A growing phenomena in urban centers on the African continent in the latter half of the 20th century and start of the 21st century has been what have been described as Urban Youth Languages,’ although the ‘urban’ moniker is increasingly being dropped as these phenomena spread out from cities to rural areas. The term tends to refer to language phenomena such as Sheng or Engsh in Kenya, Tsotsitaal in South Africa, Nouchi in Ivory Coast, Camfranglais in Cameroon, and many more, both named and unnamed. These language styles are used and innovated predominantly by young people, and in this way they are distinguished from the large urban vernaculars present in African urban centers such as urban Wolof.
African (Urban) Youth Languages usually utilize a dominant urban language as the grammatical base, such as Swahili in Nairobi Sheng and Zulu or Sotho in Johannesburg Tsotsitaal, and they feature a great deal of lexical borrowing from other languages present in Africa’s highly multilingual urban contexts, such as the colonial languages and the local African languages common to a particular urban center. They also may utilize the dominant European language as the grammatical base, such as French in the case of Camfranglais, with borrowings from English and African languages. They strikingly draw on metaphor and pop culture in the innovation of new terms. These varieties are ‘languages relexicalised,’ in Halliday’s terms, and are used by young people for creativity and entertainment, to have fun with peers, to affirm in-group relations, and to indicate status.
Even though the concept of multilingualism is well established in linguistics, it is problematic, especially in light of the actual ways in which repertoires are composed and used. The term “multilingualism” bears in itself the notion of several clearly discernable languages and suggests that regardless of the sociolinguistic setting, language ideologies, social history and context, a multilingual individual will be able to separate the various codes that constitute his or her communicative repertoire and use them deliberately in a reflected way. Such a perspective on language isn’t helpful in understanding any sociolinguistic setting and linguistic practice that is not a European one and that doesn’t correlate with ideologies and practices of a standardized, national language. This applies to the majority of people living on the planet and to most people who speak African languages. These speakers differ from the ideological concept of the “Western monolingual,” as they employ diverse practices and linguistic features on a daily basis and do so in a very flexible way. Which linguistic features a person uses thereby depends on factors such as socialization, placement, and personal interest, desires and preferences, which are all likely to change several times during a person’s life. Therefore, communicative repertoires are never stable, neither in their composition nor in the ways they are ideologically framed and evaluated. A more productive perspective on the phenomenon of complex communicative repertoires puts the concept of languaging in the center, which refers to communicative practices, dynamically operating between different practices and (multimodal) linguistic features. Individual speakers thereby perceive and evaluate ways of speaking according to the social meaning, emotional investment, and identity-constituting functions they can attribute to them. The fact that linguistic reflexivity to African speakers might almost always involve the negotiation of the self in a (post)colonial world invites us to consider a critical evaluation, based on approaches such as Southern Theory, of established concepts of “language” and “multilingualism”: languaging is also a postcolonial experience, and this experience often translates into how speakers single out specific ways of speaking as “more prestigious” or “more developed” than others. The inclusion of African metalinguistics and indigenuous knowledge consequently is an important task of linguists studying communicative repertoires in Africa or its diaspora.
The study of sociolinguistics constitutes a vast and complex topic that has yielded an extensive and multifaceted body of scholarship. Language is fundamentally at work in how we operate as individuals, as members of various communities, and within cultures and societies. As speakers, we learn not only the structure of a given language; we also learn cultural and social norms about how to use language and what content to communicate. We use language to navigate expectations, to engage in interpersonal interaction, and to go along with or to speak out against social structures and systems.
Sociolinguistics aims to study the effects of language use within and upon societies and the reciprocal effects of social organization and social contexts on language use. In contemporary theoretical perspectives, sociolinguists view language and society as being mutually constitutive: each influences the other in ways that are inseparable and complex. Language is imbued with and carries social, cultural, and personal meaning. Through the use of linguistic markers, speakers symbolically define self and society. Simply put, language is not merely content; rather, it is something that we do, and it affects how we act and interact as social beings in the world.
Language is a social product with rich variation along individual, community, cultural, and societal lines. For this reason, context matters in sociolinguistic research. Social categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, social class, nationality, etc., are socially constructed, with considerable variation within and among categories. Attributes such as “female” or “upper class” do not have universal effects on linguistic behavior, and sociolinguists cannot assume that the most interesting linguistic differences will be between groups of speakers in any simple, binary fashion. Sociolinguistic research thus aims to explore social and linguistic diversity in order to better understand how we, as speakers, use language to inhabit and negotiate our many personal, cultural, and social identities and roles.
