By Dianne Lake
This past week, linguists and researchers from around the world specializing in the study of African languages gathered at Yale to discuss the evolution of languages through urbanization, technological innovations, and youth cultures throughout Africa. Eddie Mandhry, Yale’s Director for Africa, opened the conference, noting in his speech Kenyans’ rapturous response to President Obama’s use of Sheng (a combination of Kiswahili and English) during his 2013 visit as a fitting example of the power of language to act as a cultural and generational bridge.
Indeed, the use of slang in political discourse was a topic covered by many speakers during the conference. Aurelia Ferrari (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) described the various ways in which Kenyan politicians have used slang to appear more relatable and to empower the youth. In his presentation “Sheng as a language of Political Mobilization” Bosire Mokaya (University of Oregon) described language as the badge of a nation, often with the largest tribe having the most influence on its structure and function. In many African countries today the largest “tribe” in this sense is the youth. As keynote speaker Rajen Mesthrie (University of Cape Town) described, youth are increasingly utilizing the performative dimensions of language as identity construction. Understanding these complex repertoires of communication requires a socio-linguistic approach.
Other topics explored at the conference included the use of language in pop culture and technological mediums. Elias J. Magembe (American University) spoke about the use of ingenious and catchy Kiswahili phrases in enhancing competition between mobile phone companies in Tanzania, and Phephani Gumbi (Univerisity of KwaZulu-Natal) discussed the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) with indigenous African languages in South Africa’s education sector. As the variety of topics and speakers demonstrated, the work of African linguists is important and ever-growing as African languages and their various dialects, slangs, and pidgins continue to create new symbols, subcultures, and social networks.
Conference participants Jemima Anderson and Josephine Quarshie, who travelled to Yale from Ghana, described the event as exciting and thoughtful. Both women were glad to participate and found the presentations quite interesting. “It’s been a learning experience” said Quarshie, who was excited to hear from other linguists who’s work she had only seen on paper. Anderson described the event as a “brilliant conference with interesting papers and insightful findings.”