The Case For Academic Fairness

While more than 80 Harvard professors are engaged specifically in teaching the various languages and literatures of Europe, not one single professor teaches the languages and literatures of Africa. Harvard has five fullfledged departments (Celtic, Classics, Germanic, Romance, and Slavic) in which these 80 professors teach, but it does not have a single department or program concerned with the teachings of African languages and literatures. Practically every one of the approximately two dozen languages of Europe is part of the normal curriculum of the University; yet not a single one of the indigenous languages of sub-Saharan Africa (estimated to number anywhere from 200 to 1200) is taught as a serious and separate course. Harvard also has two other departments (Comparative Literature and Linguistics) and a related program (Ukranian) whose primary concern is the study of European languages and/or literatures–not to mention the Department of English (and American) Literature and Language–which would increase the number of professors involved in language instruction to more than one hundred.

In no way do we wish to minimize the importance of the study of European languages and literatures; on the contrary, we hope that the University will continue to support and strengthen their study. But, if the University is a place of learning, teaching, research, and scholarship, it should engage in those pursuits with fairness and objectivity.

Although providing for the study of every language and literature of all of Africa in one university seems logistically impossible, nevertheless, if there is to be at least a semblance of a balance in the knowledge provided in a major university, the knowledge of some of the languages of Africa, an important continent with a population of over 400 million, from where the ancestors of about 27 million citizens of the U.S. come, should not be totally excluded from its provisions. Moreover, not only are the gates of this University closed to the study of African languages and literatures, but also the whole nature and direction of teaching and learning in most departments (History, Religion, Fine Arts, Government, etc.) become effected by the existing, inexplicably lopsided situation. Furthermore, this state of affairs has an implication for hiring and retaining black scholars; such scholars would normally tend to be interested in matters relating to Africa as most white scholars would tend to be interested in matters relating to Europe.

Why are African languages and literatures not taught in this University? Is there a craving for ignorance in this palace of learning, or is there an intellectual apartheid–a prejudicial attitude toward black culture? Whatever the answer, the present state of affairs cannot be justified either on intellectual and academic grounds or on the basis of a fair humanistic principle. If Harvard expects to convince the world that it is truly committed to knowledge whatever its price and to the principle of respect for all people regardless of the origin of their culture, it must establish a Department of African Languages and Literatures. Not to do so and not provide the knowledge of the languages and literatures of Africa can easily be interpreted as the perpetuation of the many old misconceptions about Africans and a condescending attitude towards their culture–that there are no important African languages and literatures; that African languages are childish and crude reflecting upon a society with uncritical, unspeculative, and unanalytical mind; that some of them are “unintelligible in the dark” on account of the fact that they are communicated through signs and gestures having little resemblance to languages; that they do not have proper grammar and syntax; that it is worthless to study them since they are fast disappearing being replaced by English and French; that there exists “no civilized nation of any other complexion than white,” and the like.

Language is not only one element of the human culture, but also the very key to it and all other human activity. It makes possible the growth, accumulation, and transmission of human civilization. Every aspect of knowledge–religious, historical, legal, political, economic, social, philosophical–is expressed in language and systematically communicated by means of it in varying magnitudes. The very foundations of this University attest to this fact: Latin used to be a prerequisite for admission to Harvard, and practically 50 per cent of the earliest curriculum of the school consisted of the study of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac. Today every genuine scholar in this University uses language in one way or another as a tool.

To claim to be an expert in African culture, religion, history, society, way of life, etc. without firm foundations in the study of the languages and literatures (written or oral) of the respective and relevant areas that one deals with, is to deceive oneself. In this regard, it is offensive to many Africans that Harvard University occasionally offers higher degrees to students in African anthropology, history, government, etc. but does not require of them several years of rigorous study of relevant languages. How many people in this University respect a foreigner who claims to be an expert in American culture but knows not a word of English? Does one not take for granted that Africans who want to learn about Europe should have some first-hand knowledge of some European languages and literatures?

