Communicative Repertoires in African Languages
Summary and Keywords
Even though the concept of multilingualism is well established in linguistics, it is problematic, especially in light of the actual ways in which repertoires are composed and used. The term “multilingualism” bears in itself the notion of several clearly discernable languages and suggests that regardless of the sociolinguistic setting, language ideologies, social history and context, a multilingual individual will be able to separate the various codes that constitute his or her communicative repertoire and use them deliberately in a reflected way. Such a perspective on language isn’t helpful in understanding any sociolinguistic setting and linguistic practice that is not a European one and that doesn’t correlate with ideologies and practices of a standardized, national language. This applies to the majority of people living on the planet and to most people who speak African languages. These speakers differ from the ideological concept of the “Western monolingual,” as they employ diverse practices and linguistic features on a daily basis and do so in a very flexible way. Which linguistic features a person uses thereby depends on factors such as socialization, placement, and personal interest, desires and preferences, which are all likely to change several times during a person’s life. Therefore, communicative repertoires are never stable, neither in their composition nor in the ways they are ideologically framed and evaluated. A more productive perspective on the phenomenon of complex communicative repertoires puts the concept of languaging in the center, which refers to communicative practices, dynamically operating between different practices and (multimodal) linguistic features. Individual speakers thereby perceive and evaluate ways of speaking according to the social meaning, emotional investment, and identity-constituting functions they can attribute to them. The fact that linguistic reflexivity to African speakers might almost always involve the negotiation of the self in a (post)colonial world invites us to consider a critical evaluation, based on approaches such as Southern Theory, of established concepts of “language” and “multilingualism”: languaging is also a postcolonial experience, and this experience often translates into how speakers single out specific ways of speaking as “more prestigious” or “more developed” than others. The inclusion of African metalinguistics and indigenuous knowledge consequently is an important task of linguists studying communicative repertoires in Africa or its diaspora.
1 What Is a Language?1
Languages are named for the people who speak them, and while a language when used in this way may therefore, at some level of abstraction, define a population, the speech of any community is merely a specific sector in an ocean of isoglosses that comprise its systemic limits.
Michael Holquist, What would Bakhtin do?
Even though there seems to be a general agreement in African linguistics that most speakers of African languages are multilingual, and therefore speak several languages on a daily basis, there is little common understanding what “several languages” actually means. To some, a language is something that is owned and used by a particular community of practice, while to others it is what can be found on language maps or in language lists created by experts. Many speakers of African languages claim, in a form of colonial cringe, that only written and standardized languages are languages, while everything else is just a “dialect.” Therefore, a “language” can be many different things to different people.
This article doesn’t respond to a call for a systematic analysis of all the different types of multilingual practices and repertoires linguists could ever study, nor does it provide a typology of multilingual practices, and neither is it interested in connecting multilingualism as a form of linguistic diversity to language change. In contrast to all this, it first sets out to demonstrate that the notion of “language” is not a useful point of departure once we consider “multilingualism” as our field of enquiry. Instead, the idea of the repertoire invites us to reconsider alternative concepts. The South African–based sociolinguist Christopher Stroud provides us with the following explanation of what might be meant by a “repertoire,” mentioning various aspects that might help to search for alternatives:
The notion of repertoire is a good way of capturing the complexity with which speakers organise and use linguistic features. A person’s linguistic repertoire refers to that collection of forms, practices and linguistic features that he or she can access and deploy in conversation. Features that make up a speaker’s repertoire may come from different languages, or repertoires may comprise “whole” languages or particular varieties of language. What speakers have in their linguistic repertoires depends on factors such as their birthplaces and life-long socialisation. In communicative situations, speakers will select what they perceive as most appropriate for that context from their repertoires.
(Stroud, 2014, p. 308, his emphasis)
In this contribution, it is suggested to turn the gaze to those features characterizing many African communicative repertoires, such as languaging and mimesis. I argue that while language as social practice is very strongly present in such ways of doing, traditional linguistics tend write them out of the descriptions, showing an inability to take African language ideologies and linguistic epistemologies seriously as devices of analyzing communicative practice and behavior (Makoni, Smitherman, Ball, & Spears, 2003). This also reveals the embeddedness of linguistics in coloniality, as a discipline concentrating on controlling its objects (such as “language”) and on the performance of experthood (Deumert & Storch, 2017).
The ultimate mixedness of language in contemporary urban settings and the question of how mixed, “messy” ways of speaking are also emotionally invested forms of speaking will be another perspective addressed in this article. The evaluation of “language” as a deeply spiritual and agentive object in African language ideologies, and comments from the diaspora, finally sheds some light on what else a “language” could be and how ways of speaking indeed can be seen as different components of a “repertoire.”
2 Beyond Multilingualism
In almost every introductory text about the sociolinguistics of African languages, pervasive multilingualism and the complexity of communicative repertoires are discussed as remarkable and outstanding features of African linguistic practices. Even though this appears to be a ubiquitous motif in sociolinguistic writing, and studying multilingualism clearly forms part of the canon of Africanist knowledge production, there are several shifts in analysis and different approaches to it, which largely co-exist.
