Colloquium: Changing roles for African languages in the past, present, and future

4-5:30pm, Harper 103
Matthias Brenzinger, University of Cologne

In this presentation we focus on language choices by which speakers and communities maintain or abandon African languages. We will analyze language shifts in African communities in the past, present and future.

The African language market, in contrast to the continents' otherwise weak economy and small population strength, includes one third of the world’s languages. Today, African people communicate in more than two thousand languages representing a significant part of the world’s linguistic diversity, also comprising a great deal of typological variation.

Language choices for individual members in neglected societies are often a matter of social and even physical survival. Community structures in such pressurized social units generally demand from members to conform to social norms and proficiency in the heritage language is often a basic requirement.

Most African societies and individuals at present are multilingual, and speak additional languages to which specific functions are assigned. Individuals may pick different languages from their repertoire for communicating with their relatives, at the market, at the church or mosque, at school, etc. Thus different languages may be used in different contexts, holding specific roles in rather stable multilingual settings.

African vernaculars survived in such large numbers for reasons, such as still prevailing subsistence economy, widespread poverty and the marginalization of the rural communities within the African nation states. However, the continent is changing and this will affect also the fate of African languages.