Saturday, April 08, 2017

Epilanguages & sesquilingualism in Africa

A quick return to (English) terminology about languages in Africa. Earlier posts have considered why it is that a multilingual African is "bilingual" only if they speak two Europhone languages,1 and the mixed messages in using the term "local language" for any African language.2 Here I'll look briefly at two terms few have heard of and fewer ever use - epilanguage and sesquilingual. - and how they might fill out English vocabulary for understanding multilingualism in Africa.

Africa has hundreds or thousands of languages - the exact number depends on how you count them, since many fall in groups of more or less interintelligible languages - and many Africans are polyglots, or at least speak a little of several languages. But African multilingualism is complex beyond numbers - who speaks what, when, and where; what is changing in terms of which languages are used and how they are used; and of course the technological dimensions. Could these terms be used to help enrich linguistic analyses and language planning in Africa (and elsewhere)?


The term epilanguage is a recent one (the earliest uses I've found go back only 10-15 years), which seems to have two general meanings:
  • a language used above others for certain kinds of communication (an example being writing in Latin in Europe during the Middle Ages); and 
  • a deeper linguistic structure involved for instance in how we learn.
Although the meaning of the prefix "epi-" is similar to one of the meanings of "meta-," epilanguage is not a synonym for "metalanguage."3

When I first encountered this term in the first sense some years ago (in a CFP), one of my thoughts was that it seemed to describe the position of Europhone official languages in Africa. It's only recently, however, that I have come back to it to do some small research on its usage and meanings. My thought is still that in considering the rather unique roles of Europhone languages in Africa, a term like epilanguage is relevant, reflecting what can be described as their "overlay" on the African linguistic terrain. It also would facilitate discussing them in terms of function (in administration, or in academic and literary production, for instance) without reference to their origin or the roles assigned to them by language policies.


Citation of use of "sesquilingue" in 1570.4

To be sesquilingual means to speak or understand a second language only partially (the prefix "sesqui-" meaining one and a half). This phenomenon is common anywhere, but not something described often with this term, which is rarely used despite apparently being quite old.

Sesquilingualism can be on the individual or collective level. It may be the result of contact or formal learning, or be inherent to languages being closely related.

Linguist R. David Zorc distinguished these two situations in a context where formal second language learning was not involved (this was in a contribution to evaluating mutual intelligibility of certain languages of the Philippines).5 I interpret them as follows:
  • A person may understand a language from frequent exposure, having thus learned it to some level short of being able to speak it fully
  • All members of two language communities are able to understand each other's languages, even without fully speaking them (their sesquilingualism is a result of the languages being mutually intelligible)
There are also of course situations common in Africa where school leavers have only a partial command of the school language (generally Europhone, and unrelated to African first languages), and conversely cases where students may get more of the Europhone language in school and at home but little or no depth in their mother tongue (observed among some urban elites).

The ability to understand a language without being able to speak it has also been described as "passive bilingualism" or "receptive bilingualism" (among other labels; see the long thread following a question I posed on the Code-Switching Forum in 2007). This however would be only one part of the range of situations covered by "sesquilingualism."

Within the broadly acknowledged multilingual nature of most African societies, there would seem therefore to be various possible sesquilingualisms, collectively representing a factor that might be important for understanding the quality of communication and learning in various contexts. Have we been missing something, or is this not a significant issue?

Concluding thoughts

The two concepts - epilanguage and sesquilingualism - can be used together, of course, per the example given above of school leavers.

The two terms have clear cognates in French, Portuguese, and other European languages. Another question for another time would be how to speak of these two concepts, as well as other linguistic terms, in African languages.

1. What does "bilingualism" mean in multilingual Africa? (26 Nov. 2013)
2. The problem with calling some languages "local" (3 Sep. 2014)
3. Although I understand from Coleman Donaldson that "epilinguistic" (or its French cognate) in French anthropological linguistics is the equivalent to "metalinguistic" in Anglophone academia.
4. J.F. Ossinger, 1768. Bibliotheca Augustiniana, historica, critica, et chronologica, Universitatis Bibliopolæ. p. 179.
5. R. David Zorc, 1986, "Some Historical Linguistic Contributions to Sociolinguistics," in P. Geraghty, et al, eds., FOCAL I: Papers from the Fourth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics, 341-355. Pacific Linguistics, C-93.

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