Language Endangerment in Africa

Language Endangerment in Africa

Shigeki Kaji
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2959-1.ch003
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The aim of this chapter is to lay a foundation so as to  consider the issue of language endangerment in the world. Approximately 30 years ago, various scholars stated that in the worst-case scenario, 90%–95% of the present living languages of the world would become defunct by the end of the 21st century. The assumption of this argument was that minority languages may become defunct easily. However, in this chapter, this thesis is questioned by taking into account the language situations in Africa where most languages, whether small or large, are vigorously spoken. In African countries, people do not impose majority languages on other people. More importantly, African people in general esteem others because they understand their value to them.
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The Thesis Of Michael Krauss

The purpose of this chapter is to cast doubt on the American linguist Krauss’ thesis of language endangerment. He argued that, in the worst scenario, between 90%–95% of the world’s languages may disappear by the end of the 21st century (Krauss, 1992, 2001). One may ask what the grounds for his argument are. His argument is based on limited evidence. The issue of language endangerment is examined in this chapter by considering African languages.

The reason Krauss argued that between 90%–95% of the world languages may disappear by the end of the 21st century in the worst scenario is two-fold. The first involves a timeframe of 100 years. Although some people live to be a 100 years, this is scarcely in the scope of most individuals’ imagination. Krauss stated that 100 years is sufficient time for moribund languages, that is, languages which children no longer speak to become defunct. The second reason is related to the number of speakers. An overwhelming majority of the world’s languages are minority languages, which may be more likely to become defunct according to him.

Because most of the world’s languages are minority languages, Krauss stated that in order for a language to be safe, that is, to still have some speakers at the end of the 21st  century in spite of political and economic persecutions, it must have a certain number of speakers. Krauss added that a language needs at least one million speakers in order for it not to become defunct even though there is no special evidence thereof. Krauss cited the cases of Breton of France, Navaho of America, and Ryukyu of Japan. Breton that once had one million speakers is on the verge of extinction under the influence of French. In other words, languages with one million speakers may only have a few speakers in one hundred years. 

According to the 14th edition of SIL Ethnologue, there are 6,818 languages in the world of which 330 are spoken by more than one million people. Thus, 4.84% of the world languages are safe. Krauss’ calculation is  simpler. If there were 6,000 languages, which may be calculated as one millionth of the world population of six billion, and 300 languages had more than one million speakers, 5% of the world’s languages would be regarded as safe.

The latter explanation deals with the number of speakers. Krauss expressed the view that the social and economic situations of languages are related to their maintenance. Languages, which are classified as national or official as well as regional official languages of Russia and India, are regarded as safe. For example, Icelandic with only 280,000 speakers is safe. Greenlandic and Faeroish are exceptionally safe with less than 100,000 speakers because they are regional languages. In Asia and Africa, various vernacular languages are maintained even though they are not national languages or the lingua franca. Therefore, it is possible that 600 and not 300 languages may survive the 21st century. Those are the grounds on which Krauss pronounced that 90%–95% of the world languages might disappear by the end of the 21st century in the worst scenario.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Lingala: A Bantu lingua franca, spoken mainly in northwestern DR Congo and northern Congo (Brazzaville), as well as in northern Angola and southern Central African Republic. It was formed through interactions between various ethnic groups along the Congo River and developed as an oral language. Missionaries created a literal form of Lingala for evangelic and educational purposes.

Endangered Language: A language that likely faces extinction in the near future, especially one that the child-bearing generation is no longer transmitting to their children. A language that children no longer speak is called a moribund language.

Multilingualism: The use of more than one language, which can be individual or societal. Multilingualism has two types: one is horizontal multilingualism, in which people speak languages of neighboring ethnic groups, and the other is vertical multilingualism, that is, the use of different languages layered with different functions. Typically, vernacular languages are laid at the bottom, then regional lingua francas are spoken over them, and finally official languages are used on top of them.

Nation-Standard System (or Nation-Based System): A term coined by Japanese anthropologist M. Tomikawa. A country with a nation-standard system is characterized by the dominance of one ethnic group over others, thus reducing their sphere of activities as well as validity and recognition.

Niger-Congo Phylum: The largest of Africa’s four language phyla. It spreads in the central African continent from Senegal to South Africa through Ghana, Cameroon, DR Congo, Kenya, Zambia, and so on. It is divided into several branches such as Atlantic, Mande, Kwa, Benue-Congo, and others.

Swahili: A Bantu language spoken in East and Central Africa, that is, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, DR Congo, and others. It was formed through contact between Arab traders and African people in the Indian coastal area, resulting in many words of Arabic origin. Although Swahili has native speakers in the coastal area, it is mostly used as a second or third language, especially as a lingua franca among people of different languages.

Bantu: A section of languages of Africa’s Niger–Congo phylum. It comprises about 500 languages, extending from Cameroon to South Africa, covering roughly the whole African continental area south of the equator (excluding the Khoisan area southwest of the continent).

Tribe-Standard System (or tribe-Based System): A term coined by Japanese anthropologist M. Tomikawa. A tribe-standard system characterizes a country that is not formed as a nation-state society; here, different ethnic groups coexist with equal validity and recognition.

Monolingualism: The state or ability of speaking (and writing) in only one language. Monolingual societies are relatively rare in the world, especially in Africa. Lesotho and Rwanda are such examples, where Sotho and Rwandan are predominantly used, respectively. However, vertical multilingualism is present even in these countries as social services require English and/or French.

Lingua Franca: A common language used by peoples of different languages for communication. The term is derived from the Italian phrase that means “the language of the Franks.” Today, it is used to identify any common language, such as Swahili and Lingala. Some lingua francas developed from a pidgin or creole language, but an area’s majority language may also become a lingua franca, such as Hausa in West Africa.

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