On African “dialects” as opposed to languages

If you want to know what someone thinks about Africa, ask them about African languages. You’ll find that the word “dialect” comes up a lot more than you would have imagined. Why the stubbornness to refuse to use the term language ?

After looking up the definition of dialect, you’ll find the following alternatives to solve your conundrum:

  1. The person you’re talking to believes that across Africa, people speak varieties of the same language (presumably African?).
  2. They don’t know what a dialect is but you certainly can’t compare their superior language to those ‘dialects’, can you? They use dialect in a derogatory way, if you will.

Let’s be honest. When you live in south-east Asia, French people don’t come and ask you whether you’ve condescended to learn any of the local ‘dialects’. They admire you for putting in the effort to grind through hours of repeating tones and learning the Thai alphabet.

I don’t think the various people I’ve talked to on this topic consciously look down on African cultures but they certainly have internalized a degree of contempt. I don’t blame them for it. Which languages people speak in Africa is probably something they have never given serious thought to.

To be fair, there’s also the widespread perception that all African languages have very few speakers and are therefore negligible. A man I spoke with was shocked to hear that there are several languages he had never heard of, that were spoken by millions of people on the African continent.

In any case, a small European language (in terms of number of speakers) is still regarded as a full-blown language, so why make it a dialect when it happens to be spoken in Africa?


5 thoughts on “On African “dialects” as opposed to languages

  1. Interesting topic. A few months ago I read a piece on the ‘history’ of dev’mt of linguistic/historical categorizatons of and notions about african languages and dialects during the 19th.C. – tightly linked to notions of race (of course). I’ll try to dig it up and put a reference.

      • ok – will try to find it over the weekend; please do jog me again in a few days if you don’t get a response! Things are busy here 🙂

  2. I think that the same can be said about notions: nation and tribe. In Europe we have nations, even if they don’t have any country. But in Africa there are tribes or ethnic groups (which is more politically correct). Our wars were serious and justify but in Africa? There are just pointless tribal wars. Many people in my country think in that way.

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