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  • The Languages of Urban Africa ed. by Fiona McLaughlin
  • Jeffrey Heath
The Languages of Urban Africa. Edited by Fiona McLaughlin . London : Continuum , 2009 . Pp. x + 238 . $150.00 (hardcover), $44.95 (paper), $36.99 (e-book).

This is an interesting collection of papers on linguistic dynamics in African capital cities. The authors are Africans and veteran Africanists who know their local turf and its history well. Many complement this experiential and historical knowledge with surveys and interviews about language use. Most of the writing is simple and to the point, with little stylistic clutter. West Africa from Dakar to Kinshasa is especially well represented. Sabine Kube-Barth, “The Multiple Facets of the Urban Language Form, Nouchi” (pp. 103–14), is the only paper on a new urban youth language.

Eyamba G. Bokamba’s chapter, “The Spread of Lingala as a Lingua Franca in the Congo Basin” (pp. 50–85), is a fascinating history of the relatively recent origin and [End Page 399] spectacular, Swahili-like expansion of this language in the two Congos. Lingala originated as a local trade language based mainly on Bobangi, and spread with overt support successively from an early Belgian colonial settlement (1884), a network of Catholic missions, the colonial administration in Kinshasa (1929), the colonial army (1930), and the postcolonial Congolese music industry. During the early stages of its spread it became less specifically Bobangi-based as it underwent koineization among the numerous closely related Bantu languages of the zone.

Fiona McLaughlin’s “Senegal’s Early Cities and the Making of an Urban Language” (pp. 71–85) traces the development of an urbanized Wolof back to the eighteenth-century island communities of Gorée and Saint Louis. The key ingredients were male French colonists who had left their families behind (because of malaria), and a group of high-class, geisha-like African consorts or temporary wives called signares. This egalitarian configuration led not to a pidgin or creole but to a syncretic language (and culture), which is continued as the heavily Gallicized Wolof of the modern capital Dakar. McLaughlin’s survey data show that older generations, aware of the long history of urban Wolof, have a benign attitude toward it, contrasting with the severe judgment of those born in the period 1965–75.

M. E. Kropp Dakubu’s chapter, “The Historical Dynamic of Multilingualism in Accra” (pp. 19–31), is a brief introduction to the languages of the capital of Ghana: the “ethnic” Akan and Ga and the superethnic English and Hausa. The issues are taken up by James Essegbey, “On Assessing the Ethnolinguistic Vitality of Ga in Accra” (pp. 115–30), who delves into the urban geography of the city, from the old Ga-speaking core to the adjoining sprawl zones where Akan is becoming dominant. Tilting the balance, outside of the Ga core, is the fact that “Akan” (or “Twi”) is very close to several other Ghanaian languages or dialects whose speakers have poured into the city, so an ostensibly complex multilingual situation tends to telescope down to a binary opposition among ethnic languages in the city.

Walt Adeniran, in “Multilingualism and Language Use in Porto Novo” (pp. 131–51), covers Benin’s political capital, which is much smaller than the economic capital (Cotonou). Its two major ethnic languages are Egun (Fon group) and Yoruba, the latter reflecting the close historical ties of the city to nearby western Nigeria. Neither language is associated with a particular quarter, bilingualism is regular, and intermarriage is astonishingly common in spite of a confessional difference. Given the long economic shadow of Nigeria, English competes with French as supraethnic language.

Kay McCormick, in “Polarizing and Blending: Compatible Practices in a Bilingual Urban Community in Cape Town” (pp. 191–209), reviews the linguistic history of the city and describes the use of nonstandard Afrikaans (“Kaaps”), broken English, and mixtures of the two in coloured neighborhoods. She points out that a wedge was driven between originally close white and coloured by an urban renewal project under late apartheid that removed many coloureds. Her core data are from 1980 to 1999, but she comments briefly on more recent immigration of Xhosa speakers.

Rounding out the volume are chapters by...


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