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Les intraduisibles du patrimoine en Afrique subsaharienne

Danièle Wozny
Barbara Cassin

In English. Heritage Untranslatables in Sub-Saharan Africa

1. Presentation

Texte intégral

The actors

1UNESCO’s key instruments of heritage preservation and promotion – the 1972 Convention Concerning the Preservation of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible World Heritage – have theoretically made it possible for any country to redefine the nature and shape of its heritage and take responsibility for its promotion.

2One of the key factors for the development of an “African Renaissance” is often thought to be the African population’s own awareness that their heritage matters, and therefore that it is not only relevant to promote it, but also to ensure its protection, preservation, and intergenerational transmission.

3This process of cultural re-appropriation calls for a dynamic synergy between heritage producers, owners, and guardians on the one hand, and cultural experts, historians, linguists, terminologists, trainers and managers on the other. This synergy depends on the ability of population groups to appropriate the informational and normative content of UNESCO instruments, which were developed and written down in languages foreign to them. Both the spirit and the letter of these instruments must therefore be translated into the languages spoken by African people, for the purposes of information, raising awareness, and appropriation.

4This necessitates an interdisciplinary approach, and this is why we have called upon the expertise of heritage specialists (cultural heritage officers, museologists, archaeologists, managers, mediators, institutional officials, etc.) as well as linguists, legal experts, historians, philosophers, and translators.

5Have taken part in this project:

6Victoire Adegbidi, heritage specialist at the School of African Heritage (EPA) in Benin; Lucy Asante Mtenje, at the University of Malawi; Antoine Courroy, Director of the Alliance française in Gaborone (Botswana); Manthia Diawara, Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University (USA); Julia Ethé, Lecturer in Language Pedagogy, University of Yaoundé (Cameroon); Samuel Kidiba, Director-General of Heritage, Brazzaville (Congo); Justin Kimpalou, linguist, Heritage Management, Brazzaville (Congo); Cynthia Kros, Wits University, Johannesburg (South Africa); Léon de Stadler, Director of the Language Centre, Stellenbosch University; Amina Meddeb, World Heritage Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris (France); Samba Mboup, South Africa; Sheila Mmusi, Professor of Linguistics, University of Limpopo (South Africa)/ACALAN; Rosaleen O. Nhlekisana, Head, Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Botswana; Paul Nzete, Professor of Linguistics, University of Brazzaville (Congo)/ACALAN; David Okello, Professor of Heritage Studies, Kenyatta University, Nairobi (Kenya); Deirdre Prins-Solani, Director of the Centre for Heritage Development in Africa (CHDA), Mombassa (Kenya); Alain Ricard, Professor of Linguistics, Institut d’Études Politiques, Université de Bordeaux (France); Amina Saïd, CHDA, Mombassa (Kenya); Klessige Sanogo, Director of Heritage, Bamako (Mali); Julius Taji, Linguist, University of Dar es salam (Tanzania); Amadou Touré, Professor of Linguistics, Bamako (Mali)/Acalan; Georgios Tasklidis, interpreter, Paris.


7In order to grasp and know the reality that surrounds us, we must sort it out into discrete elements and name them. This is the only way we can master concepts and objects and act upon them. The role that language plays in this process is twofold: it is at once an element of the intangible cultural heritage, and the medium we use to articulate thought and knowledge, and as such reality and heritage themselves.

8Language is more intimately intertwined with identity than any other heritage property. As such the defining categories and characteristics of heritage, as well as the notion of “heritage” itself, vary from one culture and language to another. Already, Professor Cheikh Anta Diop considered that “Linguistic unity based on a foreign language, however one may look at it, is cultural abortion. It would irremediably eventuate in the death of the authentic national culture, the end of our deeper intellectual and spiritual life, and reduce us to perpetual copycats, having missed out on our mission in this world”. Instead, he considered that Africa’s “salvation” lay in the rational management of its multilingual society, taking the utmost care to respect its cultural diversity.

9Looking at a variety of cultural and linguistic areas, we examine the words which provide the basis for the international recognition of heritage properties and seek to discover their inferences and references. Although switching from one language to another means that some things will be lost in translation, it also leads to innovations, the significance and consequences of which must be evaluated. These variations must be mapped out if practices of heritage management, museography, and patrimonial promotion endogamous to different cultures and places are to be put in place.

10With this in mind, we have chosen to focus on the following seven languages: French, English, Fulfulde and Bamanakan for Western Africa, and the Swahili, Sukuma, and Tsonga languages for Eastern Africa.

French and English

11We have chosen to include French and English because the concepts underpinning UNESCO’s action have in most cases been thought through and developed in English and French. Both are at once colonial languages – “spoils of war”, as it were – and vehicular languages.

12They were our main working languages in our seminars.

Languages of Sub-Saharan Africa

13We identified five vehicular cross-border languages, in consultation with ACALAN (the African Academy of Languages), a specialist institution of the African Union which has its headquarters in Bamako and was created in 2006 in Khartoum. ACALAN’s mandate is to develop and promote the use of African languages in all domains of society, side by side with the languages inherited from the colonial era – English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. ACALAN considers the promotion of African languages to be a factor for integration, solidarity, and mutual respect and understanding, as well as an instrument for peace and conflict prevention.

14African vehicular cross-border languages are spoken by ethnic groups or nations overlapping two or more countries; vehicular languages are used for communication purposes by different population groups which have their own languages. We have chosen to focus on the following languages:

The Fula language or Fulfulde

15Fulfulde is the generic name of the language spoken by the Fulɓe (singular pullo). The Fulɓe constitute one of the larger traditional pastoral people of Western Africa. This language is more widely known as Pulaar in Senegal and Mauritania, Pulaar or Pulal in Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau. It is also called Peul (in French), Fula (in English), and Ful (in German).

