LINGUIST List 14.2953

Wed Oct 29 2003

Review: Socioling: Makoni, et al. (2003)

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  • Pratyush Chandra, Black Linguistics

    Message 1: Black Linguistics

    Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003 17:46:18 +0000
    From: Pratyush Chandra <>
    Subject: Black Linguistics

    Makoni, Sinfree, Geneva Smitherman, Arnetha F. Ball and Arthur K. Spears, ed. (2003) Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics in Africa and the Americas, Routledge.

    Announced at

    Pratyush Chandra, Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter), New Delhi (India)

    Whoever has a slight historical sense can easily understand the underlying depth in DuBois' (1903) statement that ''the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line''. The color line is not simply that of colors, it is the whole logic of colonization that constitutes this hierarchic 'colored' division. We have seen throughout the last century, inter-imperialist rivalry to gain access to cheap natural and social resources, and have witnessed whole continents getting united in the struggle for de-colonization -- Vietnam, South Africa, etc. And they have succeeded too. In fact, exactly a hundred years after the great Afro-American writer uttered this word we are a witness to the process of colonization and de-colonization having traveled a full circle in the spiral path of societal development. Still, the last century was different in the sense of a lower degree of dispersal, and one could identify particular zones of problems. But today one can actually really see the Blakean ''world in a grain of sand'', contradictions intensified at every level of the society. The color line too is 'dispersed' and one can feel it encapsulated in each cell of the society. This provides a greater opportunity to merge and converge the interests at varied locations, along with facing far greater risks and difficulties. The present book is the recognition of this opportunity of realignment, bringing together linguists from North America and Africa. The book starts with a foreword by a great African scholar-activist Ngugi wa Thiong'o who recognizes the spirit of resistance inherent in the life and toil of the oppressed masses, their 'no' to the Culture of Silence. ''Languages meant to die have simply refused to die. Languages pushed to the periphery have refused to stay in the periphery.'' He calls for ''de-colonizing the mind'' by narrowing the division between mind and body -- between the intellectual and the common man.

    This book is a collection of well- researched articles by Black socio- linguists committed to their community and to the cause of eliminating its deprivation. '' Black Linguistics must contribute toward an understanding of the nature of oppression and strategies for conquering it, or at the very least for containing it.'' (5) Being a part of the project of ''decolonizing the mind'', ''liberation is foremost in the thinking and intellectual practices of Black Linguistics.'' (8) The editors of the book feel that it is only through such tasks that they, as ''intellectual activists'', can contribute in the advancement of language studies. ''The central issue which we address in Black Linguistics is what 'being Black', or 'becoming Black', means in language scholarship. One critical thing that it means, as this volume demonstrates, is that the Black Linguistics perspective asks ''fundamental-liberation oriented'' question and candidly seeks to provide language solutions to problems.'' (10)

    The book is divided into three parts. The first dealing with ''ideological practices in research on Black Linguistics'' contains three chapters. The first chapter by Donald Winford deals with language ideologies surrounding the status of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It brilliantly explores the forms of linguistic prejudice against AAVE, and successfully demonstrates their ideological (in the sense of ''false consciousness'') character, by detailing on the contrary factual materials. The chapter deals with the prejudice concerning AAVE's history, which has been systematically denied or defamed, except its ''British dialectal continuities''. This feeds the notion that AAVE is simply a variant of English. On the contrary, AAVE shows an African influence in phonology, vocabulary and communicative styles. Further, there are other grammatical features besides copula absence, like tense/aspect auxiliaries etc., which have origins in the creativity and history of the speakers. Winford criticizes the variationist approach that considers AAVE simply to be derivative of Standard English (SE), denying its autonomy. He shows that both AAVE and SE are socio-cultural constructs, ''the former associated with the culture and social practice of the African American community, the latter with some ideology of what ''correct'' linguistic behaviour should be.'' (29) In their function to hierarchize speech, language ideologies like any other ideology naturalizes relations of power and privilege, hence act as modes of social control in favor of dominant interest groups. The linguistic prejudice against AAVE represents the discrimination against the black community, and deprives it in every aspect of its social life.

    The second chapter by H. Samy Alim dealing with Hip Hop language further explores the relationship between the ideological role of language and identity formation. It begins with a note on stylistic variation in African American Language (AAL) and the style-shifting phenomenon. It goes on to concentrate on the theme of how Hip Hop artists construct a street conscious identity through language.

    In its pursuance of the theme of linguistics of liberation the third chapter by Velma Pollard traces the language and history of Rastafari culture. This particular ''Dread Talk'', as it is called, was constructed in Jamaica. Although the movement deifying the then emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassi started in 1930, but the language evolved after two decades or so, gaining prominence with the songs of Bob Marley, who sang ''Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.'' Eventually, Rastafari culture and music have gone beyond Jamaica, with even non-blacks adopting them. The I-aric (importance of the phono-semantically rich sound /ai/) language or Rastafari ''wordological'' innovations have affected not only the lexicon of Jamaican English, but also other languages.

