book notice: Language Decline and Death in Africa

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Dec 15 14:34:19 UTC 2005

Forwarded from LINGUIST List 16.3542, Wed Dec 14 2005

AUTHOR: Batibo, Herman M.
TITLE: Language Decline and Death in Africa
SUBTITLE: Causes, Consequences, and Challenges
SERIES: Multilingual Matters 132
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Revied by Mike Cahill, SIL International


The first four chapters of this slim volume (129 pages of text, plus
several indexes and appendices) are a good introduction to the language
situation in Africa as a whole, while the last four chapters explicitly
address issues of language endangerment.

Chapter 1 is a useful summary of the language families of Africa - where
they are spoken, and a few sample languages. Batibo (B) also introduces
what I find a useful term - ''plurilingualism'' - to label a situation
where a country or continent has many languages, reserving
''multilingual'' to describe an individual speaking several languages. He
also sketches the situation with regard to language contacts between
African languages, both ancient and modern, and the situations that arise
from these.

Chapter 2 introduces patterns of language use and prestige. B presents an
admittedly idealized ''triglossic'' structure of language use, with a
colonial language often having higher prestige than a dominant indigenous
language. However, the dominant indigenous language has more prestige than
a minority language. Here he also mentions that national leaders associate
ex-colonial languages with socio- economic development, and this trumps
resolutions for promotions of indigenous languages passed by OAU and
similar bodies (including linguists...). He describes characteristics of
dominant languages which make them dominant, and also the dynamism of
languages in contact that leads to phenomena of code-mixing,
code-switching, and borrowing. His summary statement is a guiding
principle for those involved in trying to sustain endangered languages:
''As long as speakers see some social status or socio-economic value in
their languages, they will certainly wish to maintain them.''

Chapter 3 talks of characteristics of African languages, viewing them as a
resource. First he discusses the functions that languages play, focusing
on Africa, but the same points could be made elsewhere in the world.
Language serves as a vehicle for cultural transmission, as a means of
self-identity, societal cohesion, social stratification, of socialization
and even establishing social relations (a young lady in Lom addressed by a
young man in the Mina language may answer in French as a sign that she
does not desire any relationship with him). B then goes on to summarize
the unique linguistic characteristics of African languages, from clicks to
labialvelars to ATR vowel harmony, noun class systems, serial verb
constructions, etc. The cultural wealth of African languages is
illustrated, with figurative speech, proverbs, ''joking relations,'' etc.
The indigenous languages could be used for national development, but
generally are not.

Chapter 4 delves into the status of minority languages in more detail,
defining them not only in terms of low number of speakers, but also
functionally as not being used in official or public domains. Colonial
languages may be actually spoken by relatively few people, but they
function in public domains more commonly. Local languages may be areally
dominant, and these are not considered minority languages either. In most
African nations, most of the languages are minority languages. Speakers of
these are often caught in a dilemma, wishing to retain their own
linguistic and cultural heritage, but also wanting access to education and
better-paying jobs. Even though studies have shown the advantages of
mother-tongue education, most minority languages have no resources for
such. Governments, in their understandable desire for national unity and
to eradicate tribalism, often devalue or actively discourage minority
languages in their language policies.

In Chapter 5, B starts in on specifics of endangered African languages,
first defining endangered as ''threatened by extinction,'' and noting that
endangerment is a sliding scale, with ''highly endangered'' on one end and
''safe'' on the other. He discusses factors leading to language
endangerment when two unequal languages are in contact. These include the
resistance of the weaker language to the stronger one, the amount of
pressure exerted by the stronger language, and finally, the perceived
advantages of joining the stronger community. He acknowledges that any
attempt to quantify endangerment runs into the problem of inadequate data,
and so many of the conclusions must remain ''highly speculative.'' For
information on specific languages, B cites a number of resources which the
serious investigator might consult, including the Ethnologue (Grimes
2000), and various papers from Brenzinger's (1998) volume. The remainder
of the chapter is a country-by-country summary, listing population, major
languages, and what B considers highly endangered languages. His judgment
of the latter is based on population figures, degree of bilingualism in
the dominant language, socio-political pressures, negative attitudes and
non-transmission of the language to children, and especially where only
older people spoke the language. It is admittedly based on partial
information in many cases, but he estimates that 14% of African languages
are presently highly endangered.