Before turning to alternative, southern concepts of communicative repertoires, it makes sense to re-evaluate some of the more conventional, northern approaches. Taking a second look and considering what preceding models have enabled us to grasp and what we gain from the current debates in sociolinguistics as well as from recent, more unconventional work will be helpful in finding new avenues of enquiry that are more open and integrative.
2.1 Re(de)fining Sociolinguistic Concepts
Early Africanist contributions such as Diedrich Westermann’s Sudansprachen (1927), which is mainly a search for order, view linguistic diversity as the result of the interruption of a linear historical process. The use of several languages in a specific environment and by a specified group was considered a consequence of ongoing language shift, induced by migration. Such a view on language change as a regular and unilinear process and multilingualism as a form of disturbance and decay also produced, and continues to do so, ideas about diversity as a sign of linguistic attrition that requires language planning and development in order to “re-install” (as if it ever existed) “orderly,” monoglot communicative practice (e.g., Batibo, 2005).
This changed to some extent with the advent of contact linguistics, and especially following the publication of Sarah Thomason’s and Thomas Kaufman’s (1988) volume: language contact, and therefore the coexistence of two or more languages in one community, was now increasingly seen as a normal, “healthy” situation and not as a problem. Consequently, African linguistics throughout the last decades of the 20th century developed a strong focus on the description of contact and areal typology. Even though this didn’t produce new ways in which languages could be described, it helped linguists to understand that none of the individual languages they studied existed in a confined setting where they were exclusively spoken by a specific community. As a product of this change in perspective, the diversity of speech has become a central field of enquiry in African sociolinguistics, opposing as a concept the static and universalist ideas about language prevailing elsewhere.
With regard to the notion of repertoires, other important linguistic lines in thinking come into play. One is usually referred to as Ethnography of Speaking, largely established through the publication of Dell Hymes’s (1962) seminal article and, probably even more so, by a collection of case studies edited by Bauman and Sherzer in 1974. Both publications suggested that the abstract term “language” actually refers to a complex system, and that each language exists in diverse forms, which are used depending on the type of speech event, the speech situation, the community, and the social roles of the speaker and the addressee, as well as on prevailing social norms and ideologies. Language here is no longer seen as a monolithic structure but as a way of speaking that exists alongside other ways of speaking, each having its function and meaning, and therefore its specific indexicality—an observation that also was crucial in the work on code-switching in Africa (Myers-Scotton, 1993), where speakers were observed to make marked and unmarked choices of specific codes in specific contexts.
In the same volume, Bauman and Sherzer published a study by Judith Irvine (1974) on greeting strategies in Wolof (Senegal). In this text, Irvine demonstrated that greetings are not just complex forms of ritual communication but also constitute extremely flexible speech. By providing a very elegant analysis of various greetings and the manipulative strategies employed in them, she highlighted the creative agency of speakers, regardless of the social prestige they might enjoy and the fluidity of language. As a consequence of what Irvine observed in her paper, a linguistic repertoire now had to be understood as consisting of various linguistic codes, as well as of communicative strategies and creative techniques of constructing ways of speaking. Given the different experiences and background of different speakers, these repertoires had to be as diverse as the speakers themselves.
The notion that a repertoire is the property of an individual and that linguistic features are situated in such repertoires had been introduced somewhat earlier by John Gumperz (1964). It is interesting, though, that it didn’t leave a deep imprint in conventional African linguistics for years. A reason for this might be that African linguistics for a long time concentrated on diachronic and universalist approaches (as a reaction to Joseph Greenberg’s work), rather than engaging in a discussion about actual heteroglossic practice. However, as Brigitta Busch (2012) points out in her inspiring text on the “Linguistic Repertoire Revisited,” Gumperz’s work remains important, as it now feeds into poststructuralist approaches to embodiment, placement, power, and desire in language. And as boundaries between old disciplines get a bit blurred, these notions of “language,” as something more complete, yet more evasive, become central topics of linguistic debates.
This is also reflected by the possibility of shifting the perspective: a more recent innovative approach to multilingualism and repertoires focuses on African and Asian diasporas in Western cities. Studies on knowledge transfer in multilingual classrooms, language in the digital, and the linguistics of urban spaces were new fields of enquiry that took globalization as a sociolinguistic phenomenon serious. Contributions such as Blackledge and Creese (2010) and Creese and Blackledge (2015) on linguistic practices of migrants in Europe help to demonstrate that much of the sociolinguistic terminology, its analytical frameworks, and theoretical models had serious deficiencies: the speakers in these studies were no “stable resident[s] and sedentary speech communities in an integrated society” but “fundamentally characterized by mobility” (Blommaert, 2014, p. 8). Multilingualism now stood in contrast with a phenomenon for which there wasn’t yet a proper term: these “different repertoires” consisted not of several separate, established languages but of various ways of speaking that were often combined in a messy form. The people who spoke in such messy and mixed ways were extremely mobile, and their mobility, both geographically and socially, began to change the linguistic repertoires of those whom they met in their new environments.
