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.

Being on the path: Meditations on Living and Re-Africanization

I am convinced that when we are on the path, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to be doing, we are consistently presented with reminders of the correctness of the direction in which we are moving. I received three such reminders in the last two days.

Reminder one: Today while working at my wife’s community training farm, a six year old boy asked me, “How do Africans fight?” I found his question intriguing, not only that he asked it of me, but that he posed this question at all. I am not entirely sure why he posed this question to me. Maybe he overheard me talking to his mother about teaching Capoeira at his school years ago, and understood what I was talking about. Maybe he presumed that as an African man I should know something about this. I did start to build on his existing knowledge base of Kiswahili, so maybe he figured that I might know something about fighting too. In any event, I deeply appreciated his question, a question that I did not think to pose until I was a young adult.

I told him that there are different ways that Africans have approached fighting and that I could show him some. I asked him if he wanted to know something related to kicking, punching, or stick-fighting. He said punching, so I showed him something. If he’s serious, I may teach him some basic elements of the arts whenever we see one another in-between farm work.

Reminder two: Similarly, a brother who attends my Capoeira class with his daughter told me that he intends for her to be a fighting arts practitioner, and wants for her focus to be specifically on Capoeira, given that it is an African art. I was intrigued by this. He has studied multiple arts, and sees Capoeira as not merely a matter of technical application, that is the process of fending off violent attackers, but also as a matter of affirming one’s cultural identity. In this way, Capoeira can be understood as a combat art that also embodies the kinesthetic dynamics of several African cultures, thus it is the embodiment of a distinctly African philosophy of movement. It also represents the sprit and tactics of African resistance in the Americas.

Reminder three: A brother who attended the mdw nTr conference in October told me that he had been so inspired, that he intended to teach his then unborn daughter mdw nTr. Today I saw him and his young daughter. He told me, consistent with his earlier statement, that he speaks to her in mdw nTr and proceeded to speak do so. I also spoke to her in mdw nTr. My wife claims that she perked up when she heard the mdw nTr, but I can’t confirm this.

That this would happen the day after African Languages Day was most inspiring for me. While I do study African languages regularly, I have struggled to find time to study of late. However, yesterday my studies were inspired. While riding the train I read about and practiced (silently) two African languages. African Languages Day gave me the opportunity to affirm something that I know I am capable of, using our languages on a regular basis to communicate complex ideas. To my understanding, the greatest challenge that we face is one of transmission, that is of creating new speakers of these languages in our communities in the African Diaspora. Solving this problem is one to which I will continue to devote my time and energy, as we cannot truly communicate about an African worldview if such a discourse is mediated in an alien language and from a culture characterized by fundamental alienation.

Our people once they know that they are an African people, they subsequently want and desire to ground themselves in African things, to understand their reality from the paradigms of their ancestors, to reclaim our languages, to practice our fighting arts, and to—in all areas of life—be African. This is more than just a matter of identity, but is one of solving the paradigmatic problem implicit in liberatory struggles—that is one of decolonzing the minds of the people as a means of enabling them to win the physical struggle which is for land, their lives, and the future.

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.