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Reviews |  Ketanji Brown Jackson has an “African” name.  I wish we knew more.

And the Mandé family — I like to write that — is just one example of this tendency to confuse African languages ​​too much. Modern linguists have shown that a large number of languages ​​classified as Niger-Congo on the West African coast and beyond are almost certainly part of families in their own right. As the linguist Roger Blench says:

Joseph Greenberg, whose classification of African languages ​​remains the main framework in use today, was a committed “crane driver” and was keen to ensure that each language found a classificatory home, sometimes on the basis of extremely sketchy evidence. Recent years have seen a skeptical counter-tendency to consider some of the once accepted languages ​​or branches classified by Greenberg to be isolates.

In other words, these languages ​​are not related to any other living language – and they most likely tell us something about the past. Africa is slowly revealing a picture in which its languages ​​are different to such a degree indicating that human language has existed there for thousands of years, evolving into ever different configurations much like the post-Cambrian tree of life. so vividly described in our times by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. The languages ​​reflect that Africa is the cradle of humanity, with incredibly ancient language families that have shared space, waxing and waning, many of them leaving only one descendant, from others like the Mandé leaving many more, with a few lucky ones having taken control of large swaths of the continent, such as Niger-Congo and Hamito- – no, today we call it “Afroasiatic”.

How might we develop a richer sense of what West African languages ​​are? My basic blackboard lesson would look like this: Start in Senegal. When you hear someone speak Fulani, sometimes also called Fulani, Fulfulde or Pulaar, it is a language in which words are dazzling shapeshifters, where the first sounds of a word change depending on how it is used . Then in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria, languages ​​like Twi, Yoruba and Igbo are, to me, so similar to Chinese in the way they put words together as well as the way they use tones.

Then the Bantu languages ​​spoken in Congo and Angola are yet another story. This is the group that includes Swahili, which current professor Maulana Karenga of California State University, Long Beach adopted in the 1960s as the heritage language of choice for black America. (The names of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the Karenga-designed holiday, are derived from Swahili, for example.) But Swahili is an East African language probably spoken by relatively few slaves brought to America. The West African languages ​​played a larger role here, and one of the most interesting things about them is that many of them break up past tenses into rigorously fine grains. The Kongo language, for example, has different past tenses depending on whether you’re talking about something that happened just now, earlier today, yesterday, or before that – and additionally gave us the words ” goober” and “zombie”.

It is understandable that so often in this country we talk about “African” food, dance, traditions and languages, even though we are technically aware that Africa is home to dozens of countries that span hundreds of cultures. The connection between most black Americans and Africa is now so distant, and certain aspects of various African cultures were able to survive only briefly and weakly under the conditions in which slaves worked in this country. We end up with the idea of ​​generic Africanness which is about as particular as the idea of ​​someone wearing a beret, sitting in a kilt, drinking a mug of lager and eating Swedish meatballs while reading “Anna Karenina” and saying they are celebrating their European heritage. It is of course much more difficult for former slaves to preserve language, religion and genealogy over generations. But despite these hurdles, I hope we can develop a little more accurate idea of ​​what a West African language is, especially when a memorable name like Ketanji enters our linguistic consciousness – and the books of story.


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