496: Language and Colonial Power by Johannes Fabian

by Gerard


496.392096751: Fabian, Johannes. Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo 1880-1938. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986. 162 pp. ISBN 0-520-07625-7.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 490: Other languages
  • 496: African languages
  • 496.3: Niger-Congo languages
  • 496.39: Bantu languages
  • 496.392: Swahili language
  • +096751: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Africa is a continent with hundreds upon hundreds of different languages and dialects. In even one small part—the area that makes up the Democratic Republic of the Congo—listeners can hear an estimated 240 different languages. So how did Swahili (or KiSwahili), a language spoken primarily my people on the Eastern part of Africa become one of its four recognized national languages? Johannes Fabian’s Language and Colonial Power is an exploration of the intersection of history, power, language, and communication.

The Congo Free State was established in 1885 as the only colony claimed by Belgium in the Scramble for Africa. Their main reason for its colonization was the procurement of rubber for the growing vehicle industry. The Belgians, speaking mainly French, ran the military infrastructure called the “Force Publique,” which enforces colonial rule and penalties for not meeting harvest quotas. Around this time, language books were being published helping French speakers communicate with Swahili speakers. With a less than nuanced understanding of all the languages in Africa, colonists used this guide to help them interact with all the indigenous peoples in the Congo. Since those in power used the language, the language become more powerful. While there was some work being done to help differentiate dialects of Swahili and the other languages in the Bantu family, Katanga Swahili stuck around as the main sphere of influence.

Fabian’s book, while a little dated, is purely academic. There’s a lot here on the history of language guidebooks and comparative linguistics, so be prepared for that. He tracks down linguists and written evidence of the movements, shifts, and entrenchment of the Swahili language throughout the Congo Basin. One of the more interesting points he makes is that there is no real written record of Swahili before the colonists arrive. For better or for worse, no native speaker had really thought to construct an entire dictionary of the language before then. Even the way we see it today, in Roman script, is a colonial construct. Early Swahili was written in an Arabic script. The language as people encountered it at the turn of the 20th century, in the form of guidebooks, translation texts, and wordlists, was already heavily influenced by European perspectives. Today, Swahili sits alongside Longala, Kikongo, and Tshiluba as the main language of the land, but like many other languages throughout time, has evolved into what we see and hear today. This book is very dense with linguistic history and historiography, but if you’re a budding African linguist, it should definitely make your list.