‘Superschool’ will not do justice to African languages

As a postdoctoral research fellow in linguistics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) whose focus is very much on African languages, I have a keen interest in UCT’s mooted merger of linguistics into a new “superschool” that would subsume the Centre for African Studies.

I do not believe it would be in the best interests of African languages and linguistics to situate a department of linguistics within the proposed new school. And I have not once been invited to make any contribution to the “transparent, consultative and inclusive” discussions UCT vice-chancellor Max Price last week said have been taking place (“No threat to African centre“, Mail & Guardian, March 18).

Instead, in the past few years I have come to be profoundly angered by the university’s almost palpable lack of respect for my field, which is inevitably associated with aspects of African heritage and culture.

At a recent count, the tally of staff at UCT teaching languages and literatures of Europe, the Middle East and Asia stood at 11 professors, eight associate professors, five senior lecturers and 12 lecturers. By contrast, the tally for Africa is one professor, one associate professor and one senior lecturer.

It would be risible to claim that the university even has a department of African languages, because that would suggest a department capable of leading studies and research on the more than 2 000 languages of the continent, or at very least the four super-groupings into which they are currently divided. All this with only three staff members?

Compounding this, the university does not have a linguistics department but merely a “section” incongruously located within the English department. This unit is problematically small: with so few staff and a worrying emphasis on applied studies it struggles to generate a research culture that can lead scholarly inquiry in a number of crucial areas.

Incorporating linguistics
Why, then, would I not want to see linguistics incorporated into a new school for Africa-focused critical inquiry? I think it is merely stringing together the worst sort of jargon and bureaucratic bunk to proclaim that the proposed school “would draw together cutting-edge research and teaching about epistemologies and representations of Africa, heritage and public culture, archive studies, language and migration, indigenous knowledge systems, feminism and violence, land reform and democracy, and much more”, as Price did in a university statement last week.

The myriad diverse languages of this immense continent do not deserve to be short-changed by a narrow, insular academic focus. Rather, they need to be studied with the same theoretical rigour as any others in the world, within a standard department of general linguistics. The obvious — and usual — place for such a department is at the heart of a school of languages.

There is nothing “wrong” with the applied forms of linguistics — these sub-branches have theoretical frameworks of their own and there are some outstanding South African scholars working in such areas. However, it is only possible to study the effects manifested by languages in situations of contact or multilingualism when the languages in question are already well described.

The reality is that many of Africa’s languages remain little studied and their structures are only poorly understood — if they are documented at all. Some scholars believe that, of the continent’s approximately 2 000 languages, 300 are seriously endangered and another 200 are nearly extinct.

I have seen what travesties can occur when linguists enter a field of little-known languages without adequate grounding in methodology, with scant awareness of the range of worldwide typologies, and scarcely any knowledge of certain touchstones of linguistic inquiry.

These aspects of theoretical linguistics may well require familiarity with many other languages of the world — or, in essence, a universality of learning. But how would the proposed new school generate such learning?

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