Accepted paper:

Language as a mirror of political imagination: hegemony, conflict, and deliberate language change in the Cameroonian grassfields


Pierpaolo Di Carlo (University at Buffalo (SUNY))
Nelson Tschonghongei (University of Yaounde 1)
Ivoline Budji Kefen (University of Buffalo)

Paper short abstract:

Has political imagination affected the current linguistic scenario of the Cameroonian Grassfields? We review evidence telling of (i) hegemony created via language and (ii) deliberate language change due to political conflict. Case studies illuminate both past and present African histories.

Paper long abstract:

Due to its impressive linguistic diversity, historical linguists generally refer to the Cameroonian Grassfields region as the Bantu homeland. Such a view transcends, if not utterly ignores, the possibility that language histories may in fact be heavily influenced by the language ideologies held by their speakers.This paper reviews linguistic and ethnographic evidence from several Grassfields societies, suggesting that language ideologies together with local forms of socio-political organization and imagination may engender processes of language change that cannot be captured solely by a "language drift perspective".

After clarifying the basic principles of the Grassfields political tradition-centered around the figure of the chief as well as chiefdom-specific secret societies-the paper focuses on historical and contemporary cases of connection between language and political imagination.

The historical case is discussed through the Bum chiefdom, whose history reveals the radical importance of language as a tool for the creation of political hegemony in a previously fragmented area.

The contemporary case, taken from the Kuk chiefdom, is especially interesting as it provides the opportunity to observe an ongoing process of deliberate language change motivated by political conflict within the chiefdom.

Both cases (i) exemplify and extend the significance of Kopytoff's internal African frontier theory, and (ii) are possibly relevant to better understand current political and sociolinguistic processes (like, e.g., the emergence of urban youth languages) in a number of African countries.

panel Lang05
Language and the political imagination: connections and disruptions