However, not only in European-American, northern contexts, but also in many African sociolinguistic environments, these communicative repertoires are tantamount to everyday language behavior (Vigouroux, 2013). As shown in Section 4, “messy” communicative practices and complex repertoires are largely a socio-cultural strategy that is closely connected with a political setting and strategies of community-making that have been labeled “African Frontier” by the historian Igor Kopytoff (1987). As this and other historical work help to understand, fluid and creative speech practice has been a salient means in Africa of coming to terms with placement, difference, otherness, and the ephemerality of daily life routines. Hence, turning our gaze to the ubiquity of messiness, bricolage, and noise in communication, and the meaningful ways in which they are employed (Deumert, 2015; Storch, 2016, 2017; Stroud, 2015), allows for a more reflected way of seeing this as normal and well-established practice, and not as new dynamics encountered especially in northern cities. The widely discussed notion of “superdiversity” (Vertovec, 2007) here appears as just one more facet of a supermodernity (Augé, 1992) which began hundreds of years ago.
2.2 (De)constructing Language
In spite of its fluidity and multimodal complexity, speakers often conceptualize their repertoires as something that consists of separate individual languages. And this is crucial: looking at how speakers perceive and construct differences between communicative strategies not only helps to reveal that these, as codes and languages, are ideological constructs, but also sheds light on the different strategies used to “make a language.”
In principle, this implies that there simply are no languages, but just individual communicative practices, linguistic and semiotic resources, and ideological constructedness—on the side of the speaker as much as on that of the linguist. And after notions of multilingualism, repertoire, language, code, and communicative strategies undergo further revisions and problematizations, subjectivity and individual practices could be seen as crucial for emerging sociolinguistic debates, which highlight the fluidity of speech, particularity of contexts, and bricolage techniques employed by individuals.
This also implies that metalinguistic discourse and reflexivity need to be seen as key aspects of any analysis of repertoires: What are the ideological regimes that help participants to define different strategies? How is a language constructed and named? How is difference made meaningful? How are linguistic norms created and employed? The meta here turns out to be a central field of enquiry in explorations of the diversities of communicative repertoires and their meanings; being quintessentially interactive, language as a concept and practice needs to be defined and differentiated whenever the context asks for it—and this context may be a ritual as well as a linguistic field session. Hence, communicative repertoires get as diverse as they are required to, and speakers may emphasize certain differences between constructed codes and negate others.
Unsurprisingly, the postmodern approach to the ideologies of linguistics itself—as a colonial discipline and a means of creating languages in the form of doculects (Blommaert & Rampton, 2011; Errington, 2007; Good & Hendryx-Parker, 2006)—has triggered a revision of fundamental ideas about languages and speakers. Language is no longer easily identified, but rather unmasked as an imagination and construct, while actual communicative resources are used in complex, messy, chaotic, dynamic, and creative ways. Moreover, actual linguistic-semiotic communication, sometimes studied in language documentation, is multimodal and involves various forms of embodiment—for example, in the form of hairstyles, decorated skin, dress, movements, gestures, and gazes—as well as place and placement, the use of objects—such as placards, signs, and architecture—and the media, which range from the human body (e.g., in spirit possession contexts) to animate and inanimate objects and the digital. A communicative repertoire therefore doesn’t include just multiple linguistic features, strategies, and ideological concepts, but also creativity and ideas, multimodal techniques, media, and objects.
Considering this, the idea of the word, as a singular unit and an isolated utterance, makes no sense: we simply cannot say a single word without medializing, embodying, and contrasting it. Still, speakers, generating “data,” and linguists, ordering and analyzing it, may cooperate in an attempt to differentiate between various linguistic structures and thereby construct different languages, which could be counted and related to one another as parts of a repertoire, but this would not change the ultimately messy way in which different communicative resources are used. This is not just a methodological dilemma, but an ontological one: established terminology, such as “codeswitching” and “multilingualism,” continues to evoke images of languages as separate structures, in a bundled or stacked form, and continues to conceal communicative realities of fluidity, flexibility, and creativity. While linguists seem to lack better terms and metaphors, their discipline continues to recreate language as an object with stable boundaries around it.
In principle, these ideas are not new. Michael Holquist, in his masterly study on Bakhtin and Dialogism (1990), and more recently in a paper critically examining the implicature of multilingualism as opposed to monolingualism (2014), calls attention to Wilhelm von Humboldt, Ferdinand de Saussure, Sergei Kartsevsky, and Noam Chomsky as linguists who had extensively thought and written about the ontological instability of these linguistic antonymies. However, it was Mikhail Bakhtin who most clearly emphasized the transcendental and dialogical in language, as Holquist argues:
[. . .] ‘multilingual’ and its more common subset ‘bilingual’ are both what grammarians would call anaphoric adjectives; that is, their meaning depends on another prior word, and in this case, their Siamese twin, ‘monolingual.’ The nature of the problem, it seems to me, is already discernable in the fact that whatever else may be the case, both terms are incomplete in themselves and depend on the other to be meaningful. [. . .] As an anaphoric concept, ‘multilingual’ is specifically grounded in the opposition between many and one. And it sanctions, therefore, as its antonym the possibility that there might be such a thing as a single language. [. . .] [W]e might say that for Bakhtin not only are there anaphoric adjectives, like hot/cold or monolingual/multilingual, but then for Bakhtin, everything is anaphoric in so far as everything is interconnected, and cannot be without the other. [. . .] Bakhtin’s metalinguistics grows out of his conception of human beings as persons who share the task of being responsible for their own situatedness in a particular time and place—the language of each of whom, then, is part of an ongoing exchange with others, who must also answer for the unique place that they occupy, in existence. In so shared an environment, there is no first word and no single word.
