Article originally published on LinkedIn, 22 August 2019
We’re two-thirds of the way through the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), and it seems that there’s still a big question in the background: Do African languages count as indigenous languages? This is significant as there is an active discussion of expanding IYIL2019 to a Decade of Indigenous Languages.
It turns out that the question is not so simple. On the one hand, by the simple definition of “indigenous,” and by extension “indigenous language,” the first languages of Africa would seem to qualify. On the other hand, in the parlance of the United Nations (UN), its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and associated organizations, “indigenous language” seems to apply more specifically to languages of “indigenous peoples.”
IYIL2019 was declared in a 2016 UN General Assembly resolution on “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples” – a document which, as the title implies, had broader concerns with the situations faced by, and ways to advance, indigenous peoples (an important area of concern that I am certainly not calling into question or minimizing*). So IYIL2019 was associated from the start with indigenous peoples, even though it did not define “indigenous language” as such.
The resolution also called attention to the challenges faced by endangered languages, a great number of which, but not all, are also indigenous languages any definition.
Yet another issue complicating the picture is how the term and concept “indigenous” is heard in Africa. While there are numerous examples of Africans referring to “indigenous languages” (often if not generally referring to African languages, without reference to the status of their speakers, as opposed to the official Europhone languages that dominate the public space), other Africans see “indigenous” as carrying a colonial legacy (particularly the cognate in French, indigène) and/or being a contemporary Western construct imposed inappropriately on Africa.
The African Regional Meeting for IYIL2019, organized by UNESCO and the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) in Addis Ababa, 30-31 July 2019, does not seem to have pronounced on the matter of what qualifies as “indigenous language” in Africa. One statement by African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs Amira Elfadil may, however, have been indicative at least some of the thinking: She suggested that in Africa, “indigenous languages” needs to “be replaced by” “African languages.”
So perhaps, looking forward, the initial question above should be rephrased differently: If there is to be an International Decade of Indigenous Languages, what will be the place of African languages in it? Also, how might discussion of that question: inform the process; enrich our understanding of the challenges faced by non-dominant languages (and their speakers), and responses to those challenges; and help shape the goals and outcomes of the proposed Decade?
For further discussion, please see the following posts on the “Beyond Niamey” blog:
- African languages as indigenous languages: Definitions (2019-8-19)
- African languages as indigenous languages: Examples (2019-8-20)
* To be clear, I support the efforts of the UNPFII and all others (including the IPACC in Africa) working to address the needs and aspirations of indigenous peoples, and to preserve and promote indigenous languages, however defined. My inquiry, as an interested non-African and non-indigenous, is about how African languages fit in international programs for indigenous languages, such as IYIL2019.