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Review of  Language and National Identity in Africa

Reviewer: Tracy G. Beckett
Book Title: Language and National Identity in Africa
Book Author: Andrew Alexander Simpson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 19.3816

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EDITOR: Simpson, Andrew
TITLE: Language and National Identity in Africa
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2008

Tracy G. Beckett, Department of Applied Linguistics, Pennsylvania State University

This is the second and most recent series of ''Language and National Identity'',
which introduces the role of language in the construction and development of
national identity. In this edited anthology, Simpson gathers an impressive and
eclectic range of papers from leading scholars examining different countries on
the African continent. The content part of the book is more than three hundred
pages long and illustrated with seventeen maps. The first chapter, an
introduction by the editor, situates the role of language in the on-going
development of national identity in pre and post-colonial Africa and provides
the reader with an overview of the central tenets that arise throughout the
volume. As evidenced by this volume, individual and group use of languages
influence national identity and highlight the complexity of national development.

The volume's second chapter focuses on the language-national identity nexus in
Egypt and addresses Egyptian and Pan-Arab nationalism respectively. Suleiman
adopts an insider's perspective in his presentation of the failed attempts of
early territorial nationalists to promote the locally developed Egyptian variety
of Arabic as a supporting linguistic symbol of Egyptian territorial nationalism
because of deeply embedded perceptions regarding the inferiority of ''colloquial''
forms of Arabic in comparison to classical and modern standard Arabic. Moreover,
he reveals how later pan-Arabism was embraced for emphasizing the ''centrality of
Egypt and its culture in the wider Arab world'' and resulted in a positive
enhancement in its own identity. Given the variability of Arabic, Suleiman
brings together Ferguson's diglossic model (1959) and Blommaert's (2006)
distinction between 'speech community' and 'linguistic community.' Although this
chapter requires the reader to delve into the relevant cultural and linguistic
aspects of Egyptian nationalism, Suleiman's alterity and formulations make for
an informative read.

In the third chapter Ennaji and Sadiqi presents the intricate state of
multilingualism in Morocco and the dynamism of its people. They highlight the
'language-nationalism interface' and the importance of mother tongues in
national identity and gender-building. After providing a historical background
of the dynamic state of multilingualism in Morocco and describing Arabization
and its sociolinguistic ramifications for education, the authors reflect on the
subsequent changes that have occurred in the domain of language and nationalism.
The emergence of gender and the extent of its interaction with language,
cultural revival and prestige are discussed. The authors elucidate that the
traditional position of men in patriarchal Moroccan society is linguistically
maintained by their control of Standard Arabic. As a result of this
marginalization, education through the use of French given its associations with
modernity, French-Moroccan Arabic code-switching, and the use of female oral
literature in Berber and Moroccan Arabic became linguistic strategies of female
empowerment, national identity, social prestige and cultural authenticity. It is
these ethno-linguistic cultural revival patterns that developed gender specific
language allegiances in addition to the revitalization of the use of
mother-tongues. As a whole, this chapter provides an understanding of the
socio-cultural meanings that language use carries and the importance that it
will continue to play in determining the character of nation-building and
national identity in Moroccan society.

In chapter four, James focuses on the linguistic diversity found in Sudan. She
provides a complex yet thorough linguistic and political history of the
'scattered multilingualism' and the resilience of Sudanese languages over time.
Based on an extensive report on the robust role of 140 indigenous languages in
Sudan's political and economical history, the chapter continues to sketch how
constitutionally Arabic and English have become the main national languages.
James suggests ''that instead of focusing on specific languages as such, and the
public competition between them'' we should alternatively focus on ''how they
co-exist, in practice, in all their plurality'' (p. 65). Despite the historically
descriptive nature of this chapter, the author addresses the complex history of
rivalry between languages, language divergence and inter-borrowing while
offering nuanced lenses for viewing plural Sudanese languages and its vitality
over time and place.