(Holquist, 2014, pp. 1, 18)
Holquist concludes that “nothing so complex and shared as language can ever responsibly be treated as a sequestered thing.” (2014, p. 18). Therefore, he claims, “a state language policy is always suspect” (ibid.). These ways of thinking about language, and emphasizing how multilingualism is a way of acknowledging the existence of single languages (just, in this case, stacked together), have been, and continue to be, in several ways, revolutionary to linguistics.
Why? Considering the colonial embeddedness of linguistics, and African linguistics in particular, the hegemonic impact of monism, monolingual language policy, and standard literacy on people who had every reason to distrust such epistemes and practices needs to be linked to the ways in which African communicative practices were explored. Therefore, many of the certainties forming a canon of knowledge in African linguistics are fundamentally challenged by these ideas, and the deconstruction of northern concepts of language, deeply rooted in the context of the nation state and coloniality of the 19th century, links these ways of thinking with the messy and complex ways of speaking considered “characteristic” for “African multilingualism.” These, ultimately, had always fundamentally undermined northern ideas about language.
A possible consequence is the deconstruction of an entire discipline, and its object (Deumert & Storch, 2017). To some postmodern sociolinguistic theorists, however, the actual challenge is not so much rethinking linguistics as such, but rather widening its scope: “In the most general sense, the issue is one of adequate contextualization of language signs in an attempt to understand their meaning effects; but as we shall see, precisely this attempt towards adequate contextualization creates objects that are no longer linguistic in the strict disciplinary sense of the term, but more generally semiotic, complex objects” (Blommaert, 2015, pp. 1–2). Whether this will help to include southern, or simply African, approaches to the diversity and creativity of linguistic practices remains doubtful.
3 Translanguaging and Other Colonial Experiences
As liberating, decolonizing, and delinking current discussions about linguistic diversity may seem to some—as emphasized by Sinfree Makoni and Alastair Pennycook (2007)—it is indeed striking that only few African linguists participate in it. Obviously, turning away from the idea of language as structure is of little help to many African linguists, both in academia and in grassroots contexts. It seems as if new hegemonic epistemes replace the old ones, whereby, however, these old epistemes are the regimes that helped to actually construct African languages as we know them today. After all, African languages only seem to appear as topics of linguistic analysis once they are discernible in the form of named languages drawn on language maps and equipped with ISO codes (Lüpke & Storch, 2013). And linguists usually seem to be paid for studying, administering, and commodifying precisely these, and not for unmaking the objects of their discipline.
However, the absence of a great part of African language workers and linguists from postmodern and postcolonial debates about African languages reveals the conditions under which theories and knowledge about language and context are still produced. Since the implementation of African linguistics (Errington, 2007; Pugach, 2012), and through its embeddedness in the colonial matrix of power (Mignolo, 2000), the description and analysis of African languages and their social context has predominantly taken place in compliance with northern concepts and ideologies. Moreover, making the object of northern linguistics involved the construction of non-European languages as languages of the other, as unwritten and therefore incomplete languages, representing some distant linguistic past, earlier forms of development, and simpler thinking (Fabian, 1983). This has been extensively discussed, and observations about coloniality as an episteme of its own (Fanon, 1961; Mignolo, 2000; Spivak, 1988) have helped to demonstrate that the construction of subalternities, precisely in northern forms of knowledge production, involves strategies of silencing and marginalization. The subaltern, it is argued in critical theory, can’t speak, and cannot make theories, and subalternity is linked to the periphery, or, in other words, the South, in contrast to the metropole, or North.
It is therefore not surprising that the major linguistic conferences take place in the North, most linguistic journals are published in Europe and the United States, and the important academic institutions are all located in the northern metropole. The eminent Australian social scientist Raewyn Connell has analyzed the consequences of this setting in her major work, Southern Theory (2007). The problem with social sciences, she argues (and with linguistics, one might add), is not only the uneven distribution of knowledge-making institutions and agents, but a fundamental pattern of the distribution of knowledge production that continues to exist and shape, without any significant interruption, global academia: theory is consistently produced in the metropole. The South, as the periphery, in turn contributes data, raw, and without any consequence for theory-making itself:
In the colonies, the theoretical stage of science was omitted. Accordingly, the colonies became a field for the collection of raw material—scientific data—that was sent to the metropole where theory was produced. [. . .] Data from the periphery are framed by concepts, debates and research strategies from the metropole. There is no reference to the social thought of the periphery in these texts.
(Connell, 2007, pp. 104, 64, her emphasis)
Connell’s argument can be easily verified by contrasting—in a slightly random way—two maps offered by Worldmapper.org. The map in Figure 1A depicts, as a statistical image, those countries as large where there is much linguistic diversity. The map in Figure 1B, in turn, transfers the number of scientific papers published in each country to the size in which it is shown.