Conversation analysis is an approach to the study of social interaction and talk-in-interaction that, although rooted in the sociological study of everyday life, has exerted significant influence across the humanities and social sciences including linguistics. Drawing on recordings (both audio and video) naturalistic interaction (unscripted, non-elicited, etc.) conversation analysts attempt to describe the stable practices and underlying normative organizations of interaction by moving back and forth between the close study of singular instances and the analysis of patterns exhibited across collections of cases. Four important domains of research within conversation analysis are turn-taking, repair, action formation and ascription, and action sequencing.
Gender is a grammatical feature, in a family with person, number, and case. In the languages that have grammatical gender—according to a representative typological sample, almost half of the languages in the world—it is a property that separates nouns into classes. These classes are often meaningful and often linked to biological sex, which is why many languages are said to have a “masculine” and a “feminine” gender. A typical example is Italian, which has masculine words for male persons (il bambino “the.
Across the languages of the world, gender systems vary widely. They differ in the number of classes, in the underlying assignment rules, and in how and where gender is marked. Since agreement is a definitional property, gender is generally absent in isolating languages as well as in young languages with little bound morphology, including sign languages. Therefore, gender is considered a mature phenomenon in language.
Gender interacts in various ways with other grammatical features. For example, it may be limited to the singular number or the third person, and it may be crosscut by case distinctions. These and other interrelations can complicate the task of figuring out a gender system in first or second language acquisition. Yet, children master gender early, making use of a broad variety of cues. By contrast, gender is famously difficult for second-language learners. This is especially true for adults and for learners whose first language does not have a gender system. Nevertheless, tests show that even for this group, native-like competence is possible to attain.
Diglossia refers to a situation where two linguistic varieties coexist within a given speech community. One variety, labeled the ‘high variety’, is used in formal domains including education, while the other variety, labeled the ‘low variety’, is used principally in instances of informal extemporaneous communication. The domains of use, however, are not strictly separate and especially so with the increase in electronic modes of communication. This results in what has been described as diglossic code-switching, and the gradual encroaching of, in the case under consideration here, vernacular Arabic upon the domains of use of Standard Arabic.
While the genetic relationship between the two varieties is central in the definition of a classical diglossic situation as in the case of Arabic, the concept of diglossia has often been extended in the literature to cover situations of a functional distribution between languages that are genetically distant, such as with the situation of Spanish and Guaraní in Paraguay.
In North Africa, vernacular Arabic is in a classical diglossic distribution with Standard Arabic, while the Berber languages are often described as existing in a situation of extended diglossia with Arabic. However, distinguishing between diglossia as it exists between the Arabic dialects and Standard Arabic and the situation of bilingualism that involves Arabic, Berber, and European languages provides the best framework for describing the linguistic situation in North Africa. Diglossia is a key element in understanding the mechanisms of the region’s language contact and change as it plays a central role in shaping language attitude, language policy, and language planning.
Jeff Good and Pierpaolo Di Carlo
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
The pervasiveness of multilingualism throughout the African continent has led it to be viewed as Africa’s “lingua franca.” Sociolinguistic research on this topic has concentrated mostly on urbanized areas where, as a norm, individual language repertoires are dominated by the interplay between European ex-colonial languages, African lingua francas, and local languages, and where language ideologies emphasize the ordering of languages in a hierarchy that is tied to social status. Similar situations are also found also in rural areas of Africa. However, recent research suggests that the dynamics of multilingualism in some rural regions, in particular those characterized by high linguistic diversity, can be of quite different character than urban ones and that the methods required to study them are distinct from those that have been used to examine urban domains.
In particular, case studies drawn from rural areas of West and Central Africa document the presence of individuals possessing linguistic repertoires that are primarily oriented around local languages, ideologies, and practices that do not clearly fit with what is known from urban environments. One feature that is shared by all of the available case studies is the relatively negligible role played by prestige and prestige-related notions in the local systems of language valorization. What has been observed, instead, suggests that motivations to learn different local languages, and to use them in interaction, stem from ideologies in which language is the primary means for representing one’s relationship with land or membership in a given village community or kin group, rather than serving to construct traits associated with essentialist identities. Further features of these language ideologies—and their ramifications—are still being researched, but they are already revealing hitherto unnoticed systems of indexicality, indicating that they are likely to lead to important theoretical refinements for the sociolinguistic investigation of language and identity.
The most important theme that emerges from the existing literature is the extent to which rural multilingualism is linked to the specific dynamics holding among communities that are near to each other rather than being a reflection of a more general, externally imposed value system. While this result makes it difficult to characterize rural multilingualism as a single, coherent phenomenon, it does point to the need for a shared toolkit of research strategies, for exploring and analyzing it in more detail. In particular, ethnographic methods are required to ascertain the major local social meanings that language choice both reflects and constructs; micro-ethnographic research is additionally important as a means to focus on how individual repertoires are tied to specific life histories rather than assuming that groupings that are salient to the outside researcher (e.g., villages or speech communities) are the relevant units of analysis.