The effects of language use on nation-building in Senegal is the main focus of
chapter five, in which McLaughlin explores two salient aspects of the
relationship between language and national identity namely the ''population's
relationship and sense of belonging to a nation-state, and the... identity of an
individual nation-state with the international world order'' (p. 79). She
discusses Senegal's multilingual history and the complex relationship between
language and ethnicity and their roles in the construction and contestation of a
national identity. Her examination of the process of Wolofization interweaves
the central role it played in both the construction of a national identity and
circumscribing the influence of the francophone elite in Senegalese
nation-building. This chapter is a valuable example of how individual
identification with Wolof as the unofficial national lingua franca differs from
French nation-state identity.

Similarly in chapter six, Skattum traces the role of cultural and linguistic
pluralism in Mali's national identity. Aptly characterizing Mali as the least
francophone country, the author sketches the country's multi-ethnic and
multilingual historical background and brings together the role of Bambara as a
dominant indigenous language and the function of the other thirteen national
languages in addition to Arabic and French in the media and educational sector.
Although Bambara does not have official status, French is used by speakers of
the Songhay and Tamachek languages in instances of inter-ethnic communication as
a way to avoid the use of Bambara. Skattum's sociolinguistic landscape and
insightful discussion adds a great deal to our understanding of how language
attitudes are integral to the success of multilingualism in identity and

In the seventh chapter, Oyètádé and Luke present the significant development of
Krio in multilingual Sierra Leone. They theorize the origins of this
English-based creole; investigate its growth, subsequent implications for
national language policy and the position of English as official language in
relation to the other sixteen Sierra Leonean languages. Similar to Wolof and
Bambara, Krio has not received official nationwide status despite its usefulness
for maintaining inter-ethic relations. Furthermore the authors address language
policy implications and offer interesting propositions for national language
planning in the cultivation of national unity.

In the next chapter, Anyidoho and Dakubu focus on the relationship between
language, ethnic identity and Ghanaian national identity. They examine language
policy and practice from the pre-colonial era to present day and its impact on
education, media and local and national government. The authors provide an
in-depth look at the relationship between language and identity by diverse
language groups in Ghana and demonstrate the tensions between ethnic and
national identities. They argue that the formal promotion of many African
languages through the production of dictionaries, grammars and orthographies in
conjunction with teaching materials, promote a higher status and solidify ethnic
identities. However they point out that the insertion of local Ghanaian
languages into the dominant political landscape creates a sense of space to
negotiate political visibility and formulate new demands for justice and
redistribution. This chapter ends with suggestions for dealing with the tension
between national integration and democracy.

In chapter nine, Knutsen delves into the historical, political and
sociolinguistic motivations of French's dominant position in the Ivory Coast. In
particular, the author investigates its role in the ethno-political tension and
the potential for unifying different ethnicities. Although she explains how the
Ivorian national identity has developed and gained consensus, official
monolingualism continues to mask the reality of this bilingual population.
However, Knutsen concludes that ''language planning and integration of Ivorian
languages will have to be a priority in order to assure genuine ethnic
integration'' of different ethno-linguistic groups (p. 170). Despite the symbolic
representation of national unity, readers will enjoy this succinctly written

Simpson and Oyètádé reflect on Nigeria's socio-political and historical
development in chapter ten. Their data consists of a series of language attitude
surveys and provides insights into language and national identity. The authors
provide an overview of the Nigerian languages, highlighting not only the three
major indigenous languages: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo but the inherited language
hierarchies, ''ethnic rivalry and competition for political power and resources''
(p. 173). Their assessment of the ethnic configuration, combined with economic
factors towards language, reveals intricate sociopolitical mechanisms whereby
multilingual language use provides a resource for economic development. As such,
this chapter is an invaluable introduction to national language policy and
planning decisions in a complex ethnolinguistic country.

