Urban Languages in Africa

Rose Marie Beck


Against the backdrop of current research on the city, urbanity is understood to be a distinct way of life in which (in the spatial, factual and historical dimensions) processes of densification and heterogenization are perceived as acts of sociation. Urbanization is thus understood to include and produce structuration processes autonomously; this also includes autonomous linguistic practices, which are reflected as sediments of everyday knowledge in language and thus create the instruments needed for facilitating and generalizing such urbanization: urban languages. In this conceptual context, which looks at cities in Africa from the point of view of language sociology, two large phases of urbanization can be distinguished in Africa. The first phase is related to trade networks and cultural métissage of small groups of middlemen. The second phase, characterized by efforts to deal with Africa’s colonial history and to catch up with “the world”, presses ahead with the development of an autonomous, authentic modernity. The reconstruction of the development undergone especially by the more recent urban languages raises questions about the connotations of urbanization and modernization in contemporary Africa: on the one hand, dissociation from colonial legacies as well as from the postcolonial political elites, impotent administrations, and tribalist instrumentalizations of language and language policies; on the other, quite the reverse – the creation of autonomous African modernities that include the city (and the state), brought about by the interplay of both local dynamics and global flows.

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