Friday, August 22, 2014

"Neighbor languages" in an African context

A recent edition of The Economist has an article on Scandinavian languages (especially Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian) entitled "Neighbour languages." Although the cultural context and the fact these languages are standardized and widely used in written form, make their situation different than what one would find in Africa, some of the discussion sounds like it could describe closely related languages like the several Manding languages in West Africa, for instance, or the Nguni languages of South Africa.

The term "neighbor language" is used in academic discussions of Scandinavian languages - note for example the description of the keynote by Prof. Arne Torp to the recent (July 2014) conference of the Association for Language Awareness - and apparently also in popular discourse about these languages in English (judging by a quick online search; I have no way of assessing usage in the languages themselves).

It is tempting to suggest wider use of this term in discussing the sociolinguistic situations and language policy and planning needs in Africa. The term "neighbor language" itself would be seem accessible to a wide range of people who are not specialized in linguistics or language issues - including development experts, who nevertheless may discuss "local language" issues where they work.

The problem however is another aspect of the sociolinguistic geography in West Africa that is very different than that of Scandinavia. The term "neighbor language" in Scandinavia, as Prof. Torp points out, is a reference to linguistic similarity rather than geographic proximity. But the latter makes the term's use more or less unambiguous in that region (despite some linguistic diversity there). In much of Africa, however, a group of linguistic "neighbor languages" may be geographically interspersed with other unrelated languages, such that one's geographic neighbors may speak as their first language, something not mutually intelligible. Speaking of a "neighbor language" in that context could be interpreted linguistically or geographically.

All of this has me wondering if some term analogous to"neighbor languages" might be helpful in framing discussions and planning relating to languages in Africa. We already have "cross-border languages" to describe the common situation where first languages or regional lingua francas are spoken in two or more countries, and this concept was used by the African Academy of Languages in constituting several "Vehicular Cross-Border Language Commissions" to consider issues like harmonization of orthographies across borders.

But there does not seem to be an easy term to use when discussing "linguistic neighbor languages" in Africa.

This is important in Africa because for instance efforts to develop educational materials in a language that has close "linguistic neighbors" may be undertaken in isolation from (if not ignorance of the existence of) those neighbors. This has hidden costs in missed opportunities for sharing and adapting information among related languages. A way to easily refer to and call attention to those "neighbors" might facilitate awareness and productive discussions in this regard.

In any event, "neighbor languages" is a phenomenon not unique to Scandinavia and Africa, of course, and there are useful lessons to share across regions in how to accommodate and take advantage of similarity of closely related languages.