16Fulfulde is part of the group of western Atlantic languages in the Niger-Congo family in J. H. Greenberg’s (1963) classification. It is an agglutinative language with a complex morphology and a very elaborate system of noun classes and lexical and grammatical affixes. It is similar to the Bantu languages in this respect. It has a maximum of 25 noun classes, depending on dialects, and 11 derivative morphemes. Its basic lexical elements come from radical morphemes (verbal and adjectival roots, noun stems). Radical bases and derivative morphemes alike are endowed with a basic semantic notion. For this reason, Fulfulde is a language with a very significant capacity for lexical creation.

17Today, Fulfulde is spoken in 21 Western and Central African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Gabon, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Chad and Togo. This language has its origins in ten of these countries (italicised).

18There are significant communities of Fulfulde speakers in France, Belgium, the USA, Spain and Italy. Fulfulde is being promoted by Tabital Pulaagu International, an organisation with local headquarters in each one of these Western countries.

19This language is estimated to have between at least 30 and at most 50 million speakers worldwide.

The Bambara language or Bamanakan

20Bamanakan (the word adds the suffix – kan: language to Bamana: Bambara) is the language spoken by the Bambara community. With a population estimated over two million, the Bambara people are an ethnic group based in Mali who essentially depend on subsistence crops (millet, sorgho, maize, cowpea) for their livelihood. They are spread over the Ségou, Koulikoro, Kayes and Mopti regions, respectively in the centre, centre west, west, centre, and east of Mali.

21Bamanakan is spoken by the majority of Mali’s other communities and is one its national languages. It belongs to the group of Mande languages. It is also a transnational language with many dialects on a linguistic continuum spoken in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, and the Gambia. The speakers of these dialects have no difficulty understanding each other.

22Bamanakan started to be written down in the Latin alphabet in the 1970s, using accents to indicate tone. Tonal variations alter the meaning of a word. There are 7 oral vowels in Bamanakan: a, e, ɛ, i, o, ɔ, and u, as well as 7 nasalised vowels: an, en, ɛn, in, on, ɔn and un.

23In Mali, the Bambara language official alphabet has 20 consonants: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, ɲ, ŋ, p, r, s, t, w, y, and z. Each consonant usually corresponds to a single sound, but there are a few exceptions.

24Despite the rapid expansion throughout Mali of literacy in Bamanakan, the number of literary works published in the Bambara language has been slow to develop as a result of the overbearing influence of Mali’s administrative language, French. Nevertheless, a rich and diversified oral tradition of tales, legends, epics, myths, proverbs, genealogical information, songs, etc. is being handed down from generation to generation by the griots (“Masters of the Word”).

The Swahili language or Kiswahili

25Swahili (autonym: Kiswahili) is an African language which belongs to the family of the Bantu languages. It is the first or second language of around 80 million speakers spread across 12 central African countries: the Comoros, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar. It is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa.

26Swahili was originally spoken by farming and fishing communities on the banks of the Sabaki river in Eastern Africa. In the tenth century, it spread as it was adapted and used by Arab and Persian traders of ivory and slaves, until it became the lingua franca of the African eastern coast and hinterland. Today, it is the national and official language of several countries in Eastern and Central Africa.

27The Swahili language is part of the group of Bantu languages in the Niger-Congo family in J. H. Greenberg (1963) classification. Like all Bantu languages, it is an agglutinative language with a complex morphology and a very regular system of noun classes and lexical and grammatical affixes. It has 15 noun classes and 9 derivative morphemes.

28It is the mother tongue of only 10% of its speakers. The remaining 90% speak it as a second or foreign language. After spending time in Eastern Africa, South-African war veterans fostered its rapid expansion throughout Southern Africa.

29Swahili, which means “The People of the Coast” in Arabic, was heavily influenced by Arabic, as well as by English, Portuguese and Hindi. It is taught and used in the media in Europe, Africa and Asia. It is the most sought-after language in Africa, after Arabic.

The Sukuma language or Shisukuma

30Sukuma (autonyms: Shisukuma and Kigwe) is an African language belonging to the family of the Bantu languages. It has over 5 million speakers from north-western Tanzania to the south of Lake Victoria.

31Sukuma speakers are essentially farmers and cowherds with a rich culture and social life based on their traditional environment. From a demographic point of view, the Sukuma or Basukuma people constitute Tanzania’s greatest ethnic group, since Swahili speakers are not considered as an ethnic group.

32The word “sukuma” means “northerners”. The Sukuma people were given their name by their southern neighbours, the Dakama people, or “southerners”, who are linguistically very closely related to them. The Sukuma language is part of the group of Bantu languages in the Niger-Congo family. Like all Bantu languages, it is an agglutinative language with a complex morphology and a very elaborate system of noun classes and lexical and grammatical affixes. It has 18 noun classes and 9 derivative morphemes.

33Sukuma is neither formally taught nor used as a literary language, despite having a great number of speakers. It is an oral language and a dynamic instrument for the conservation of ethnic culture and identity.

The Tsonga language or Xitsonga

34Tsonga is the generic name of a group of closely related Bantu languages spoken from the Save river in southern Mozambique to the South African province of Limpopo. Tsonga is also spoken in Zimbabwe and Swaziland. The Guthrie classification of Bantu languages places Tsonga in class 50 of zone S – S50 – alongside the other languages in that group, notably Tshwa (S51), Gamba (S52), Tsonga (S53), and Ronga (S54). It is estimated that Tsonga has more than 3 million speakers spread across Mozambique and South Africa.

© Demopolis, 2014

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