These diverse local patterns, however, do often align with certain broad, persistent cultural features of Sub-Saharan Africa that interact with language choice. This includes, for instance, a common linkage of language, secrecy, and beliefs in the supernatural, which likely influences not only multilingual practices but also the use of language-like codes such as special registers. Such cultural features can also be seen to structure aspects of language use in urban domains, indicating that a full understanding of African multilingualism requires careful consideration of contexts like linguistically diverse rural areas that maximize opportunities for observing the kinds of language dynamics that were mostly likely to have characterized the continent before the beginning of colonialism.
The concept of Africa requires reflection: what does it mean to study a social phenomenon “in Africa”? Technology use in Africa is complex and diverse, showing various degrees of access across the continent (and in the Diaspora, and digital social inequalities—which are part and parcel of the political economy of communication—shape digital engagement. The rise of mobile phones, in particular, has enabled the emergence of technologically mediated literacies, text-messaging among them. Text-messaging is defined not only by a particular mode of communication (typically written on mobile phones, visual, digital), but it also favors particular topics (intimate, relational, sociable, ludic) and ways of writing (short, non-standard texts that are creative as well as multilingual). The genre of text-messaging thus includes not only short message service (SMS) and (mobile) instant-messaging (which one might call prototypical one-to-one text messages), but also Twitter, an application that, like texting, favors brevity of expression and allows for one-to-many conversations. Access to Twitter is still limited for many Africans, but as ownership of smartphones is growing, so is Twitter use, and the African “Twittersphere” is emerging as an important pan-African space. At times, discussions are very local (as on Ghanaian Twitter), at other times regional (East African Twitter) or global (African Twitter and Black Twitter); all these are emic, folksonomic terms, assigned and discussed by users. Although former colonial languages, especially English, dominate in many prototypical text messages and on Twitter, the genre also provides important opportunities for writing in African languages. The choices made in the digital space echo the well-known debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: the Africanization of the former colonial languages versus writing in African languages. In addition, digital writers engage in multilingual writing, combining diverse languages in one text, and thus offer new ways of writing locally as well as shaping a digitally-mediated pan-African voice that draws on global strategies as well as local meaning.
Elizabeth Lanza and Hirut Woldemariam
The linguistic landscape (henceforth LL) has proven to be a fruitful approach for investigating various societal dimensions of written language use in the public sphere. First introduced in the context of bilingual Canada as a gauge for measuring ethnolinguistic vitality, in the 21st century it is the focus of a thriving field of inquiry with its own conference series, an increasing number of publications, and an international journal dedicated exclusively to investigating language and other semiotic resources used in the public arena. The scholarship in this domain has centered on European and North American geographical sites; however, an increasingly voluminous share of studies addresses the LL of sites across the world through both books and articles. African contributions have added an important dimension to this knowledge base as southern multilingualisms bring into question the very concept of language in that speakers and writers draw on their rich linguistic repertoires, avoiding any compartmentalization or separation of what is traditionally conceived of as languages. The LL of Ethiopia has contributed to this growing base of empirical studies in the exploration of language policy issues, identity constructions, language contact, and the sociolinguistics of globalization. A new language policy of ethnic federalism was introduced to the country in the 1990s following a civil war and through a new constitution. This policy was set to recognize the various ethnolinguistic groups in the country and the official use of ethnic/regional languages to satisfy local political and educational needs. Through this, languages previously unwritten required a script in order for speakers to communicate in them in written texts. And many regions have chosen the Latin script above the Ethiopic script. Nonetheless, some languages remain invisible in the public sphere. These events create an exciting laboratory for studying the LL. Given the change of language policy since the late 20th century and the fast-growing economy of Ethiopia (one of the poorest countries on the continent) the manifest and increasingly visible display of languages in the LL provides an excellent lens for studying various sociolinguistic phenomena.
Chris Rogers and Lyle Campbell
The reduction of the world’s linguistic diversity has accelerated over the last century and correlates to a loss of knowledge, collective and individual identity, and social value. Often a language is pushed out of use before scholars and language communities have a chance to document or preserve this linguistic heritage. Many are concerned for this loss, believing it to be one of the most serious issues facing humanity today. To address the issues concomitant with an endangered language, we must know how to define “endangerment,” how different situations of endangerment can be compared, and how each language fits into the cultural practices of individuals. The discussion about endangered languages focuses on addressing the needs, causes, and consequences of this loss.
Concern over endangered languages is not just an academic catch phrase. It involves real people and communities struggling with real social, political, and economic issues. To understand the causes and consequence of language endangerment for these individuals and communities requires a multifaceted perspective on the place of each language in the lives of their users. The loss of a language affects not only the world’s linguistic diversity but also an individual’s social identity, and a community’s sense of itself and its history.