Friday, September 16, 2005

Languages and Persistent Racial Stereotyping

It is discouraging to see racial stereotypes and inaccuracies that
persist in books and articles by authors who otherwise are credible
scholars or journalists. These defects undermine the credibility of
the authors and diminish the impact of their ideas - at least among
those who have more than a passing knowledge of the subject that
they are treating.

The latest example of this phenomenon is the book, Empires of
the Word: A Language History of the World
, by Nicholas Ostler,
that was recently reviewed in The Washington Post (Wednesday,
September 14, 2005, p. C3) by Russell Warren Howe. The broad
strokes painted by Ostler are stimulating. Howe tells us that Ostler
rates languages on their "capacity to survive." He cites some
examples of Ostler's insights into the reasons why some survive and
others do not. This analysis could be useful to those concerned with
the present and future role of indigenous languages in Africa.

Through the first paragraphs of Mr. Howe's review, I was very
interested in the book and might have bought it. I began to question
Mr. Ostler's credibility (and that of the fact-checkers at his
publisher, HarperCollins) when Mr. Howe cited Ostler's
characterization of kiSwahili as "... a form of Arabic with a Bantu
(African) syntax." It has been thirty years or more that this view
has been discredited and that Swahili has been recognized for what
it is: a Bantu (i.e. African) language. The Wikipedia entry on
summarizes it well:

"Despite the substantial number of loanwords present in Swahili,
the language is in fact Bantu. In the past, some have held that
Swahili is variously a derivative of Arabic, that a distinct Swahili
people do not exist, or that Swahili is simply an amalgam of Arabic
and African language and culture, though these theories have now
been largely discarded. The distinct existence of the Swahili as a
people can be traced back over a thousand years, as can their
language. In structure and vocabulary Swahili is distinctly Bantu
and shares far more culturally and linguistically with other Bantu
languages and peoples than it does with Arabic, Persian, Indian etc.
In fact, it is estimated that the proportion of non-African language
loanwords in Swahili is comparable to the proportion of French,
Latin, and Greek loanwords in the English language."*

In addition, Ostler may well be exaggerating Africa's linguistic Babel
when he repeats the proposition that "Cameroon has more than 270
languages [and] Nigeria more than 600." Like Norwegian and Swedish,
many of these languages are very similar and mutually intelligible.
i.e. they are dialects of the same language. Also like speakers of
Norwegian and Swedish, speakers of these African languages may
insist upon the designation of "language" rather than "dialect" for
their tongue for reasons of local or ethnic pride.

What is particularly disappointing is that Ostler is obviously "tone
deaf" to the persistence of racially-based stereotypes in his
characterization of African languages. Swahili is a sophisticated
language with a large vocabulary and is widely used not only as a
spoken but also as a written language. Therefore, according to the
stereotype or prejudice, it must be necessarily a non-African

Howe also cites Ostler as referring to "Hamito-Semitic tongues." Here
again, what were previously called Hamitic and Semitic languages
until the 1960s have long been recognized as a single language family
called Afro-Asiatic. Why continue to artificially divide Afro-Asiatic
languages according to the so-called race of those who speak them?
Does it make any sense to classify speakers of Arabic, Hebrew,
Aramaic, etc. as "white" (i.e. Semitic) by classifying most of the
speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages in Africa as "black" (i.e.
"Hamitic")? I don't know of any credible linguistics scholars who
continue to use the term "Hamitic." The fact that the skin color of
many so-called Semites is darker than that of many so-called Hamites
only reinforces the uselessness of this distinction.

Finally, as a person of largely Welsh descent, I feel obliged to note
that there is a rear-guard action against the impending death of the
Welsh language cited by Ostler. The promotion of the Welsh language
in Wales via bi-lingual schools, Welsh-language radio and TV, and
other programs has increased bi-lingualism in the Welsh population
in recent years. Therefore, the announcement of the death of the
Welsh language is premature. In fact, the creation of the European
Union and the emergence of English as its lingua franca has also been
accompanied by a cultural and linguistic "devolution" and a
resurgence of interest in local languages and cultures. For example,
while Breton is a minority language in France, both Breton and French
are minority languages in Europe and this fact has only encouraged
efforts to preserve the language and culture of the Bretons (closest
cousins to the Welsh). This situation is repeating itself in other
European countries where certain "minor" or "declining" languages
are getting a new lease on life.

This has important implications for Africa in it long-term effort
to emulate Europe by forming sub-regional unions, e.g. an eventual
West African Union composed of the present ECOWAS member States.
In such a union, all the current languages vying for ascendancy will
be minority languages except for established lingua francas
such as Hausa and Dioula or Bambara. Howe does not indicate
whether Ostler notes the "devolution" process or not and. if he
does, what are its implications for Europe and Africa respectively.

The fact that Ostler could get several not-insignificant and easily
verifiable facts wrong and persists in repeating outdated stereotypes
about African languages undermines my estimation of his book's
value. I have crossed it off my list.
* See also the Ethnologue page on Swahili.
is owned by SIL International, a service organization that works
with people who speak the world’s lesser-known languages.
Copyright © 2005 Kelly J. Morris