And as metropolitan theory remains hegemonic, this setting continues to be harmful for speakers and linguists of the periphery: “The consequences of metropolitan geo-political location can be seen, I suggest, in four characteristic textual moves: the claim of universality; reading from the centre; gestures of exclusion; and grand erasure” (Connell, 2007, p. 44). Such power relations in knowledge production make it extremely difficult for theorists and language experts from Africa to introduce nonmainstream ideas and theories about language into global debates. However, there is considerable to learn from African linguistic theories—linguistic meta narratives and knowledges that exist outside northern linguistics as well as in close entanglements with it (Storch, 2017).
Raewyn Connell has the merit of devoting the larger part of her work on Southern Theory to thinkers from the South, such as philosopher Paulin Hountondji. In the important volume Endogenous Knowledge (1997), Hountondji opens up a productive and positive line of thought; in Connell’s words: “[. . .] to make use of [local knowledge], Hountondji argues, it is necessary to be concerned with the truth of indigenous knowledge, the reasons for its effectiveness, as well as the reasons it is so much bound up with myth and magic” (Connell, 2007, p. 105). A critical appreciation of the diverse forms and lines of thought of indigenous knowledge in Africa will shed considerable light on how language, linguistic ideologies, and complex communicative practice can be understood in a new, theoretically informed way. Hountondji’s contribution to the dialectics and transcendental aspects of knowledge is crucial, as we will see further below. His emphasis on the coherence of African philosophical thinking and local epistemologies of spirituality, interpersonality, and subjectivity provides an understanding of African metalinguistic discourses. Such a perspective on southern metalinguistic concepts and ideas about complex sociolinguistics seems to be helpful in delinking linguistic analysis from predominantly colonially embedded concepts and linking it in new ways with ideas and practices of a global majority living in the South.
Another contribution within the open framework of Southern Theory concerns the analysis of messy linguistic practices as postcolonial experience. Not the primarily monolingual “native speaker,” a foreign concept imposed on speakers of African languages, is the embodiment of the colonized, but the languaging other, a person who is named—in the most deprecatory ways—and is, upon being named, forced into very particular practices of mimesis:
Consider again the exclamations “Dirty nigger!” and “Negro!” as reported by Fanon. These utterances are made, first and foremost, to name the other. [. . .] At the same time, [. . .] naming is also the key to an arguably secularized perspective on community formation. The hinge is mimesis: as the definitive, lynchpin event in language, naming is associated with the mimetic, with the capacity to produce singularity.
(Chow, 2014, p. 3, her emphasis)
The critical theorist Rey Chow raises an important issue here, and points at a decisive moment in postcolonial communicative practice and theory, namely mimesis as a reaction to being disempowered, subordinated, and named. Dealing with the experience of colonial encounter and of being—in the course of this encounter—turned into the other (biogeographically, discursively, socially, and so on) produced mimetic interpretations of otherness. Recent work on colonial history focuses on the interpersonality of mimesis and the fact that mimesis was meaningful practice of the colonized as well as the colonizing: “Mimesis as a theory and as a practice was constitutive of colonial history during the five-centuries of European imperial expansionism; it became one relevant mode of relating between Europeans and non-Europeans in colonial encounters; and after the demise of colonial empires in the last quarter of the 20th century, it continued to be an integral part of the interchanges between Africa, Asia, Europe, America and Oceania” (Roque, 2015, p. 201).
Precisely the mimetic interpretation of the colonial other, on the side of the colonized, needs to be seen as an eminent form of deconstruction and analysis of difference and diversity. Chow’s analysis is nothing like a celebration of diversity, and the creative performance of multilingualism, but a critical and painful interpretation of the irreversability of coloniality in practices of daily life.
Mimetic interpretation is performed in various ways, the most obvious among them being spirit possession. Hence, the members of the hauka society in Jean Rouch’s Maîtres Fous (1954), as well as the practitioners in the shrines of the mbari cult in eastern Nigeria (Taussig, 1993), or the participants in postcolonial spirit possession rituals in Niger (Stoller, 1995) are not simply objects of Western ethnography, but experts themselves, as analysts of sociolinguistic complexity and the power inequalities this complexity is based on.
In Rouch’s documentary, it is possible to watch how the subaltern turns into the colonial other and gains agency that continues to enhance psychological resilience, even after the trance ritual has passed. The mimetic interpretation of the colonial other—British military, colonial administrators, as well as the objects surrounding them—is a rather frightening sight, bringing out a kind of essence of violence and unutterable horror. It is therefore unsurprising that Rouch’s film was first banned in colonial territories such as Niger and Ghana (Ferguson, 2002).
Such transgressive trance rituals often involve the use of ways of speaking usually referred to as “spirit languages.” As argued in Storch (2011), the ways in which speakers agentively manipulate linguistic resources and create new ways of speaking are most meaningful themselves. Thus, spirit languages are not just “happening” to the men and women who become possessed by a god or spirit, but are deliberately inflicted upon the self, as an artfully manipulated form of language that serves, in a multimodal way, as a means of mimetically interpreting the colonial other. Such strategies help to gain agency and—while becoming the other for a limited period of time—power, in the sense of Ana Cara: “Words and alternative ways of talking [. . .] have served as weapons against oppressive authority, vehicles for solidarity among all manner of disenfranchised peoples, and instruments of extraordinary art” (2011, p. 198).