In Chapter 6, B defines more carefully the processes of language shift and
language death. He mentions the Gaelic-Arvanitika model of Sasse, based on
causal factors leading to cessation of transmission of the language, but
spends more time on his own model, a process- based one. This model
assumes that for language shift and eventually death to take place, there
must be bilingualism, a differential prestige in the 2 languages, and that
attraction to the new language outweighs resistance to change. It has five
phases: 1) relative monolingualism, 2)  bilingualism with L1 predominance,
3) bilingualism with L2 predominance, 4) restricted use of L1, and 5) L1
as a substratum, at which stage L1 is dead. He mentions sudden language
death due to disease, genocide, or deliberate decision to switch
languages, but most language death is gradual, involving the factors
discussed in the models. He stresses that attitudes toward language are

Chapter 7 concentrates on language maintenance, particularly in cases of
the lesser of two unequal languages. It is common in Africa for two (or
more) languages to exist in a more or less state of equal prestige. In
this case, L1 and L2 speakers learn each others' language, which B calls
''unmarked bilingualism.'' If L1 is more dominant than L2, L2 is
maintained only when people are able to resist pressures, and the most
important factor is their attitude toward their own language. B gives a
summary of a previous study of his application of Auberger's ''proficiency
resistance model.'' Lists of factors by Blench and UNESCO are also given.
Among these factors is a written form of the language, something that is
missing in many African languages. B also discusses language
revitalization, but gives non-African examples such as Maori, since there
has been virtually no documentation of any African language being
revitalized. He is not optimistic about most African minority languages,
since ''gains in the prestige of minority languages are not a common

Chapter 8 speaks of language empowerment. We have the label of
''minority'' languages, though the sum total of ''minority'' language
speakers in a country is often a majority of the population. But they are
often disenfranchised from national life and discourse - the powerless.
Language empowerment measures are discussed here, including specific
language policies by governments, planning and what is often more
difficult, implementation of those plans. B singles out Tanzania, Kenya,
Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa as having explicit language policies,
but these are not the norm in the continent.  There are ideological and
technical issues to be dealt with, and B gives a number of recommendations
for government actions. He lists a number of African initiatives of recent
decades, most of which have vanished, as well as listing a number of
organizations that are becoming quite interested in endangered languages

B ends with three useful Appendices. The first lists the nationally and
areally dominant languages, country by country. The second, more
debatably, lists highly endangered, extinct, or nearly extinct languages
for each country. The third lists the number of dominant and minority
languages of Africa, also by country, concluding that of 2477 African
languages, 308 are highly endangered. A Language Index as well as a
Subject/Author Index are included.


This is an excellent introduction to the topic of endangered languages in
Africa. But beyond that, by referencing and summarizing much of the
theoretical literature on endangered languages, it actually serves as a
readable primer to the factors that make languages endangered around the
world and what can be done about them. Those who would like more detailed
and specific African case studies may want to take a look at other works
such as Brenzinger (1998).

B is occasionally uncritical of sources, as when he labels the predictions
of Michael Krauss that 90% of the world's languages will disappear by 2100
as ''statistics'' rather than speculation. He cites Sapir and Whorf
uncritically, whereas their views are a continual source of debate. He
also calls labialvelars as ''unique'' to Africa, whereas they also occur
in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and (rarely)  in South America as well. His
book is understandably weighted by his experience in Tanzania and
Botswana, and would benefit especially from more West African input.
However, these are minor quibbles compared to the overall value of the

Also, I believe there is reason to be somewhat more hopeful than Batibo is
about the survival of many African languages. With orthographies being
developed by groups such as NACALCO and CABTAL in Cameroon, BTL in Kenya,
SIL and Lutheran Bible Translators in various countries, as well as by
other groups, several hundred languages are in the process of receiving
orthographic representations, literacy materials, and Bibles in their own
language, and a number of these are also getting dictionaries and
grammars.  Besides the direct value of having literacy and other materials
available, the presence of these tends to raise the prestige of the
language in the speakers' minds, and their attitudes towards their own
languages become crucially more positive (as B himself notes in the case
of the Naro language). Still, it remains to be seen how much these
positive factors will be able to counteract the negative ones against the
survival of the minority languages of Africa.


Grimes, Barbara (ed.). 2000. Ethnologue: Languages of the World,
14th edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Brenzinger, M. (ed.) 1998. Endangered Languages in Africa. Kln:
Rdiger Kppe Verlag.


Mike Cahill did on-site linguistic investigation in the Konni language of
northern Ghana for several years, including application to literacy and
translation work. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in
1999, and his primary research interests are in African phonology. He
was a member of the LSA Committee on Endangered Languages and
their Preservation from 2001-2003, chairing it the last year. He
currently serves as SIL's International Linguistics Coordinator.

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