Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Language and Colonial Power

Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo 1880-1938

Foreword by Edward Said
Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 212
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Language and Colonial Power
    Book Description:

    Among the preconditions for establishing colonial authority was communication with the colonised. Verbal exchanges depended on a shared communicative praxis providing common ground on which unilateral claims could be imposed. Use of, and control over, verbal means of communication were needed to maintain regimes - military, religious-ideological, economic - in power. In the Belgian Congo brutal physical force never ceased to be exercised. In this study Professor Fabian examines the more subtle uses of power through controls on communication, by looking at the history of Swahili as it spread from the East Coast to Central Africa and demonstrating connections between -changing forms of colonial power and the development of policies towards Swahili. Using a wide range of sources, including numerous and sometimes obscure vocabularies, he combines concepts derived from literary theory and sociolinguistics to uncover, through the flaws and failures of these texts, deep-seated attitudes to language and communication.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91186-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-vii)
    Edward W. Said

    Johannes Fabian’sLanguage and Colonial Poweris a work of very high scholarship and of a particularly valuable cultural critique. In a way that no other analyst of imperial practice has done, Fabian shows that European scholars, missionaries, soldiers, travellers, and administrators in Central Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century used Swahili as a mode of extending their domination over African territories and people. The language was first studied and characterized, then streamlined for use among laboring people, then regulated as such fields as education and finance were also regulated. The novelty of Fabian’s approach is not...

  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. A note on names and orthography
    (pp. ix-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This is how Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, described the beginning of an ambitious linguistic undertaking: a monumental collection of vocabularies, and one of the first to include several African languages.¹ The result wasLinguarum Totius Orbis Vocabularia Comparative, Peter Simon Pallas (2vols., Moscow 1787 and 1789).

    István Fodor restored this text to its historical significance for African linguistics. His study of the project’s origins, sources, and contemporary context makes fascinating reading. The idea for the project seems to have come from the empress. it is possible that she conceived of it as a pastime, to while...

  7. 1 Prelude: expeditions and campaigns
    (pp. 13-41)

    Swahili and Nyamwezi traders and conquistadors, through movements that were at least partly triggered by outside forces such as American sea-trade out of Salem, Massachusetts, extended the interaction sphere in which Swahili came to serve as a means of communication.¹ That it eventually included Katanga is a matter of historical record, but we know little about the kind of Swahili that was spoken there before about 1910. By that time, at least some of the residents of that region must have used the language for almost two generations. The earliest written document, and the only one known of any importance,...

  8. 2 Questions and queries
    (pp. 42-69)

    Publication of polyglot and expeditionary guides came to a halt at about the time when the Congo Independent State became a Belgian colony (in 1908). We may assume, subject to later confirmation, that this discontinuity in the generic character of language manuals reflected changes in ‘native policy’ in response to major economic shifts from ivory, rubber, palm oil and other agricultural products to the mineral wealth mainly concentrated in Katanga. Administration, private enterprise, and a number of agencies which had the characteristics of both, faced the problem of having to assemble a large, stable labor force. As economic historians have...

  9. 3 Settling in: colonization and language
    (pp. 70-91)

    Two issues emerged from the survey on education which the Belgian Government conducted in the Congo around 1917. The missions, especially the Catholic missions, played an important part in the school system, such as it was. Their role was to be extended as the Government decided to develop and sponsor elementary and trade schools in the colony. The 1917 survey was not so much preparatory to, as expressive of, such a decision. It may seem unlikely that a metropolitan government in exile and a local administration troubled by lack of personnel and internal unrest should seriously have been concerned with...

  10. 4 Labor and language in Katanga
    (pp. 92-111)

    Looking at descriptions of, and policy statements about, languages in the Belgian Congo, we have begun to sketch the background and some of the conditions under which media of wider communication emerged. The procedure was mainly to reason from texts to context. This explains the importance ascribed to ‘vocabularies’. We take generic differentiation in this (pseudo-) linguistic literature to correspond to changes in communicative situations. Both aspects, literary form and social context, need to be examined if the history of appropriating a language is to be understood. This methodological perspective is not to be abandoned now, although, as we narrow...

  11. 5 Talking tough and bad: pidginization in katanga
    (pp. 112-134)

    Our attempt to trace the complicated, intertwined history of labor and language in Katanga has led us to formulate some structural conditions or constraints which made pidginization of Swahili all but inevitable without, however, rendering it a necessary stage in the emergence of Katanga Swahili. Several objections can be brought against such a procedure. It may be said that it is too deductive and hence conjectural. Or, even if it is granted that our view is basically correct, it could be argued that it applies only to what might be called ‘communicative pidginization’ – a certain manner of reduced, overdetermined verbal...

  12. 6 The end: illusions of colonial power
    (pp. 135-162)

    According to the canons of linguistic relativism pidgins are languages like others. This approach is prudent and formally correct; but, like other sorts of relativism, it must not be allowed to resorb through anemic generalizations all that is historically, psychologically, and perhaps esthetically specific. Pidgin Swahiliisridiculous and sometimes funny. That pidgins can embarrass or entertain, often the users as much as the observers, must have reasons analogous to those that make jokes work. Exaggerations, unexpected combinations, discrepancies between form and content, and violations of something deeper than linguistic rules seem to require relief through laughter. Be that as...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 163-187)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 188-200)
  15. Index
    (pp. 201-206)