Spirit languages can be diverse, even though there are certain features that seem to appear more frequently than others (Storch, 2011, 2015). These include the use of foreign elements and invented language consisting of emblematic features, morphological manipulations that resemble those of play languages, embodiment, and performativity. Spirit possession rituals and their respective communicative features are largely expressions of experiences of cultural mobility, and they allow for various interpretations; they are always, however, attempts to come to terms with these experiences.
Chow draws our attention to yet another, sadder aspect of mimesis. Complex communicative repertoires, and languaging, also signify “a definitive epistemic break. If there was ever any illusion of a natural link between a language as such and those who are, for historical reasons, its users by default, the colonial situation, in which one group of people is required to adopt and adjust to another group’s language for purposes of social regimentation and mobility without the reverse also occurring, has shattered any presumed naturalness of such a link once and for all” (Chow, 2014, p. 41, her emphasis). English, to take this example, has, in its postcolonial setting, turned into an implant, of people whom it will not fit. What Chow describes as a quintessential postcolonial experience is (trans)languaging—dynamically and constantly operating between different practices and linguistic features (or “languages”).
This experience is the topic of another eminent comment and contribution from the South, as more recently emphasized by Christopher Stroud (2017): the musical Afrikaaps (2010). As a project by a very mixed group of South African performers and activists, Afrikaaps tells the story of the emergence and social realities of linguistic practices shared by people who live around Cape Town and in the Cape Flats. Not Afrikaans, whose monument and museum (commemorating conquest, standardization and monism) can be visited nearby at Paarl, but a form of languaging allows people to combine linguistic features of the Cape Malay, IsiXhosa, formerly spoken “Khoisan” languages, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, and many other ways of communication that were used at the Cape at one point in history, expressing their identities and entanglements.
The play doesn’t only propose mixedness, fluidity, messiness, embodiment, and multimodality as the actual realities of communicative practice among the inhabitants of the Cape—in opposition to the imposed idea of monolingual speakers of a static, stable standard language. It is also a form of protest against linguistic epistemic violence and a quest for the “legalisation” of the hybrid communicative practices of the Cape. Here, the idea of the complex repertoire acquires massive political meaning and is associated with notions of liberation and agency, as also illustrated in the South African documentary The Creators (2012).
4 Emotionally Invested Speech
Watching Afrikaaps, with its hip hop power, or a clip of The Creators is fun, besides the educative effects that might be felt as well. One reason why these theoretically informed, complex, and intellectually challenging contributions are “fun” seems to be that they show transgressive linguistic and musical practice of the youth. And this is precisely what a relatively large number of southern contributions to complex repertoires and linguistic diversity address: creativity, boundary-crossing, and extremely innovative, manipulative practices (Ugor & Mawuko-Yevugah, 2015). Even though “youth languages” are often associated with the absolute social periphery of young urban outcasts, they are also considered amusing, ironic statements against epistemic hegemonies, critical comments on social stagnation and power relations. In this respect, they have much in common with languaging in the digital space, where norm-making and norm-breaking is crucial, as a means of constructing identity and the creation of spaces for the expression of the self. Crispin Thurlow sees the dialogic tension between norm and transgression as a main characteristic of such practices:
First, new media discourse reveals perfectly one of the essential qualities (or realities) of creativity [. . .]: its paradoxical dependence on normativity and structure. Creative practice always emerges out of the dialectal tension between fixity and mobility, constraint and freedom, convention and innovation, stricture and defiance, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and, in the case of language, between ‘grammar’ and ‘poetry’ [. . .]. There is no creative without normative.
(Thurlow, 2012, p. 170)
At the same time, these ways of speaking seem to express and invoke considerable emotional investment. They are “fun,” but often also signify pain, wrath, and anger—about social uprootedness, inequality, and the apparent lack of fair chances for African youths facing globalized job markets. Violating communicative and social rules clearly is not just a game but a means of indirect critique and the expression of a lack of agency.
In the course of globalization and the growth of Africa’s cities, youth languages and hip hop have received considerable attention, in terms of both structural analysis and postcolonial sociolinguistics. They tend to be considered urban rather than rural practice and are often seen as the epitome of multilingual practice: these ways of speaking are mixed and messy, they bridge the gap between the West and the rest, between different communities and cultures, at the same time often serving as clear in-group codes.
They are characterized by a large variety of semantic, phonological, and morphological manipulations, as well as by extensive blending of different linguistic features. In various work on youth languages (e.g., Hurst, 2014; Kiessling & Mous, 2004; Nassenstein, 2014; Nassenstein & Hollington, 2015), a number of recurrent strategies are mentioned that seem to be preferred in these ways of speaking. Such strategies include phonological, morphological, and semantic manipulations, deliberate violations of linguistic norms and standards, insertion of foreign linguistic features, semiotic manipulation, and a strong link between verbal communication and gesture. The combination of these manipulation strategies can become extremely complex. Moreover, performance and attitude are as powerful as speaking itself, and the creative and sophisticated use of manipulation strategies itself is part of this performance: “[. . .] speaking Tsotsitaal—or its ‘cousin’ Iscamtho—skillfully is not solely a question of knowing existing words and enacting them within the expected multimodal matrix (dress, posture and movement), it is also the ability to expand on what is there, to surprise the audience through a display of linguistic virtuosity and creativity” (Deumert, 2016, ms. p. 9).
