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.
Klaus Beyer and Henning Schreiber
The Social Network Analysis approach (SNA), also known as sociometrics or actor-network analysis, investigates social structure on the basis of empirically recorded social ties between actors. It thereby aims to explain e.g. the processes of flow of information, spreading of innovations, or even pathogens throughout the network by actor roles and their relative positions in the network based on quantitative and qualitative analyses. While the approach has a strong mathematical and statistical component, the identification of pertinent social ties also requires a strong ethnographic background. With regard to social categorization, SNA is well suited as a bootstrapping technique for highly dynamic communities and under-documented contexts. Currently, SNA is widely applied in various academic fields. For sociolinguists, it offers a framework for explaining the patterning of linguistic variation and mechanisms of language change in a given speech community.
The social tie perspective developed around 1940, in the field of sociology and social anthropology based on the ideas of Simmel, and was applied later in fields such as innovation theory. In sociolinguistics, it is strongly connected to the seminal work of Lesley and James Milroy and their Belfast studies (1978, 1985). These authors demonstrate that synchronic speaker variation is not only governed by broad societal categories but is also a function of communicative interaction between speakers. They argue that the high level of resistance against linguistic change in the studied community is a result of strong and multiplex ties between the actors. Their approach has been followed by various authors, including Gal, Lippi-Green, and Labov, and discussed for a variety of settings; most of them, however, are located in the Western world.
The methodological advantages could make SNA the preferred framework for variation studies in Africa due to the prevailing dynamic multilingual conditions, often on the backdrop of less standardized languages. However, rather few studies using SNA as a framework have yet been conducted. This is possibly due to the quite demanding methodological requirements, the overall effort, and the often highly complex linguistic backgrounds. A further potential obstacle is the pace of theoretical development in SNA. Since its introduction to sociolinguistics, various new measures and statistical techniques have been developed by the fast growing SNA community. Receiving this vast amount of recent literature and testing new concepts is likewise a challenge for the application of SNA in sociolinguistics.
Nevertheless, the overall methodological effort of SNA has been much reduced by the advancements in recording technology, data processing, and the introduction of SNA software (UCINET) and packages for network statistics in R (‘sna’). In the field of African sociolinguistics, a more recent version of SNA has been implemented in a study on contact-induced variation and change in Pana and Samo, two speech communities in the Northwest of Burkina Faso. Moreover, further enhanced applications are on the way for Senegal and Cameroon, and even more applications in the field of African languages are to be expected.