Thursday, July 09, 2015

Where has that word been all these years?

Recently had an interesting conversation in Philadelphia with Coleman Donaldson, who just completed his master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, writing his thesis on aspects of the history of N'Ko.* One anecdote he shared stuck with me - how a Manding speaker read a word written in N'Ko that brought tears to his eyes, as he'd last heard that from his mother when he was 15. There's a lot wrapped up in a reaction like that, but one question that has stayed with me is what happened to that word in all the years in between?

That is taking a certain liberty with the story, and it is certainly true that in any language and culture, someone may hear something infrequently used years apart and react to it strongly. But in a world where many unwritten and policy-neglected languages are contracting, the thought I had was that the spoken language alone may not keep the range of expression that it had been able to in earlier times. How many words are lost through lack of use in speech, lack of teaching, and not being written and read?

A humorous account of an exchange in Mali about the Bambara word for indigo-dyed cloth - galafini - and some tailors' ignorance of it is another case in point, but this is not an esoteric term or rare concept in the context it was discussed. I personally recall being surprised when in Niger to find a native Fulfulde speaker who knew only the locution neɗɗo mo yiyataa (person who can't see) for blind person, and not the word bumɗo in his language (derived from the root wum- etc.). I also remember when in Guinea in the mid-1980s hearing co-workers my age saying that their elders could hold a conversation in front of them in their common language (Pular) that they could not fully understand, due to terms and expressions used that they did not know.

So, what if the man in the anecdote (as I heard it) did not read that particular word in N'Ko and it had never been written down (except perhaps in an academic publication or two in shelved in university libraries in Europe and America)? And in that way, that that particular word and concept was lost to him, and became progressively forgotten in the speech community? Could it effectively be lost entirely?

Such loss of words - and hence range of expression - must have a cost to speakers of the affected languages and to their communities and societies at large. It arguably may not be too far from the Orwellian "Newspeak" in impact, though as a process not as a project.

How many efforts are there in Africa that successfully counter such language contraction, as N'Ko seems to be doing for Manding?

More on N'Ko

I have mentioned N'Ko on this blog previously, but here are three important aspects in addition to its being a script invented in 1949 by Souleymane Kanté in Guinea that are worth knowing:
  1. N'Ko is also a kind of "koiné," or emerging standard, of the Manding languages of several countries in West Africa, which is expressed in a growing number of publications. Manding is a subgroup of Mande languages that include several highly mutually intelligible languages, notably: Several varieties of Maninka and Mandinka, which Ethnologue groups as the Mandingo "macrolanguage"; Bambara; and Jula.
  2. Tone markings are integral to the system, not optional as in the Latin-based orthographies (where they are generally omitted except in dictionaries). This feature allows for distinctions not only between words with different tones, but also use of tones affecting meaning in phrases.
  3. N'Ko is also a movement, involving people volunteering time to teach others and distribute materials. From the point of view of someone who has worked in and studied community development, this is remarkable. (I personally first learned of this aspect of N'Ko in Bamako in 2000 on meeting one activist, Sounkalo Dembele, who was at the time making trips to various villages near the city on his own time to teach N'Ko classes.)
* "Colonial and Islamic Language Policy and the Birth of N'Ko in Postwar French West Africa," 2015


Coleman Donaldson said...

Nice post from our conversation, Don. Thanks!

One thing that I personally frame a different way is the idea of categorizing N'ko as an emerging koiné. It's not that N'ko is giving rise to a unique contact variety; it isn't replacing other varieties for instance. It is rather an emerging standard language "register" or model of use for certain kinds of behaviors (such as writing emails or articles for instance, but also giving speeches perhaps). This is an important concept from linguistic anthropology that I think can help standardization efforts move beyond certain debates about which "dialect" should be codified as standard etc.

Don said...

Thanks Coleman, I appreciate the feedback and clarification regarding N'Ko as an emerging standard rather than a koiné. I'd kind of conflated the two concepts, but also noted the latter used in the Wikipedia article on N'Ko.

The issue of standardization is an important one in Africa, where there are groups of languages that are mutually intelligible (completely or to a certain degree) but there is no common variety (such as standard Arabic amidst the range of colloquial Arabics). It is interesting that the N'Ko movement is attempting standardization from below, as it were, without any national or regional policy and resource support. Compare for example with Runyakitara in western Uganda.