But as components of complex repertoires, these forms of communication and expressivity also do something else. The Kenyan social anthropologist Eric M. Kioko observes in a recent study (2015) on Sheng, spoken in and around Nairobi, that there are actually several “Shengs,” each used by a particular group of migrant people who share a certain regional origin and hence particular linguistic and social entanglements. These Shengs are not simply varieties of a “youth language,” but emblematic markers of geographical and social identities, which are carefully maintained. In other words, members of urban migrant communities control complex repertoires which also consist, as a result of urban placement, of localized manipulated language as a means of constructing indexical heritage.
Kioko’s study can be linked to a sociohistorical and political phenomenon that was first studied in depth by the historian Igor Kopytoff. In his major work, The African Frontier, Kopytoff (1987) argues that the mixedness of elusive communities in many parts of Africa and its diaspora is a result of specific recurrent sociopolitical strategies. Conflicts and crisis, he argues, rather produced new settlements than resulting in lengthy civil war, as one of the preferred strategies in conflict resolution was migration. Newly founded settlements gained power and safety just through the inclusion of other people. Such strategies have resulted in the conceptualization and practice of multilingualism as a social and political necessity and as a survival strategy: newcomers simply kept their linguistic repertoires as complex and flexible as possible as they knew that they eventually would have to carry on.
Kopytoff’s scenario is not very different from that observable in Africa’s megacities, where newcomers negotiate situations of arrival as well as perspectives of possible return or migration onward. As such, the so-called youth languages and urban languages of Africa are not simply part of people’s repertoires, but statements on migration scenarios in an African Frontier context that becomes increasingly commodified. The establishment of huge urban spaces clearly enables people to use these strategies in a way that makes them more obvious for northern researchers than before; however, it is likely that because sociolinguists interested in “multilingualism” have been reluctant to consider analyses from African history, urban linguistic practices of young people were seen as something connected with “modernity,” digital media, and globalization. Instead of employing a southern approach, emphasizing the continued polycentrism of societies in many parts of Africa, the “westernness” of these scenarios was put in the center of the analysis.
5 The Sacred and the Secret
Besides their fluidity and mixedness, communicative repertoires also exhibit aspects of stability and hermetic closure. Although there might be a plethora of ideological language concepts, a specific idea about linguistic agency is recurrent in the literature about language ideologies in Africa and its diaspora. In her study of a Canadian community of Yoruba speakers, Temitope Adefarakan (2015) shows how people in the diaspora use spiritual knowledge and concepts of the sacredness of language as “decolonizing tools of navigation, subversion, and resistance to colonial oppression.” Yoruba folk tales and speech are not just ways of referring to group origins, or to identity concepts, but are considered spiritually agentive and empowering. And for precisely this idea—the idea that there is a power of the word—it is possible to create differences between specific communicative practices. In other words, language as an object, in opposition to other such objectified ways of speaking, turns into a real possibility and truth once it is associated with spiritual agency. Such conceptualizations of language have been observed to exist as well in various other parts of the African diaspora, for instance, in the Caribbean: Rasta Talk (Schrenk, 2015), Jamaican (Hollington, 2015), Kromanti (Bilby, 1983), and Lucumí (Wirtz, 2005).
Many of such ways of speaking are correlated with concepts of ancestry, heritage, and ties to African land (Bilby, 1983; Hollington, 2015; Storch, 2011). But in order to keep them agentive, their Africanness needs to be renewed from time to time, something that sometimes goes together, in the form of an “import” of African linguistic features, with linguistic research (Wirtz, 2008). However, the idea of the spiritual agentivity of speech is not just a matter of postcolonial negotiations, but also present in African language philosophies. The Kenyan philosopher Frederick Ochieng’-Odhiambo (2013) demonstrates that, because a name relates a person to a place, family, ancestry, and a variety of social roles, names are, among Luo speakers in East Africa, a separate speech register that must not be changed. Naming practices in Luo-speaking societies are based on the expression of context, for example, of the conception or birth of a person, his or her relation to elders or deceased people, physical features, and so on. Therefore, Ochieng’-Odhiambo argues, a name is an important discursive means of constructing the self, and it has been harmful to Africans to adopt northern and Christian names, which delink a person from his or her entire social life. There are connections between words and meanings that are not arbitrary but call upon history and truth.
Names, in the sense of a genre and not as proper nouns, are a rather transparent example of how linguistic practice needs to be correlated with thought and knowledge. But there is another dimension to it. The Nigerian postcolonial philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (2013) argues, in a critique on the colonial creation of Central Igbo, that unlike such foreign, standardized, and engineered languages, African linguistic resources allow for more open thinking and the understanding of a dialogical form of truth that has to do with the multifacetedness of the human mind and the multiplicity of knowledge: “[. . .] we can also say that the mind (soul, spirit, head, etc.) of people is diverse. This truth is the mystery that we call ‘knowledge’ because knowledge comes in different kinds and varieties. [. . .] In the Igbo language, ‘philosophy’ is only one of many different cultural knowledges [. . .].” Language, or speech, as a resource of identity and truth here is a very powerful concept. As an instrument of power, it is also an object that needs to be treated with considerable care and has to be kept secret.
