That is probably the absolute cheesiest title ever. I really, really apologize but there are minimal puns to be had with the word “Wolof.” And, evidently, a pun needed to be had. Anyways, this post is very much related to the Wolof language study grant for which I applied and am currently trying (and failing) not to obsess about. For those of you not up on your indigenous West African languages (shame!) Wolof is the most widely spoken language in Senegal. It is an Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family, and is the native tongue of the Wolof ethnic group (found in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania). It also, in its own way, was affected by something which for the purposes of this entry I shall be referring to as “linguistic colonialism.” Below the fold, find my second-rate attempt at Chomskyism.
Raise your hand if you took French in high school. If your program was anything like mine your teacher relished the section where we got to learn about French superseding Latin as the Enlightenment-era lingua franca. I cannot vouch for similar lesson plans in Spanish or Italian so please feel free to educate me.
Anyways, hopping into our wayback machine for a moment, for hundreds upon hundreds of years Latin was the language to know if one was a member of the European literati thanks in no small part to Mother Church. Latin was the language of worship, of learning, of medicine, of law, etc. etc. etc. Along comes the Enlightenment and, with it, the publication of scientific and philosophical journals. The printing press has already been invented, so these journals are relatively easy to disseminate. Many of these periodicals were in Latin but, according to Jonathan Israel (author of Radical Enlightenment) many were written in French, such as the Journal des Scavants.
Indeed, the preponderance of francophone Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Rene Descartes had been slowly bringing French into the forefront of Continental intellectual life. The language had been gaining cache for quite some time; the legend that Emperor Charles the V “spoke Latin to his court, French to his mistresses, and German to his horses” had already begun to circulate. Latin increasingly become almost strictly the language of salvation and worship while French was becoming the language of political life and academic debate (not just in France, but throughout Europe). Vernaculars, particularly English — and to a lesser extent German — tended to remain in the domain of the mundane. It is important to bear in mind that Latin did not become completely ghettoized into cathedral and convent; plenty of journals were published in this still highly respected language, and Latinate sentence structure would ultimately have a profound influence on what would become “standard” English syntax. However, French did predominate in the salons of Europe.
So. This “hierarchy” of languages came to dominate European discourse. Perhaps it was inevitable that colonial languages would also become edified and maligned. For an example we can turn to my region of interest, Senegal.
As mentioned above Wolof is probably the most widely spoken language in that West African nation. Two other languages forming a “Senegal group” of Atlantic branch Niger-Congo tongues are Fula and Sereer. While the three languages do have strong geographic correlations Wolof, Fula and Sereer are not entirely discrete; most Senegalese are multilingual and speakers do intermingle. During the colonial era, however, this fact was often conveniently erased, partially because Sub-Saharan African languages were not really studied by Europeans until well into the nineteenth century.*
The European study of African languages tended to include a fair amount of political and cultural baggage. In the eyes of powers engaged in the “scramble for Africa” indigenous tongues reflected, in the words of Samuel Johnson, “the pedigree of nations.”
Fula, according to Judith Irvine and Susan Gal in Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation, had a strong connection to Islam and was associated with Senegal’s first converts to that religion. Due to Islam’s monotheism (like Christianity) speakers of Fula were deemed “higher.” Europeans also concluded that, due to the spread of Islam, Muslim conquerors from the north must have brought some Caucasian blood and traditions to Senegal, cementing Fula’s role as the “superior” language. Indeed, due to its “delicacy and “intelligence” many Europeans refused to see Fula as related to Wolof and Sereer at all, theorizing that it had its roots instead among the Semitic languages.
Sereer, meanwhile, was viewed as a “simple” language, associated with “low-ranking, heathen peasants.” It was a language of the home, like European vernaculars, and was the most “black African” of the linguistic triad. It could not be more different from the “delicate” Fula language, as exemplified by the words of a French missionary cited by Irvine and Gal: “The [Muslim clerics] have invented this false adage: whoever speaks Sereer cannot enter heaven.” Ironically enough the “simple” Sereer speakers were often bilingual in Wolof.
Wolof occupied a middle ground between these two tongues. It was a language of politics and trade and dominated the Senegalese coast. While (supposedly) completely unrelated to Fula, Wolof was seen has having a profound influence upon the “lowly” Sereer. Wolof ranked higher than Sereer, but nearly as high as Fula (Wolof was deemed “less supple, less handy” than Fula) The “less intelligent” Wolof, therefore, asserted their “dominance” over the “childlike” Sereer through a campaign of “tyranny” and “enslavement.” This, of course, meant that the French would be perfectly justified in intervening as a colonial superpower.
It seems to me that, in the case of Wolof/Sereer/Fula, we have somewhat of a reflection of French/Latin/vernacular. It’s not exact, but I suspect that this is at least in part due to the fact that no European linguist of the colonial era would ever equate an African language to a European one. I still urge you to meditate upon the fact that “linguistic colonialism” served the colonizers’ agenda as they mapped European/African relationships onto their history of intra-African relationships.
*In 1881 Robert Needham Cust presented to that year’s Orientalist Congress an overview of 438 African languages.