    The fourth chapter (first of Part 2 on ''conceptualization and status of Black languages'') written by Zaline M. Roy Campbell begins the discussion on ''promoting African languages as conveyors of knowledge in educational institution'', and provides an overview of the challenges faced by the educators in postcolonial Africa. After discussing on how the colonial legacy of prioritizing the languages of colonial rulers developed a ''mental colonization'' resulting into a marginalization of common masses and their language, the author goes on to narrate the experiences in different African countries. Despite contradictions, the African countries are positively empowering the native languages. ''At the turn of the nineteenth century, Europeans were engaged in elaborating African languages for their own purposes. By the end of the twentieth century, Africans in some countries had begun to re- appropriate their languages. The challenge for African scholars in the new millennium is to extend this vision to empower African language.''(98-99)

    The subsequent chapter by Hassana Alidou develops on the same theme with regard to specifically Francophone Africa. An interesting aspect discussed is the neo-colonial subversion of the ''post-colonial'' education system in these countries -- how through financial aid and donation, the erstwhile colonizer, France, is essentially helping its publishing industry to profit. This fact never allows any African language to come up as a viable alternative to French, as this would mean a loss of ''a large textbook market'' that these countries have become. Further, ''since most countries rely heavily on international aid, ministries of education and governments in general have very limited power to implement education and language policies not favored by the major donors to a given country's educational programs.'' (112)

    Chapters 6 and 7 written by Nkhelebeni Phaswana and Sinfree Makoni respectively study the South African context. The South African Constitution recognizes eleven official languages which assigns dual task for the government -- firstly, to sustain a multilingual and multicultural environment, and secondly, to promote and elevate the status of African languages. Phaswana reevaluates the state institutions' performance in this regard through a study of official documents and linguistic performances and ideologies of the representatives in South Africa's National Assembly and portfolio committee rooms. It provides a historical survey of language question in the context of colonialism and apartheid. ''So long as the national government uses English and Afrikaans as the only languages of record in Parliament, those who continue to fight for the use and recognition of African languages will continue to be regarded as uneducated and uncivilized, and their voices ignored and ultimately regarded silences. That will be the betrayal of our freedom and democracy, for freedom can only be fulfilled when the languages of the people are utilized in all segments of the society.'' (130)

    It is in the article by Sinfree Makoni that the question of linguistic identity has been discussed cogently as an ideology. It shows how such identities are systematically invented and 'legitimated' through sanctified constitutional provisions in South Africa. ''The South African constitution, by recognizing nine African languages as neatly divided, 'bounded units' ... or 'hermetically sealed units' ... is socially alienating and cognitively disadvantaging to the very people it is intended to serve.'' (132) On the one hand, this creates ''imagined'' linguistic communities 'atomized' from each other, ''where the existence of separate indigenous languages is taken as self-evident, unproblematic, and an uncontested socio-linguistic fact.'' (134) Makoni shows how this is a colonial legacy established by missionaries, where ''faulty transcriptions and mishearings'', together with the choice of diverse orthographic systems, all played their part. On the other hand, these invented units do not account for the linguistic differences within the so-called African languages. Hence, ''there is a very sharp disjuncture between language praxis and standard forms of the languages,'' leading ironically to further alienation of the common masses, which was sought to be eliminated by the policies. The pedagogic implication is also quite clear -- the whole notion of educational right of the masses to be taught in their mother tongue fails, ''as the notion of ''mother tongue'' may mean very different things when used for institutional purposes than when used in the real world.'' (138) Another effect of this 'officalisation' of some standardized forms of speech would be ''plural monolingualism'' opposed to a genuine multilingualism ''since all the country's languages are officially recognized, all one need do is become competent in the standard version of his/her own language.'' (139) Makoni calls for a ''disinvention project'' against the above ''misinvention'', based on the perspective of viewing different African languages as multilayered and interconnected chains. He concludes, ''The metaphor that most accurately applies to the African situation is not self-enclosed partitions, but ''frontiers.'' The main strength of the ''frontier'' metaphor is that it resists notions of barriers and works on the basis of interconnectedness, unlike the underlying construct forming the basis of notions about language in the South African Constitution. Conceiving of language as interconnected patterns enables me to talk about the number of languages a speaker controls.'' (144)

    The third part dealing with ''inclusion and exclusion through language'' starts with a study of discriminatory linguistic profiling in the US. John Baugh begins by citing legal paradox regarding linguistic profiling of ''sounding black'' and narrates his personal anecdotes on such profiling in his searching for accommodation. But he thinks that ''just as linguistic diversity has been used to accentuate differences among us, it also unites us into the bundles of linguistic enclaves that reinforce our heritage and pride in our ancestry,'' which are multiethnic. (163) He calls for accentuating ''the benefits of preferential linguistic profiling, while discarding the tradition of discriminatory linguistic profiling that fans the embers of racial discord.'' (166)

