Where is Hochnamibian? – a rejoinder to Bjarnesen et al

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On 2 March, Bjarnesen et al engaged with our reply to their earlier post on citizenship in Africa. Our reply had expressed surprise that language was not mentioned as one of the factors relevant for citizenship in Africa and referred to the language issue as the ‘elephant in the room’. In their latest contribution, Bjarnesen et al, while pleading ‘guilty’ to this omission, nonetheless contend that there are many ‘elephants’ in the room when it comes to discussing citizenship, all of more or less equal standing.

So, let us restate our position in no uncertain terms: in our view, sufficient knowledge of the official language of a state is a necessary condition for meaningful citizenship of a state. Without such knowledge, there can be no true democratic debate and no real accountability and thus no effective citizenship.  

In their response, Bjarnesen et al at do engage with language issues. We welcome this, but the response also shows some important differences between their approach and ours. Thus, Bjarnesen et al defend the continued use of colonial languages as necessary and ‘pragmatic’, ‘to avoid the emergence of ethnic nationalism’. This stance glosses over the problem that we pointed out in our original intervention, which was that using former colonial languages robs the majority of the African population of effective citizenship. There is also an element of double standard to this stance: there seems to be a difference here in the appreciation of the language rights of coloniser countries on the one hand and of the language rights of the once colonised on the other. What for instance could be more ‘pragmatic’ than to adopt English as the language of the United Nations, or, for that matter, of the European Union? Such a ‘pragmatic approach’ would after all be cheaper for all concerned, and might also help to avoid the growth of ‘ethnic nationalism’.  

The fixed utilitarian stance taken by Bjarnesen et al also glosses over the important aspect of affect in language use, which has long been internationally recognised. This refers to the psychological effects of the imposition of external languages on colonised, and sometimes non-colonised, polities. These psychological aspects can be as debilitating as the utilitarian aspects of language use. The international recognition of these aspects is usually couched in terms of the right of the child, of citizens, and of language minorities to have access to learning, law, administration, etc.  in their own languages. Such access has utilitarian benefits such as sound cognitive development, ease of communication and assurance of democratic and economic participation, but to these are also added affective benefits such as confidence in oneself and pride in one’s native heritage.

The solutions that we propose to the language conundrum in Africa in our reply and elsewhere are indeed not entirely new. There are certainly attempts at using African languages more in some African states. Since Bjarnesen et al point this out themselves, giving a long list of such attempts with modest successes here and there, it is surprising that they simultaneously dismiss it as a ‘pseudo-solution’. Our argument is that, also from the perspective of citizenship, it is important to stimulate and strengthen these attempts, rather than, as the authors continue to do, demean them as harbingers of ethnic nationalism, which the authors somehow see as positive and harmless in the case of Baden-Württemberg, but as negative and harmful in the case of Africa.

The problem of the double standard is glaringly visible when Bjarnesen et al discuss our reference to the choice of Hochdeutsch as the official language out of the different languages and dialects of Germany. German, they point out, is one language with a number of dialects. However, they do not state the authority upon which they make this claim. There are several databases that try to list all the separate languages in the world. One of them is the Glottolog, actually based in Germany. According to that database, Modern High German is in fact made up of twelve different languages. Let us not judge German by one standard and African languages by another.

The authors sarcastically ask ‘where is Hochnamibian?’, apparently mistaking the deutsch in Hochdeutsch for the country, Germany, and paralleling this with Namibia. Would Hochdeutsch have developed the way it has if Namibia had intervened in Germany in the same way that Germany intervened in Namibia? Herero and Nama might be Namibia’s official languages today were it not for German colonial and genocidal activities on the continent (for which the country recently apologised). Without the forced colonial amalgamation of disparate nations that constitute today’s Nigeria, ‘Hochyoruba’ might have developed as lingua franca for the languages and dialects that constitute what linguists have dubbed ‘Yoruboid’. The same is true for a number of other ‘ethnic’ languages in the country. Unfortunately, all over Africa, attempts at using African languages more have been frustrated, suppressed, and ridiculed by (neo-)colonial powers.

The major objective of our initial reply to Bjarnessen et al was to draw attention to the omission of any reference to language in their article on citizenship, and the possible implications of any such omission. The response by Bjarnesen et al corrected this omission and that is a welcome development. A decolonial approach to these issues must be based on modern African cultural and linguistic practices. It should respect, rather than demean, African linguistic and cultural identities and the aspirations of Africans to maintain them.

(See also: Language of Education and Development in Africa: Prospects for Decolonisation and Empowerment, eds Oloruntoba-Oju, van Pinxteren and Schmied. Gottingen: Cuvillier, 2022).

Dr. Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju teaches English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria.

Dr. Bert van Pinxteren is a guest researcher at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics.


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