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  • Secret Manipulations: Language and Context in Africa by Anne Storch
  • Jeffrey Heath
Secret Manipulations: Language and Context in Africa. Anne Storch . Oxford : Oxford University Press , 2011 . Pp. xx + 242 . $99.00 (cloth), $45.00 (paper).

This book is an extended rant against culturally unsophisticated African descriptive and especially historical linguistics. Like all rants it is often incoherent and tiresome, and your reviewer wished at times that he were reading something relaxing, like Finnegan’s Wake or Mardi. But some of the points it makes are important.

To oversimplify, Anne Storch argues that “manipulated” forms and speech registers, i.e., those attributable to conscious creative processes, are widespread in African languages, and that over time they can and do infect the everyday language. The input to manipulation may be internal to the language, as in speech disguise registers, or external (borrowed). In the opening paragraph of chapter 1, it is claimed that “manipulated language may become part of the language from which it was originally derived, inevitably changing it” (p. 3). A comment much later (p. 189) attributes the basic idea to Roger Blench, and locates it especially in the context of armed conflict that expands the use of secret registers within and across language boundaries.

Most of the book, however, is about the form and social context of registers. A Wikipedia-style rundown of the full range of these varieties (pp. 19–45) is followed by four major substantive chapters with the enigmatic titles “Secrecy,” “Mimesis,” “Sacrilege,” and “Ambiguity.” Each consists mainly of short case studies. Languages of the Nigeria-Cameroon border and of Uganda recur, reflecting the primary fieldwork by Storch and her colleagues, but there are also excursuses on other African groups, the African diaspora (Caribbean, medieval Portugal), and, for typological comparisons, even France and southern Germany. Some of the case studies are selfcontained and satisfying, others raise as many questions as they answer, and the main thrust of each chapter tends to blur amidst the ethnographic detail. Confusing lapses of English diction, such as “temporary” for “temporal” and “evasive” for (I think) “evocative,” do not help. Much of the content of these central chapters is about spirit possession, witchcraft, and verbal art. Storch is little concerned about book-level plot development; her preface encourages readers to cherrypick, treating the book like a multichapter handbook.

“Secrecy” (pp. 53–83) is mostly, but not entirely, about registers and languages intended to be opaque to outsiders. They are characterized by phonological disguise and archaisms, less often by antonymic inversion. Some are multipurpose registers used within subgroups (young people, relic ethnicities). Others are confined to initiation rituals and must be laboriously learned under the tutelage of priests.

“Mimesis” (pp. 84–132) is longer and much more difficult to digest or summarize. It begins by unexpectedly reclassifying most of the material in “Secrecy” as iconicity. “Being icons, they represent in a binary way the relations between speaker and world but do not express imitation of a referent” (p. 84). Mimesis does presuppose a referent, but imitation is always incomplete, so in practice it is synecdochic (pp. 85, 111). The case studies are tenuously held together by the concept of imitation. Many involve ironic impersonations of, or other defensive responses to, a colonial or intertribal “Other.” The referent may be a group of humans, a spirit, or a general situation. For example, a general loss of control due to geopolitical subjugation can be “mimed” by substituting speechlessness or a musical instrument for speech (pp. 85–88), but in other cases both meaning and form are intensified. In the most interesting vignette, Sultan Ibrahim [End Page 395] Njoya, an important historical figure in early colonial Cameroon, concocted a new register for use by his courtiers after consulting with Swiss missionaries. Its vocabulary splurged on exotic European consonant clusters, loanwords from multiple European languages, and absurdly polysyllabic function words like muksuru-ruran ‘and’ that make Javanese krama inggil look tame. After this, Storch straps us into a time machine and we watch seventeenth-century Portuguese monks composing mimetic (and, unbeknownst to them, metamimetic) popular songs satirizing African spirit-possession music, which itself had mimicked Portuguese colonists.

“Sacrilege” (pp. 133–67) is about masking...


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