Hibiscus with Ginger

Language Isn’t Just Talk

3 Comments

Plenty has happened in the past two weeks—most notably, the referendum in Abyei, which has proven to be a confusing mess and may not actually lead to anything. A lot has been written about that, but discussions of the South and its separation have left me thinking a lot about diversity, language, and ideology.

More specifically, they have me thinking about how ideology is spread through language and language policy. I picked up Yasir Suleiman’s Arabic in the Fray, which discusses this issue focusing on the use of Arabic to advance ideologies through various means. Suleiman, a social linguist, looks at the issue through a variety of lenses, using sources that include interviews, ancient texts, and poetry.

Suleiman’s perspective on the role of Arabic during the shu’ubiyya conflicts seemed particularly relevant to contemporary Sudan and the language ideology coming from the government regime right now. During the Umayyid period, in the eight century, the Arab empire had expanded and was coming into contact with other languages and cultures. While Islam had spread to the Persians, there was still quite a lot of discussion of the role of Arabic. The shu’ubiyya was a debate among intellectuals regarding the status of Arabic and its importance in literature.

Some (largely Persian) scholars argued vehemently against the supremacy of Arabic, saying that the language was primitive since it was connected with Bedouins. Others advanced a view of Arabic as the supreme language, using the language to define Persians (as well as other groups they were coming in contact with) as outsiders. This ideology rested heavily on religion, drawing on the inimitability of the Quran to argue that all other languages (most importantly, their literatures) were inferior.

While these arguments in some ways are antiquated, they seem quite close to ones that the Sudanese government has advanced in a less literary context. Discussions of all Sudanese being both Arab and Muslim (like the statement Bashir made soon after separation) imply that the two are interconnected, that to speak Arabic is to be Muslim, and that both are essential for being Sudanese. This is obviously ideological, and it has been reflected in the government’s language policies. In the 1990s, the government changed the education system to function exclusively in Arabic, both at the secondary school and at the university level, ultimately marginalizing those who used other languages primarily.

There has long been a discussion of what it means to be “Arab,” with some scholars arguing from the beginning that to be Arab simply means to speak Arabic. This expansive view may have had followers from the beginning, but it was always a bit incomplete. The very existence of the  shu’ubiyya indicates that cultural and ethnic components to this identity have always been noted. In the case of Sudan, the ethnic and cultural portion of identity has been quite important, and while it has proven malleable over time (with some tribes beginning to trace their heritage to the Arabian Peninsula), it is pretty fixed in any given generation.

What gets lost though in this sort of discussion (and in the ideology of the government) is that languages are not mutually exclusive, nor is language use always ideological. Suleiman also speaks (in what is possibly my favorite part of the book) of hybrid texts, meaning texts by Arabic speaking authors written in other languages, whether French or Hebrew. What comes through in this chapter is that often, languages exist together in the same person, and they can be used to advance different sensibilities and ideas, often to different audiences. Even in South Sudan, where English was used far more during colonialism and the British deliberately tried to limit access to Arab culture, Arabic spread as a language of convenience, albeit with different vocabulary and pronunciation.

Plenty of Sudanese people function well in Arabic while maintaining identities that have ties to other languages, whether they’re Nubian, Nuba, Beja, Fur, or belong to any number of other groups. It’s easy to attribute this functionality to arabizing projects undertaken by the government over the past fifty years, and that probably has spread Arabic in a way it wouldn’t have spread otherwise. At the same time, this does not mean that Arabic must inherently be the language of oppression when it comes to minorities in Sudan. People function using different languages depending on the situation as a way to reaching out to other groups, and in a large, diverse country like Sudan, using multiple languages seems natural.

I was struck by a comment by Chinua Achebe, responding to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s calls to use “African” languages rather than English. He argued that he used English not because it was an international language, but because it was a language that could unite Nigeria, whose linguistic pluralism made it impossible to be understood throughout the country otherwise. It was for that reason, he concluded, that English was in demand, both during and after colonialism, in spite of British indifference to whether people learned it.

Sudan needs a national language that can be used by everyone in Sudan to communicate, and in many ways, that language has been and will continue to be Arabic, at least in the North. The problem isn’t the language, but the ideology encoded in it. The discussion of what Sudan should look like and how to include the peripheries in state governance will need to involve an acceptance of other cultures, both linguistically and otherwise.

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3 thoughts on “Language Isn’t Just Talk

  1. It’s probably useful to adopt a nuanced view of the role of language the unity of countries. Another Nigerian, the prominent linguist Ayo Bamgbose, has noted the twin fallacies or myth of divisiveness in Africa – that one language always unites and many languages always divides. One of the worst genocides in recent history happened in Rwanda – a country where virtually the entire population shares the same mother tongue (common language also didn’t prevent the worst in say Cambodia or Germany either, just to take one example. The utility of a common language or lingua franca is clear, but it often seems from outside that policies in multilingual countries of Africa see only that and not the complementary utility of education and development in the first languages of the people. Isn’t it more useful to teach about national unity and virtues such as tolerance and harmony in the first languages than to exclude these tongues from education and public discourse in the name of unity?

    Regarding a common lingua franca in South Sudan, I’m curious to know more about the role of so-called Juba Arabic and what I’ve read to be the plans of the government there to introduce Swahili. In the meantime, English has been mandated as the (only?) language of instruction “at all levels of education.” So in the society at large, one will then have in addition to the first languages, effectively 3 common (countrywide) languages?

  2. It’s probably useful to adopt a nuanced view of the role of language the unity of countries. Another Nigerian, the prominent linguist Ayo Bamgbose, has noted the twin fallacies or myth of divisiveness in Africa – that one language always unites and many languages always divides. One of the worst genocides in recent history happened in Rwanda – a country where virtually the entire population shares the same mother tongue (common language also didn’t prevent the worst in say Cambodia or Germany either). The utility of a common language or lingua franca is clear, but by itself doesn’t make unity.

    It often seems from outside that policies in many multilingual countries of Africa see only the ideal of a common language and not the complementary utility of education and development in the first languages of the people. Or how the two are not mutually exclusive. Isn’t it more useful to teach about national unity and virtues such as tolerance and harmony in the first languages than to exclude these tongues from education and public discourse in the name of unity?

    Regarding a common lingua franca in South Sudan, I’m curious to know more about the role of so-called Juba Arabic and what I’ve read to be the plans of the government there to introduce Swahili. In the meantime, English has been mandated as the (only?) language of instruction “at all levels of education.” So in the society at large, one will then have in addition to the first languages, effectively 3 common (countrywide) languages?

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