Judith T. Irvine
In the indigenous sociolinguistic systems of West Africa, an important way of expressing—and creating—social hierarchy in interaction is through intermediaries: third parties, through whom messages are relayed. The forms of mediation vary by region, by the scale of the social hierarchy, and by the ways hierarchy is locally understood. In larger-scale systems where hierarchy is elaborate, the interacting parties include a high-status person, a mediator who ranks lower, and a third person or group—perhaps another dignitary, but potentially anyone. In smaller-scale, more egalitarian societies, the (putative) interactants could include an authoritative spirit represented by a mask, the mask’s bearer, a “translator,” and an audience. In all these systems, mediated interactions may also involve distinctive registers or vocalizations. Meanwhile, the interactional structure and its characteristic ways of speaking offer tropes and resources for expressing politeness in everyday talk.
In the traditions connected with precolonial kingdoms and empires, professional praise orators deliver eulogistic performances for their higher-status patrons. This role is understood as transmission—transmitting a message from the past, or from a group, or from another dignitary—more than as creating a composition from whole cloth. The transmitter amplifies and embellishes the message; he or she does not originate it. In addition to their formal public performances, these orators serve as interpreters and intermediaries between their patrons and their patrons’ visitors. Speech to the patron is relayed through the interpreter, even if the original speaker and the patron are in the same room. Social hierarchy is thus expressed as interactional distance.
In the Sahel, these social hierarchies involve a division of labor, including communicative labor, in a complex system of ranked castes and orders. The praise orators, as professional experts in the arts of language and communication, are a separate, low-ranking category (known by the French term griot). Some features of griot performance style, and the contrasting—sometimes even disfluent—verbal conduct of high-ranking aristocrats, carry over into speech registers used by persons of any social category in situations evoking hierarchy (petitioning, for example). In indigenous state systems further south, professional orators are not a separate caste, and chiefs are also supposed to have verbal skills, although still using intermediaries. Special honorific registers, such as the esoteric Akan “palace speech,” are used in the chief’s court. Some politeness forms in everyday Akan usage today echo these practices.
An example of a small-scale society is the Bedik (Senegal-Guinea border), among whom masked dancers serve as the visible and auditory representation of spirit beings. The mask spirits, whose speech and conduct contrasts with their bearers’ ordinary behavior, require “translators” to relay their messages to addressees. This too is mediated communication, involving a multi-party interactional structure as well as distinctive vocalizations.
Linguistic repertoires in the Sahel have long included Arabic, and Islamic learning is another source of high status, coexisting with other traditional sources and sharing some interactional patterns. The European conquest brought European languages to the top of West African linguistic hierarchies, which have remained largely in place since independence.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
About 7,000 languages are spoken around the world today. The actual number depends on where the line is drawn between language and dialect—an arbitrary decision because languages are always in flux. But specialists applying a reasonably uniform criterion across the globe count well over two thousand languages in Asia and Africa, while Europe has just shy of three hundred. In between are the Pacific region, with over thirteen hundred languages, and the Americas, with just over 1,000. Many of the world’s languages are spoken by small populations and are thought likely to disappear over the next few decades, as speakers of endangered languages turn to more widely spoken ones.
The languages of the world are grouped into 141 language families, based on their origin, as determined by comparing similarities among languages and deducing how they evolved from earlier ones. While the world’s language families may well go back to a smaller number of original languages, even to a single mother tongue, scholars disagree on how far back current methods permit us to trace the history of languages.
While it is normal for languages to borrow from other languages, occasionally a totally new language is created by mixing elements of two distinct languages to such a degree that we would not want to identify one of the source languages as the mother tongue. This is the situation with Media Lengua, a language of Ecuador formed through contact among speakers of Spanish and speakers of Quechua. In this language, practically all the word stems are from Spanish, while all of the endings are from Quechua. Just a handful of languages have come into being in this way, but a less extreme form of language mixture has resulted in several dozen creoles around the world. Most arose during Europe’s colonial era, when European colonists used their language to communicate with local inhabitants, who in turn blended vocabulary from the European language with grammar largely from their native language. These so-called creole languages became so well established that they were passed on to the next generation, becoming a first language to many people, and continuing in use to this day.
Also among the languages of the world are about three hundred sign languages, used mainly in communicating with the deaf. The structure of sign languages typically has little historical connection to the structure of nearby spoken languages.
Languages have also been constructed expressly, often by a single individual, to meet communication demands. The prime example is Esperanto, designed to serve as a universal language and used as a second language by some two million, according to some estimates. But there are hundreds of others falling under the rubric of constructed international auxiliary languages.