To be sure, one can learn a great deal through translations and use of extensively available secondary literature. But how can a serious anthropologist get a truly scholarly perspective from her/his so-called informants through interpreters and interpretations? Can a serious historian really claim to have access to the best possible sources of a people’s systematic account of their social, political, economic, cultural or religious history without first having the tools, especially such basic tools as languages, for his/her investigations? Can one really grasp the profound thoughts and philosophies of a people via translations and secondary works alone? Journalists, politicians, and high school teachers need only basic familiarity with their subjects; hence, interpreters, translations, and secondary works can adequately serve their purposes. But scholars, specialists in various field, and university teachers who wish to acquire and transmit knowledge and deeper insight into the nature of their subjects have no alternative but to master the languages relevant to their work. If anyone at Harvard every wishes to take up the study of any aspect of Africa seriously, he/she has no alternative but to start focussing on the study of the languages of Africa.

The study of African languages raises many questions and presents many problems unlike those in most other language fields. The immense number of African languages spoken on the continent of some 400 million people can reduce even a highly technical discussion to one of purely numbers. How many are there, and how should they be classified? Moreover, the problems in collecting data can be rather overwhelming. It will take decades before we even have basic accounts of all (or even a large majority) of them.

African languages present some characteristics that are found in no other language areas in the world, and this is one of the things that makes their study so fascinating. The Khoisan and certain neighboring Bantu languages, for instance, are distinguished by being the only languages in the world with a set of clicks in their phonetic repertoire. The Bantu languages all have vast noun classes and though found in some other places in the world (e.g. Fiji), they cannot approach the sheer number of classes that are found in these. Many African languages are believed to have a system of tones, as in Chinese; here the intonation of the voice can be an integral part of the word, and a word spoken with a different tone can have a different meaning. Many other African languages have sounds that are often referred to as compound phonemes, such as /mb/, /nd/, /nk/, etc. at the beginning of words. These are sometimes seen as being the result of a collapse of a syllable, such as emb-, ned-, enk-, etc.; at any rate, they are quite widespread throughout Africa. One interesting feature of many African languages is the proliferation of ideophones. These are special words, sometimes referred to as nouns, sometimes as adjectives or adverbs, which convey a kind of idea-in-sound and add emotion or vividness to the dimension of a description. They are often onomatopoeic, but convey aspects that are not necessarily associated with sounds, especially in English–such as manner, color, taste, smell, silence, action, condition, texture, gait, posture or intensity. To students of theoretical syntax, the serial verb construction found primarily in certain West African languages is of great interest. There exist many other interesting aspects of the languages of Africa, that are most instructive and worthwhile to philologists and objective students of humanistic learning.

The knowledge of African languages is not only important for those who study the development and the possibilities of human speech or for linguistics experts who are interested to define the field and develop the methodologies. Many African languages are rich in both oral and written (ancient and modern) literature indispensable to all serious students of religion, history, philosophy, folklore, and the social, economic, and political life of many peoples of Africa. The key to the study of one of the oldest and most splendid civilizations of the world is the study of the Egyptian language and writing. The key to the study of one of the oldest and most intriguing Christian civilizations is the study of Ge’ez (Ethiopic), one of the first ten languages of the world into which the Bible was translated and, besides Coptic, the oldest literary language of Africa; not only is Ge’ez the key to an extensive body of literature significant for the historian of Eastern Africa and traditional African religions, but also very valuable to the student of early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic literature and history. For the scholar interested in solving a puzzle of history, Meroitic, a cursive form of writing from ancient Kush, offers limitless opportunities. Egyptian, Meroitic, and Ge’ez developed into written forms much earlier than most European languages; they are as important for the study of ancient African civilizations as Greek and Latin are for ancient European civilizations. It should also be noted that Egyptian preceded every European language, including Greek, in written form and holds greater importance for our understanding of the whole ancient world before the first millenium B.C. than any other known language with the exception of Akkadian and Sumerian. It is indeed incomprehensible that Harvard does not have a professor of Egyptian language and literature. It is equally puzzling that a serious study of Ge’ez literature is disregarded in this university; literally hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts of hundreds of separate religious, historical, and other literary works found in numerous libraries all over the world, await extensive scholary attention such as a university alone could provide.

