Linguistic Atonement: Penitence and Privilege in White Kenyan Language Ideologies
Abstract

ABSTRACT:

This article analyzes language ideology among whites in Kenya, documenting an historical shift from colonial settlers’ condescending attitude toward Kiswahili to an enthusiastic stance among settler descendants, some of whom pride themselves on their Kiswahili abilities and say it is their languge of “connection” to Afro-Kenyans. I situate this change in a context of contemporary white anxiety about national belonging, especially given that colonial misdeeds have been put in the spotlight by events of the last decade. I argue that whites’ stance of “linguistic atonement” attempts, with mixed results, to elide racial and class-based distinctions in Kenya, but it is thwarted in part by the fact that whites perpetually link Kiswahili to a register of “slang,” banter, and informality, reserving English as a language of authority. I further suggest that settler descendants experience a certain relief in being able to move from the affectively stunted persona they associate with English to a relaxed, warm, and open one in Kiswahili, but that this very mobility between registers could be construed as a new manifestation of white privilege.