|Minority languages and cultures in Central Africa|
Situation analysis and research priorities
Unchanged text of a lecture given by the author on July 21, 1989 at the University of Zimbabwe, Harare, on invitation by the Department of African Languages and Literature. Venue: Lecture theatre)
The current situation of minority languages and their associated cultures in Africa south of the Sahara including some particular areas where I have conducted research (such as in Angola 1965, 1979, 1980 and 1982, Zambia 1971, 1973, 1977/78, 1979 and 1987, and the Central African Republic, 1964 and 1966) is a consequence of historical developments which are to be understood politically, socially and culturally.
What is a minority language? Are there any criteria that make a language fall under this category?
In the first place the answer depends on a definition of the term "minority". In a country with two political parties, for example, one may obtain a majority of votes, while the other, consequently, is then in the minority. In such a case "minority" is anything below 50%. In practice, however, there are always more contenders.
With regard to language, there are no linguistic criteria to determine what is a minority language.
The term is strictly relative and comparative. In a country with forty and more different ethnic-linguistic communities, minority languages are, in practice, often spoken each by less than 5% of the population. In some cases, as with the !Kung' Khoisan speakers of south-eastern Angola -- a people close to genocide -- the speakers may have decreased to a few hundred persons.
Strictly speaking, a minority is anything smaller than something else. A minority language therefore, is a language spoken by a community that is smaller in numbers in relation to one or more other language communities in the same area, territory or country, and whose members feel that their language and culture is threatened, oppressed or otherwise denied expected roles within the larger community or communities.
In the precolonial past, minority languages and cultures in Africa were not dramatically threatened with extinction. Actually, language and culture diversification was a result of the fact that people could live in relative isolation for prolonged periods. This promoted processes of divergence.
With the accessibility of every part of the earth to modern transport, and to the mass media controlled by relatively small groups of "multiplicators", the trend has been totally reversed. What has come about is often a kind of forced assimilation following the principle of the "survival of the fittest", or in a terminology more acceptable to Western ideals of democracy: majority rule. In the realm of culture and language, however, majority rule means discouragement of minorities, and -- with a term coined by Alan Lomax (1973: 475) -- it is one more little step towards the "worldwide greyout of culture". Political and national unity is achieved on the surface, but in reality it is purchased at the expense of the identity and even creative potential of the smaller groups. Since language perhaps is the most important symbol of a people's identity and cohesion, communities deprived of their language may become paralysed, developing a "no future" mentality. In the long run, such policies therefore, may be counter-productive, leading to an accumulation of resentment which, in a generation or two, can result in undesirable reactions.