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The Inventions of African Identities and Languages: The Discursive and Developmental Implications
Paul Tiyambe Zeleza
14-26 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


The paper discusses the challenges of analyzing African identities and languages and the discursive and developmental implications of the notion that both "Africa" and African languages are inventions. It is noted that "Africa" is exceedingly difficult to define, which makes many academic and popular discourses of African identities and languages quite problematic. It is pointed out that African identities and all their constitutive elements, including language are, in their construction and composition, historical and heterogeneous. The essay begins by examining the racial, representational, geographical, and historical conceptions of African identities, then it considers the challenges of conceptualizing African languages in the colonial and postcolonial eras. It interrogates the contestation between the colonial and indigenous languages and their respective capacities to carry the weight of Africa's social thought and modernist dreams, to act as communicative media for African culture and aspirations for scientific and material development. The central argument of the essay is that empowering African languages requires, first and foremost, recognizing and empowering the multiple identities of the speakers of those languages, and breaking the unproductive dichotomies between language use and educational language, indigenous and European languages, and "official" and "vernacular" indigenous languages. Multilingualism is a reality in much of Africa, not simply in terms of the proficiency that many people have in African and European languages, but in terms of the proficiency they have in several African languages in which mixed language forms and code-mixing among these languages characterize communicative practice as people encountering each other from different ethnic, class, and cultural backgrounds seek to create new identities out of their engagements. The processes of creating new identities through old and new languages are etched deep in the historical and cultural landscape of this ancient continent.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Shifting the Center of Africanism in Language Politics and Economic Globalization
edited by Olaoba F. Arasanyin and Michael A. Pemberton
Table of contents
Printed edition: $250.00