    The ninth chapter by Awad El Karim M. Ibrahim is on the role of language in ''becoming Black''. The essay shows how continental Africans coming to North America suddenly confront themselves as blacks and how language learning, in this case AAVE, which they learnt through Hip Hop helped them in ''becoming black''. Without forgetting their African language and culture, the code-switching becomes a norm among them -- switching between mother tongues, French, ''standard'' English and Black English. The author explains this scenario with an anecdotal presentation. ''Becoming Black -- or entering already pronounced regimes of Blackness -- meant joining the exiled category of Blackness; exiled because of the history of colonialism, the middle passage, and slavery.'' (182) The final chapter of the book by Arnetha F. Ball provides a cross- national comparative study ''based on an innovative teacher educational course implemented over a three-year period in the US and South Africa in an effort to help teachers become better prepared to teach culturally and linguistically diverse students.'' (186) The target is to analyze educational institutions as linguistic gatekeepers, and teachers as agencies for language ideologies. The study shows how critical education of teachers can conscientise them and through coupling of intellectual activity ''with interactive participation in carefully designed classroom activities'', their commitment towards the society and against ideologies denigrating the oppressed could be developed.

    On the whole, the book stands out as a sociolinguistic contribution in building up the counter-hegemony against language ideologies that tend to ''hierarchize'' linguistic praxes and sub-standardize languages of the oppressed. It is a ''critical reading'' of the world from a socio- linguistic point of view. The biggest asset of the book is that the contributors are critical participants of the linguistic praxes on which they reflect. To paraphrase Paulo Freire (1994), these educators- educatees because of their own experiences ''have reacted almost instinctively against any word, deed, or sign or racial discrimination'' (and that is why the texts frequently become anecdotal).

    The contributors have succeeded in problematizing the positivist notion of 'neutral' observer-researcher that dominates in the academic practice, especially in socio-linguistics. They have exposed the ideological aspect of such neutrality and societal biases inherent in it. But I think in their zeal, they have erred in their judgments regarding 'Chomskyan' (generative) linguistics. They think language to be a ''social practice'' embedded in the social being of humans, which is indeed correct at its face value. But for them, the generativist approach eliminates the sociality of human language. I perceive this idea to be akin to saying that discussing human biology amounts to denying the social nature of human beings. Further, this view tends to the same empiricist fallacy of descriptivism, which is rampant in social research celebrating varieties, particularism/specifism and overlooking the dialectics of concrete and abstract, of general and particular, that constitute the reality. With regards to the generativist approach, I better quote Uriagereka (1998) that lucidly questions the false dichotomization of the study of ''triggering input'' (that includes social aspects too) along with its varied results and the 'abstract' language faculty:

    ''Of course they're [Chinese, Swahili, Navajo, Basque, or Hebrew] different, but you'd be surprised how similar they are at a moderately abstract level. Not only do they all use words and phrases, and comparable phonological processes and basically identical semantic analyses, but in fact, once you get down to analyzing what's structurally possible and impossible in all of these languages, what you find are essentially the same processes. So much so that it's reasonable to conclude that we all speak Human language -- just Human, for short -- with mere dialectal variations among ourselves. But of course, first of all, without any triggering input, human LADs [language acquisition devices] couldn't have acquired a language; and second, dialects of Human must be explained as much as Human must, and we must relate to the LAD's workings: since the input varies, the output varies.''

    The innatist perspective simply provides an insight into the general linguistic capacity of humans. In fact latest developments in linguistics especially, minimalism and biolinguistics, provide a scientific base for exposing the 'ideologised' realm of language hierarchy, standardization etc., which I think is the aim of the contributors of the book. But as Darwin's theory led to Social Darwinism/socio-biology and genetics to reductionist explanation of everything social in terms of genes, social ideologies manipulate scientific findings for rationalizing social phenomena. But does this mean repudiation of the science itself like Lysenko and Stalin did with regards to genetics? This would only mean creating more ideologies. In fact, what is urgent is to understand these findings and unfold their real implications, and expose the ideologies that seek to use them to naturalize some social values inherent in a particular socio-cultural environment. For example, the insistence on the cipher-like character of the production of language varieties (to reveal unto friends and conceal unto enemies) by some linguists seems to me to be such naturalization, as it universalizes and de-temporalizes the notion of competition. This provides socio-linguistic research with a new agenda that presumes collaboration between socio-linguistics and generative linguistics. As Winford in his chapter himself says, ''It is high time we reassert the complementary relationship between studies of I(nternalized)-language and studies of E(xternalized)-language, rather than treating them as polar opposites.'' (24)

    Despite this peripheral, yet vital, mistake, the book is a marvelous contribution in the study of identity question and the role of language in its formation. The essays establish a solid agenda for further research in the field, and for socio-linguistic contribution countering the ideologies and biases. Such works become furthermore urgent as one must remember that now the ''color line'' is not so much colored, as it is systemic and structural, having agencies at every level, earlier as ''compradors'' now as legitimate representatives (as Alidou, Makoni and others successfully show). Hence what is needed is ''critical reading'' of everything around us from a socio-linguistic point of view. The authors have taken the first few steps towards such exposition, and we expect more from them and from others.


    Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Republished in Three Negro Classics (1965), New York: Avon Books.

    Freire, Paulo. 1994. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

    Uriagereka, Juan. 1998. Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


    Pratyush Chandra is associated with the Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter) and has worked on identity question in India with relation to Hindu-Urdu conflict.