Tuesday, August 20, 2019

African languages as indigenous languages: Examples

In the previous post, "African languages as indigenous languages: Definitions," I looked at ways the term/concept "indigenous language" is defined and used (officially), and how those might apply in Africa.

This post will look at how "indigenous language," in one form or another, is used in various contexts relating to Africa. Also, since the context for this discussion is the ongoing International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), and the recent African Regional Meeting, I'll begin with discussions of African languages and IYIL2019.

African languages and indigenous languages in IYIL2019

At the beginning of the year, the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) conceived of IYIL2019 in this way:
"The IYIL2019 forms the perfect platform for SADiLaR to venture forward with awareness campaigns dedicated to the official languages of South Africa and their development."
— "2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages: Celebration of South African languages," SADiLaR (website; accessed 31 Jan. 2019)

Curiously, the way the above is phrased, it seems to leave out less-widely spoken languages of South Africa that are not among the 11 official languages.

An article on the proceedings of the African Regional Meeting on IYIL2019 includes numerous mentions of "indigenous languages," as one would expect. (None of the mentions seem to give an indication of what actually is included under this term.)
"Africa gathering celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019)," UNESCO, 5 Aug. 2019

An earlier article on the proceedings of the African Regional Meeting also has several uses of this term, of which the following seems particularly interesting:
"However, she [African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, H.E. Amira Elfadil] noted that in the context of Africa, the term 'Indigenous Languages' need to be replaced by 'African Languages' as the former 'has a colonial connotation.'"
— "Promoting Indigenous Languages - African Regional Meeting on the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages," UNESCO Liaison Office in Addis Ababa 31 July 2019 (posted 3 Aug.2019)

Aside from equating African languages with indigenous languages in Africa (regarding which, see also H.E. Elfadil's tweet below), this quote brings up a point I did not touch on in my previous post: the term "indigenous" itself is sometimes problematic in African contexts. That is particularly the case with the cognate in French, for historical reasons, such that IYIL2019 in that language is l'Année Internationale des Langues Autochtones. Nevertheless, as items cited in the two sections below appear to indicate, "indigenous language" is actively used in and with reference to Africa.

References to "indigenous language(s)"

Following are a number of quotes in which "indigenous language" is used in relation to Africa. This is a sampling mostly from web searches, for illustrative purposes. It was compiled using no particular methodology. (Emphasis added.)

"How many indigenous languages are spoken in Africa? 3000"
Languages in Africa (flashcards), Quizlet (acessed 22 July 2019)

"Africa is incredibly rich in language—over 3,000 indigenous languages by some counts, and many creoles, pidgins, and lingua francas."
Edmund L. Epstein and Robert Kole, eds. (1998). The Language of African Literature. Africa World Press. p. ix

"This chapter highlights the difficulties inherent in defining heritage languages for immigrant Africans in the various African diasporas and provides key arguments in favor of coalescing efforts for immigrant heritage language development in the diaspora around a few African national languages, rather than the many indigenous African languages."
Abstract for: J. Kigamwa (2018) "So Many Languages to Choose from: Heritage Languages and the African Diaspora.: In: P. Trifonas P. and T. Aravossitas (eds) Handbook of Research and Practice in Heritage Language Education. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Springer, Cham

"A greater task also lies in the homes where some parents adamantly refuse to speak their indigenous languages to their children."
Socrates Mbamalu, "The Fading Use of Indigenous Languages in African Households," This is Africa, 17 May 2018

"Recent studies have shown a steady decline in the use of indigenous African languages, especially among middle to upper-class African millennials and Generation Z."
Kwabena Taiwo, "Indigenous African Languages are Dying Out and it’s a Good Thing," International Policy Digest, 6 Jun 2018

"International Journalist's Network, working with the University of Lagos, has invited African media academics and publishers to submit research papers on the past experiences, current status, and future potential of the continent's indigenous-language media."
— "Study to Promote Indigenous Language Media in Africa," Cultural Survival, 2013?