In chapter eleven, Biloa and Echu describe the dissonant yet dynamic existence
of French and English as co-official languages of Cameroon. The authors survey
the language situation, followed by an examination of multilingualism, national
identity and language policy. Based on the lack of participation from indigenous
languages in national identity, the authors consider the Anglophone quandary
derived from the polarization of uneven bilingualism. In short, they argue that
the government's language policies have not stimulated a shared national
identity, but polarized and separated allegiances between the two major
Anglophone and Francophone group identities which is problematic for national
integration. The paper ends with the implications of ethno-linguistic and
national and sub-national identity.

In the volume's twelfth chapter, Bokamba addresses language and the resilience
of ''authentic nationalism'' in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Based
on his overview of socio-historical developments and linguistic practices, he
examines the pervasiveness of individual and societal multilingualism
responsible for characterizing Congolese nationalism. Using Fishman's (1972)
definition of nationalism, Bokamba examines the role of political and language
policy practices combined with Congolese music and identify the salient forces
contributing to the shaping of a Congolese identity. Despite the distinctive
presence of national languages such as Kikongo, Kiswahili, Lingala and Tshiluba
in certain domains, he convincingly shows that a monolingual portrayal of
national identity is erroneous given this multilingual nation's strong nationalism.

The search for a coherent national identity is the main focus of chapter
thirteen. Githiora explore how Kenya's lingua franca, Swahili, remained
unrelated with the independence and post-independence nationalist movement. The
author provides an overview of the multilingual and multi-ethnic state and
explores the role minority and endangered languages play with regards to
language contact, shift, variation, endangerment and death. For Githiora,
English remains the language of prestige given African language speakers ''deeply
entrenched psychic disbelief in African languages'' (p. 250). Nonetheless, this
chapter is a valuable illustration of the key role that language plays in
cultivating and unifying a sense of national identity.

Similarly, in chapter fourteen, Topan investigates the dynamics that brought
about the acceptance of Swahili as national language amidst Tanzania's
ubiquitous multilingualism. He draws on the commercial enterprise of trade, the
presence of colonial powers, missionary actions in the media and education and
government policies to elucidate the entrenchment of Swahili nationalism.
Despite the presence of other indigenous languages, the author demonstrates how
vigorous promotions resulted in the spread and consolidation of a single
language as a symbol of national unity. Readers will find the inevitable
combination of historical and political factors that have forged and sustained
national identity insightful.

In the next chapter, Appleyard and Orwin focus on the linguistic diversity of
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. The authors investigate the varying
experiences of colonialism, linguistic histories, cultural patterns and
religious adherence. Given that the history of the Horn of Africa is largely
dominated by Ethiopia, the chapter follows suite. Although some readers might be
frustrated by the lack of an outline with which to navigate through the chapter
and subsequent conclusion, the authors provide a detailed examination of the
construction of national identities.

In the sixteenth chapter, Marten and Kula contextualize Zambia's historical and
present-day language context and patterns of use. Despite emphasis only placed
on the value of African languages in the construction of identity during recent
decades, the authors describe the importance of language for national, political
and ethnic identities. They particularly demonstrate the dynamics of specific
patterns of multilingualism built on a long historical tradition and related to
the formation of different linguistic identities. The work addresses
contemporary themes in language and national identity, which readers will welcome.

In the volume's final chapter, Mesthrie employs a sociolinguistic perspective to
characterize South Africa's thriving linguistic diversity. Subsequent to an
historical synopsis, the author recounts key policies of separation and language
debates. Mesthrie examines the role that language can play in education,
political and economic sectors, as a driving force of nationalism in the
country's eleven-language policy, and grapples with the extent to which language
diversity is a problem or a resource. Drawing on Gramscian (Gramsci, 1971) and
'bottom-up' sociolinguistic perspectives, he shows how language has been and
continues to be a subject of contestation. On the whole, this final paper is an
engaging depiction of South Africa's pluralistic and multi-ethnic national unity.