Sacredness and secrecy of language are based on specific historical sociopolitical processes: a large number of precolonial African societies featured sacred kingdoms, where the king himself was constructed as a god and mediator between humans and the divine. Because, in sacred kingship, the body and persona of the king are conceptualized as the powerful and spiritually agentive essence of the divine, they need to be kept in a secretly protected environment; this yields to a variety of taboos concerning the royal body and actions, a secret theatrical performance of the sacred, and also to the necessity of using concealing ways of speaking.
An interesting aspect of the ritual constraints that go along with sacred kingship here is the conceptualization of language as something sacred, potentially powerful and dangerous. This might mostly have helped to construct social boundaries, by elevating kings and chiefs, concealing in-group knowledge, or rendering certain activities sacred. But all this is precisely the basis of power, where fear of transgression and punishment is created by offering a glimpse into the unspeakable, hidden, secret netherworld, where power is located, without ever providing an explanation of how such power comes into being. Secrecy here makes speech politically agentive.
Unlike other forms of speaking, language conceptualized as sacred and treated as a secret is usually named. Ways of speaking that signify power and transcendence differ from other parts of the repertoire insofar as they are labeled, named, and functionally contextualized. They can be called, made to appear, and upon their evocation things happen that cannot be controlled by the individual speaker. Moreover, as the Ghanaian linguist Caesar Akuetey (1998) has demonstrated in a study of the Ewe ritual register yevegbe, there are specific ideas about how such ways of speaking are acquired: through immersion, in contexts of liminality, and without any sign of volition and agency on the side of the learner—a practice that stands in stark contrast to northern ideas about learning.
A variety of contributions about African metalinguistics have helped to shed light on terminologies for linguistic practices, ways of speaking, genres, and linguistic devices. Susan Gal and Judith Irvine (2000) suggest that these terminologies are expressions of language ideologies, and Storch (2011) argues that they are also manifestations of linguistic knowledge. But they may teach us more than this: in a classic paper, Linda Hunter and Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou (1998) describe metalinguistic terminologies in Hausa and demonstrate how these are entangled with the artistic language of performance, creative expressions of the self, and the magic of poetic speech. Linguistic reflexivity—language, turned onto itself—is not just about language but about knowledge, truth, and power. Video 4 shows how this can be performed in an everyday context.
6 Complex Dynamics, Small Stories
A point of contention among linguists is the question about possible reasons for Africa’s linguistic diversity: Why are there so many languages spoken in Africa? Besides assuming that this is just not the right type of question, or a wrong way of asking, a number of explanations might be offered: this is not so much a matter of linguistic adaption and change but an ontological dilemma. The diversity and sociolinguistic complexity present in Africa (and beyond) is based on ideologies of language as something powerful and spiritually agentive, on social necessity, experiences of colonialism, and epistemic differences between the South and the North.
Repertoires and entire sociolinguistic systems thereby are, in the words of Blommaert (2013, p. 10), “characterized by internal and external forces of perpetual change, operating simultaneously and in unpredictable mutual relationships. [They are] therefore always dynamic, never finished, never bounded, and never completely and definitively describable either. By the time we have finished our description, the system will have changed.” This is why any attempt at order will not produce anything like a typology or structured overview of repertoires, but rather a typology of linguistic features highlighted by different linguists who look at these repertoires from different angles, and at different times.
It might make much more sense to tell smaller stories: about individual ways of speaking, personal repertoires, a speaker’s agency, other people’s ideas about language. These stories are probably not collected on field sites, but in personal encounters between people who share certain entanglements and experiences and lack others. This would have the advantage of sparing the “speakers” the role of “informants,” or data mines, and permit both linguists and practitioners to enter into a more fruitful dialogue.
The crucial point in studying African complex communicative practices, however, is that precisely such an object of research invites us to acknowledge the colonial constructedness of language, the artificiality of partitions within repertoires, on the basis of linguistic structure, and the relevance of definitions of communicative practices, on the basis of ideological concepts, functionalities, and emblematic meanings. Furthermore, a fresh approach to communication through embedding analysis in southern frameworks must be based on the realization that there is no real antagonism between North and South—both are, after centuries of colonial experiences, so much entangled with each other—and other, nonnorthern ideas and concepts of what language could be—are so much marginalized (or replaced) by northern epistemologies, that there appears to remain an important consequence for sociolinguistic research: study the effects coloniality and northern epistemes had and have on linguists and on practitioners alike.
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(1.) I am very grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their many inspiring and helpful remarks on an earlier version of this article. I warmly thank Christiane Bongartz, Ana Deumert, Gerrit Dimmendaal, Andrea Hollington, Angelika Mietzner, and Nico Nassenstein for stimulating discussions, advice, and comments while working on this text.