"Cultural projects discussed included prioritizing publishing in indigenous languages in order to increase literacy, promoting free speech, and decolonizing existing institutions, such as textbook publishers and libraries—all of which are in various states of development by local African publishers and institutions, now with the additional support of the IPA [International Publishers Association]."
Ed Nawotka, "The Fight to Improve Publishing in Africa," Publishers Weekly, 21 Jun 2019

"Meanwhile, in Kenya two weeks ago, a new television station was launched to serve the Rift Valley region, home to the Maasai, Samburu, Pokot and several other indigenous groups. It will air primarily Christian programs, and will broadcast to local communities in 10 indigenous languages, including Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Gusii, Pokot, and Saboat/Marakwet."
— "Diverse Efforts Made to Promote and Preserve Indigenous African Languages," Cultural Survival (accessed 14 Aug. 2019)

I'll slip in a tweet here by UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, which has "indigenous languages" in a hashtag, and mentions "ancestral languages" and Hausa in the text:

Publication titles including "indigenous language(s)"

Following are a few book and article titles incorporating "indigenous language" in one or another form. (Emphasis added.)

O. Okombo (1999) "Towards a strategy of changing attitudes to indigenous African languages," In L. Limage (ed.), Comparative perspectives on language and literacy: Selected papers from the work of the language and literacy commission of the 10th world congress of comparative education societies. Cape Town, 1998 (pp. 591–596). Dakar: UNESCO

Abiodun Salawu, ed. (2006) Indigenous Language Media in Africa, Lagos; Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC)

N.O. Ongechi (2009) "The role of foreign and indigenous languages in primary schools: The case of Kenya. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 39, 143–158

Abiodun Salawu and Monica B. Chibita, eds. (2016) Indigenous Language Media, Language Politics and Democracy in Africa, Palgrave Macmillan

To this list I might add my own African Languages in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities for Indigenous Language Computing (HSRC Press / IDRC, 2010).


The sense that I, as a non-African, get from the above examples of how "indigenous language" is understood in Africa, is that to the extent the term is used, the broader sense is operant. That said, the colonial links to the word "indigenous" mean that for some number of people, the term is not ideal. (And in all of this, of course, we're referring to discourse in English.)

Should this mean that IYIL2019 should have wider activities in Africa? Perhaps with flexibility as to the terms used? Given the large number of languages in Africa that can be, and for some number apparently are, considered "indigenous languages," would a more active African involvement in IYIL2019 divert attention from the less widely spoken, often endangered indigenous languages around the world? Or add energy to it?

Africa's linguistic situation is in some ways unique: it has many actively used indigenous languages (broader sense), from some widely used to many less widely spoken, to some that are associated with smaller groups that fit IPACC's criteria for "indigenous" (narrower sense) and/or are endangered. Africa's colonial legacy, and the post-independence economic and political environment have disadvantaged all of those languages to varying degrees. How should these realities register in global discussions of indigenous languages?

A separate question, noting particular meanings given in Africa to terms like "national language" and "community language," is whether Africa's linguistic realities would also mean that "indigenous language" would naturally have a contextualized meaning there as well.

Such questions are important to ask, as there is an active proposal to expand the Year into a Decade of Indigenous Languages.

Monday, August 19, 2019

African languages as indigenous languages: Definitions

As a follow up to the post about the African Regional Meeting for IYIL2019 (30-31 July 2019), I'd like to take a quick look at what "indigenous language" means in Africa. This is a fundamental question, and one of the broader issues regarding the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) that I mentioned in an earlier post on the Year in Africa.

On the one hand, all African languages - or at least those in language families native to the continent - can be understood as "indigenous" (or the near-synonym, "autochthonous"). On the other hand, "indigenous languages" is a category associated specifically with "indigenous peoples," which in Africa is defined more narrowly by the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC).

It does not appear that the African Regional Meeting for IYIL pronounced on this topic one way or another (and perhaps they didn't see any need or advantage in so doing, or perhaps something is forthcoming in a report). And for this post, it is not my place to argue one way or another. However I will in the following share a couple of definitions, and discuss how the term is treated in the the work of the United Nations (UN) and its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and discuss some considerations relevant to understanding indigenous languages in Africa. In a follow-up post, I'll look at how the term "indigenous languages" is being used in Africa and in writing about the continent.

Definitions and other indications

In global perspective, two definitions of "indigenous language" which parallel the wider and narrower conceptions mentioned above regarding Africa, are:
Although I have not seen an authoritative definition of what counts as an indigenous language (and what doesn't), I understand that it is the second definition above that is operant in the UN and international work.

