idle consideration. Quite the contrary it reflects the cultural logics of liberatory struggle. Via the effective use of language we might at once identify the problem before us (the Maafa), articulate the most viable response, and convey the varied mechanisms through which this solution is implemented (such as kujitawala, a Kiswahili word which means self-governing or sovereignty). Language can be employed to tell us who we are, and by extension who we are not (such as the RNA’s “New African people”). Language can also capture the optimal condition to which we might aspire (such as Maat or mAat, which is, as Sebat Rkhty Amen states, “harmonious balance”). Language provides the conceptual canvas upon which our image of possibility is rendered.