Almost every single time I talk about my Tanzanian roots with non-Africans, I brace myself for the inevitable. It starts out benignly enough. A glimmer of curiosity sparks in their eye when I mention Tanzania.
“Where is that exactly?” they ask warmly. I tell them. I’m happy to answer questions and broaden anyone’s imagination of Africa.
“What do they speak there?” they continue, smiling. I answer the question, but prepare myself for what’s about to come…
“Is that the main dialect?/Do they speak other dialects there?/How many dialects are there exactly?”
Dialects. DIALECTS. I cringe. My blood simmers. But instead of yelling, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” I pause, take a breath and answer, “oh, yes that is the main language/actually there are 129 different languages spoken in Tanzania” and try not to look too annoyed. After all, most of these people are well-meaning and sincerely curious, just dangerously miseducated about Africa and Africans like 90% of the world.
Sadly, this doesn’t just happen in personal conversations. Respected news sources (see HERE and HERE, and HERE) regularly use that dreaded word to describe what is actually an African language. In fact, a recent post on one of my favorite Facebook pages, “AfroPunk” an entertainment page dedicated to “celebrating the creativity and freedom of spirit in alternative Black culture” led me to write this post. In the description section about the release of a new music video by Jojo Abot, Ewe, a language spoken by more than 3 million people in Ghana, was referred to as a “dialect”. (They have since changed the post to say language).
So What’s the Problem?
Assuming that African people speak “dialects” instead of languages is just one manifestation of a larger problem: seeing African people as culturally and intellectually inferior. As people who have somehow not developed enough to even be able to create their own full languages. After all, languages have rules and grammar and complicated vocabulary. Dialects…well, not so much.
It’s understandable. Most people’s conception of Africans is born out of National Geographic images: minimally dressed brown people sandwiched between shots of lions and red sunsets, people speaking in clicks and other unintelligible sounds (translation: sounds that THEY can’t make. Taa, a Khoisan “click” language spoken in South Africa actually has more phonemes, or distinct sounds, than any other language in the world!) and therefore become more equated with animal noises instead of the complex HUMAN language sounds that they are. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First…
What even IS a dialect?
According to linguists, “dialect” refers to the variations (vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation) within a language, spoken by a particular group of people. So dialects COME OUT of a language. Y’all, dialects are basically accents! Regional accents! So asking “what dialects do they speak in ___African country?” is almost equivalent to asking, “what accents do they speak in ___African country?” It makes no sense to ask someone what accents a group of people speak before you ask what languages they speak!
Which leads me to the next point about dialects. Max Weinreich, a famous sociolinguist once said, “language is a dialect with an army and navy”. Phew! Meaning, the distinction between language and dialect is really socio-political! It has been used to give prestige and importance to certain groups of people (those in power) and strip those qualities away from others (socially and economically oppressed groups). This difference has even helped groups of people claim their own states and deny other groups their right to independence. (see, Ukraine, the Balkans).
The Written Word
But there’s more. People often imagine languages as having their own writing systems (and therefore, more advanced and complex) and dialects as those that are only spoken. But only a small percentage of the 6,000-7,000 languages in the world actually have their own writing systems (there are 36)! And apparently, the most complex language in the world (according to an interesting piece in The Economist) is Tuyuca, a language spoken in the Amazon, that has no writing system of its own.
Now when most people think about ‘written language systems’, Africa is probably one of the LAST places to come to mind. Whenever we hear about systems of communication in Africa we mostly hear about drums, music and oral history. And since Africa is filtered through a lens of racial prejudice and considered to be less advanced (ie; civilized) than other parts of the world, very little importance is placed on these drums and oral traditions which are are actually quite complicated, fascinating and diverse. Oral traditions that include beautiful and profound poetry (yes, POETRY) myths, proverbs and multi-layered participatory musical communication through drumming are often swept under the rug and regarded as pure instinct or impulse. You know the whole, “African people are just so muuuuusical”, as if oral communication happens without any intellectual thought or purposeful development. In fact, one really has to go out of their way to even learn about these various forms of art and communication (yes, ART not “artifacts”! That’s another post though…) which is maddening. But even more interesting is the fact that….get ready for it….AFRICA ACTUALLY HAS A LONG HISTORY OF WRITTEN SYSTEMS!
And I’m not even talking about Ancient Egypt. (I don’t want to get into the many contributions of black Africans in Ancient Egypt because that subject has been done and done by many others and would be an entirely separate post).
Nsbidi, an ancient script thought to have started in 5,000 B.C. and is still in use today, developed in West Central Africa (what is now Nigeria and Cameroon). It was used mainly for sacred texts, but also had a version for popular/secular use.
Vai, a written language from Liberia/Sierra Leone was once thought to have begun in the 1830s but Vai inscriptions actually date back to 3,000 B.C.
And Ethiopians of course, have been using Ethiopic or Ge’ez since forever (800 BC till today).
And this is just a sample.
I only mention these writing systems because I want to reveal how the complexity of African languages is not limited to the spoken word. I feel the need to mention the history of African writing because of the great importance we place on the written word and it’s relationship to advanced societies today. But of course, most of the world is using the Latin, Arabic or Chinese alphabet anyway so…
Calling African languages, “dialects” is what I consider one of many microaggressions. They are usually “innocent” and “well-meaning” but do cause damage over time. It’s like getting accidentally knocked over by someone on the metro. But a thousand times. After awhile you really start to get angry and bruised, and you realize it’s happening because people either think you’re invisible, or not that important or a combination of both.
In the grand scheme of racism and prejudice does the term “dialect” instead of “language” really matter?
Hell yes it does!
Because it only enforces condescending beliefs about Africa and Africans. Because it continues the pattern of imagining African people as inferior. And that IS dangerous. It’s one of the reasons why the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so necessary. The fact that we even have to cry, “BLACK LIVES MATTER” is because we all receive messages either consciously or subconsciously, to the contrary. This dialect vs. language distinction is one of the many harmful subconscious messages we receive.
So please, let’s start calling African languages, LANGUAGES. Because that’s what they are.