A backgrounder entitled "Indigenous Languages" by the UNPFII discusses indigenous languages in the context of indigenous peoples but doesn't offer a definition. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)'s Resolution 2000/22 establishing UNPFII almost two decades ago does not mention languages or linguistic issues.

The UN General Assembly resolution 71/178 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016), in which the IYIL2019 was declared, similarly does not give a specific definition for indigenous languages. The mentions of languages in this resolution - eight in total - are as follows (italics from original; bold added):
  • "Deeply concerned at the vast number of endangered languages, in particular indigenous languages, and stressing that, despite the continuing efforts, there is an urgent need to preserve, promote and revitalize endangered languages,"
  • "Recognizing the importance to indigenous peoples of revitalizing, using, developing and transmitting to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literature,"
  • "Bearing in mind also the importance of the empowerment and capacity-building of indigenous women and youth, including their full and effective participation in decision-making processes in matters that affect them directly, including policies, programmes and resources, where relevant, that target the well-being of indigenous women and youth, in particular in the areas of health, education, employment and the transmission of traditional knowledge, languages and practices, and the importance of taking measures to promote awareness and understanding of their rights,"
  • "13. Proclaims the year beginning on 1 January 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels, ..."
The impression I get is a clear association in this resolution of indigenous languages with indigenous peoples. There is also a wider concern with endangered languages, a category that covers many tongues among languages of indigenous peoples, as well as many others. In addition, the issues raised in the "Bearing in mind" clause concerning women and youth are similar to those raised in many development scenarios, beyond peoples strictly defined as indigenous. So maybe the definition is somewhat flexible?

None of this is to question the value and need for focus on the situation of indigenous peoples including their languages. This inquiry is instead intended to understand if there is room for a wider conception of indigenous languages in Africa - whose many languages, even more widely spoken ones, are under pressure - within the framework of IYIL2019.

Indigenous peoples in Africa

The IPACC also does not define indigenous language as such. Its definition of indigenous peoples in Africa (alluded to above) relies on a "cluster of characteristics":
  • "political and economic marginalisation rooted in colonialism;
  • "de facto discrimination based often on the dominance of agricultural peoples in the State system (e.g. lack of access to education and health care by hunters and herders);
  • "the particularities of culture, identity, economy and territoriality that link hunting and herding peoples to their home environments in deserts and forests (e.g. nomadism, diet, knowledge systems);
  • "some indigenous peoples, such as the San and Pygmy peoples are physically distinct, which makes them subject to specific forms of discrimination."
Applied to the narrower definition of indigenous languages in Africa, this would represent a significantly smaller subset of the continent's native languages.

One interesting case is that of the Mbororo Fulani, a (semi-)nomadic people in the eastern Sahel and northern central Africa. They are considered an indigenous people (Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a prominent indigenous activist from Chad, is Mbororo). Their language, however, is a variety of Fula (Fulfulde, Pulaar, Pular) spoken by various groups of Fulaphones across many countries of West Africa. So in the narrower sense of the term, is Fula an indigenous language, even though it clearly is widespread and not endangered?

African languages that aren't indigenous?

Another issue is are there African languages that would not be considered "indigenous languages," even under a broad definition of the latter? That might include languages like Malagasy, Arabic, and Afrikaans, which are languages of communities established in Africa centuries ago. So too might pidgins and creoles, which grew up in Africa, but with foreign as well as local elements.

This too is exploratory, since there is also no clear definition of what is not an indigenous language in Africa (apart the obvious case of the Europhone languages used officially in most of its countries).

A new definition of "indigenous language"?

Before moving on, I'd like to suggest an alternative way of framing "indigenous language" that flips part of one of the definitions shared above (changed part in italics):
  • "a language that originated in a specified place and was not taken elsewhere from that place"
This is not without its own problems - for example how to accommodate Yoruba-speaking descendants of slaves in Brazil, Fula speaking descendants of slaves in West Africa, and smaller communities in the modern diaspora who continue to use their languages. However, the advantage here is emphasizing the locality of many languages, which we might call indigenous, and which in any case have not been spread through the projection of power.

Africa's linguistic terrain is in some ways a difficult fit for the narrower definition of indigenous languages, but the broader one also seems to raise questions.

In the next post, I'll share some ways the term "indigenous language" is currently used in and about Africa.