There are many other African languages that have relatively old as well as modern literature; there are numerous others that are rich in oral literature; and several others that are significant in modern usage in commercial and educational fields, for instance:

1) Berber, a language known from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa oasis in Egypt, important for Africo-Semitic (I am using this expression to avoid the controversial expression Hamito-Semitic or the meaningless term Afro-Asiatic.) studies;

2) Amharic, another important Africo-Semitic language, with written literature going back some four hundred years, the first official language of an independent African country, and today spoken by some twenty million people;

3) Tigrina, another Africo-Semitic language of great importance for the student of Semitic language and literatures;

4)Oromo and Somali, of growing importance for the students of Africo-Semitic languages and the history of the Horn of Africa;

5) Swahili, national language of Tanzania, official in Kenya and other eastern African countries, having some older literature written in Arabic script and abundant modern literature in Latin script, and spoke by about fifteen million people;

6) Hausa, official language of northern Nigeria, lingua franca and commercial language of western Africa, significant literature (some older) written in Arabic and Latin script;

7) Yoruba, semi-official language in western Nigeria, having abundant modern literature, spoken by more than five million people;

8) Ibo, semi-official language of eastern Nigeria, spoken by more than three and a half million people;

9) Fula, lingua franca in northern Cameroun but spoken in several other western African countries, having sizable literature in Arabic and Latin script, spoken by over five million people;

10) Akan, representing a group of languages, proposed as the national language of Ghana, lingua franca in Ivory Coast, spoken by over three million people;

11) Mande-Tan, representing a subgroup, proposed as official language of Mali, important lingua franca of western Africa, having some literature written in Arabic script or indigenous script (e.g. Vai) and spoken by over six million people;

12) Rwanda (-Rundi), an important language of eastern and east-central Africa, having a good deal of transcribed oral literature, and spoken by over five million people;

13) Zulu, spoken in South Africa and the surrounding countries, of great interest to phoneticists;

14) Shona, the language of Zimbabwe;

15) Sotho-Tswana, a language with important modern literature from southern African and also phonetically interesting; and several others. For the study of any of these languages, there exist good and even excellent grammars, dictionaries, and readers.

Normally, it is not possible to teach more than a limited number of languages in one department without a large number of faculty that are recruited gradually. But it is possible to select half a dozen to a dozen African languages on the basis of their long history of literary records, possession of extensive written or oral literature, modern usage in literature, education, commerce, and importance in philological studies and to group these languages together to form a departmental unit. Five professors who are experts in one specific area but who are able to handle several related languages can be recruited to develop a coherent curriculum along these lines: a professor of Egyptian languages and literature who takes an interest in the problem of the stu-of Meroitic and who possesses some knowledge of Berber or a Cushitic language; a specialist in Ge’ez who can also handle some of the Cushitic or Semitic languages of the Horn; a specialist in Swahili who can handle some other important eastern-central languages of Africa (e.g. Kikuyu); a specialist in Hausa who can handle some of the important languages of western Africa; and a specialist in Zulu, Soth-Tswana, or Shona who can handle some of the important languages of southern Africa.

Respect for a genuine mature understanding of the mind and culture of a people comes mainly through the patience necessary to master their language and a willingness to look at the world from their point of view. In this spirit, should Harvard not end intellectual indifference to black culture and establish a Department of African Languages and Literatures–which could eventually be developed into a Department of African Languages and Civilizations?

Ephraim Isaac, associate professor of Afro-American studies, is on sabbatical during this academic year, completing a major work, “An Introduction to Classical Ethiopic Literature”, through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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