Overall, Simpson gathered an inspiring and diverse set of chapters on language
and national identity in selected African countries. These impressive sixteen
chapters, written by leading scholars, vary in style and coverage. However they
are unified by a sociolinguistic and ethnographic focus on politics and identity
in pre-and post-colonial Africa. The papers are of exceptional quality and their
depth of descriptions represents a copious body of knowledge that exemplifies
the extent to which communities are (dis)interested in the elevation of
indigenous languages to the status of a national official language. However,
readers interested in a theoretical discussion are likely to find it lacking.

Although the lengthy introductory chapter guides the reader through the volume's
content, it fails to provide information on the logic behind the sequence in
which they appear in the collection's internal structure. Given that the
chapters are not clustered in any systematic fashion, readers might prefer to
read the chapters according to the themes Simpson assigned and referred to in
the first chapter. Although each chapter begins with a general sociolinguistic
and historical trajectory, they do not speak to each other. Individual authors'
understanding of the relationship between language policy, language use and
language practice on the one hand, and the wielding of political power, economic
development, social inequality and individual as well as social identities on
the other hand, in the multilingual societies of the African continent could
have provided invaluable intertextual deliberations. Nonetheless, the authors
integrate their own understanding of highly multilingual and linguistic
complexities of respective African states with the language patterns that
analogously reoccur in other African states.

Given the overall effect of the configuration of colonial conquest, imperialism
and globalization to hasten the extinction of innumerable language varieties and
to stigmatize and marginalize all but the most powerful languages, the lack of a
concluding chapter is disappointing. Notwithstanding the coverage of this
volume's individual chapters, a concluding chapter could have contributed to
providing readers with a unified synopsis of the superstructural (policy and
implementation) initiatives needed to promote and reinforce independence,
democracy and economic development on the continent. Recommendations for future
research on synergizing comprehensive and systematic interventions (i.e.
Cooper's (1989) status, corpus and acquisition planning) for not only dispelling
existing preconceptions but using as many African languages as possible in all
the controlling domains such as government, law, business, education, media,
print etc. would have been welcomed. A glossary of terms would also have been

Despite these apparent shortcomings, the collection provides a fascinating and
valuable new perspective on language policy and planning and emphasizes the
constructed yet fluid nature of the language-identity nexus. Indeed it
systematically reveals that language is both the marker and maker of identity
(Le Page and Tabouret-Keller, 1985). By capturing the rich and contentious
settings in which national identity is (re)constructed, this volume offers a
provocatively fascinating read. It seems therefore that this work is an absolute
success with respect to the goals set forth by the editor. It is also quite a
testament to the editor that reputable language experts on the relevant language
families, contributed to the collection. Taken as a whole, this sizeable and
detailed volume is suitable for researchers in the social sciences, particularly
linguistics, history, politics, sociology and anthropology. Graduate students in
these areas will also benefit from the eclectic range of dynamic interactions
between language, politics and identity in Africa.

Blommaert, J. (2006). Language policy and national identity. In T. Ricento
(Ed.), _An introduction to language policy-theory and method_, (pp. 238-254).
Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Cooper, R. (1989). _Language Planning and Social Change_. New York: Cambridge
University Press.

Ferguson, C. (1959). _Diglossia. _Word_, 15, 325-340.

Fishman, J.A. (1972). _Language and nationalism: Two integrative essays_.
Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Gramsci, A. (1971). _Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci_.
London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Le Page, R. and Tabouret-Keller, A. (1985). _Acts of Identity_. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Tracy G. Beckett is an experienced rhetoric and composition teacher with a
M.Phil in Applied Language and Literacy Studies, from the University of Cape
Town. She was the 2007-2008 Dissertation Fellow at the Africana Research Center
and is currently ABD in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the
Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include ESL education;
language policy and planning; sociolinguistics; language, culture and identity;
language ideology; bilingualism across the lifespan; discourse and narrative
studies; and applied linguistics.

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