The A of SOAS: African languages and linguistics


For over 30 years, October has been the month when schools, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions all across the UK celebrate Black History Month. As I helped my ten year old with her school’s project on Black musicians, she and I re-watched a film produced by SOAS professor Lucy Durán, on Malian Jelis (Griots) and their roles as storytellers and oral historians. We had both already seen the film, in March 2016 during a public screening at SOAS, where it was presented alongside a documentary on multilingualism in the Casamance region of Senegal by former colleague professor, Friederike Lüpke

A closeup photo shows a drum and drummers hands being used in a kente yam festival in Ghana, West Africa.

To me, these two award-winning movies, educative, funny, and accessible even to younger audiences, epitomise SOAS’s scholarship on African languages: cutting-edge, challenging and interconnected to current social issues. A scholarship that proudly celebrates the cultural richness of the continent and can be shared with wider, non-academic audiences. Our research expertise on African languages and the teaching we provide is important. About a third of the 7000 languages currently spoken in the world are indigenous to Africa. They all contribute to our world, scientific knowledge and, since we’re in the UK, to British society, in many different ways. 

For one, many African languages are now integral part of the rich linguistic landscape of Great Britain. According to the results of the 2011 ONS census, several languages from across Africa are spoken as home languages in multiple cities of the countries. These include East African languages such as Amharic, Tigirniya and Somali, West African languages such as Akan, Yoruba and Igbo and Central and Southern African languages, such as Lingala, Swahili, Shona and Luganda. 

African languages are the modes through which unique literatures are shared, arts are performed and parts of humanity’s knowledge are kept. They tell us about African societies and encapsulate so much of the continent’s history − our history. The linguistic diversity and multilingualism of Casamance described by Prof. Lüpke in her film tell us about the contacts and complex relationships that exist between people from different ethnic groups in the region. The Jeli musicians filmed in Lucy Durán’s movie use songs in their languages to record their people’s history. 

Each African language is unique in its lexicon, sound system and the way it chooses to grammatically package information and describe events or things, giving us access to different ways of conceptualising the world, but also helping us to understand human language and how it works. 

For a little over a hundred years, SOAS has been at the forefront of the scholarship on African languages and linguistics. This history is complex and troubled. When the School of Oriental Studies, as it was then known, opened in 1917, its main purpose was to strengthen British colonial interests in Asia and Africa. Many African languages were taught then, including Amharic, Hausa, Ibo, Mende, Yoruba, Swahili, Xhosa and Zulu, but with the sole aim of training colonial officials and military officers (Brown 2016). It’s only when Britain’s colonial interests weakened that students with genuine interests in African languages started to join the school. Singer and actor Paul Robeson was amongst them when he came to SOAS in 1934 to study Swahili. 

From the 1930s onwards, research on African languages and linguistics developed at SOAS and the library, now holding one of the largest and richest collection on Africa, started to expand. It was then, for instance, that two pioneers of African linguistics, Ida Ward and Archibald Tucker, joined the school. Tucker’s 1955 grammar of Masai, co-written with John Tompo Ole Mpaayei, is one that very few Africanist (and linguist in general) in the world have not consulted at some point of their career. 

Over the years, the number of African languages taught at SOAS has reduced. Nowadays, students can study Amharic, Yoruba, Zulu and Swahili full time, while a number of other languages, such as Bemba, Chichewa, Fulfulde, Igbo, Kongo, Luba, Tigrinya and Oromo can be learned in directed study mode. But scholarship by SOAS academics, students and alumni has continued to contribute to our knowledge, understanding and promotion of African languages and cultures. Phil Jaggar’s numerous publications on the Hausa language, Chege Githiora’s work on Sheng, a previously undocumented urban variety of Kenya, Ida Hadjivayanis’s translation of Alice in Wonderland in Swahili, Lutz Marten’s ongoing research on the grammar, history and sociolinguistics of Swahili and Bantu languages, Friederike Lüpke’s work on multilingualism in Senegal, and the many SOAS-ELDP funded documentations and descriptions of minoritised and endangered languages from Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Tanzania and the Algerian Sahara by some of our former PhD students are only few examples of these.  

In 2021, as we decolonise our curriculum and research, and tackle the difficulties faced by Humanities and Universities across the UK, African languages continue to be core to SOAS’s DNA. New exciting programmes and courses, such as the course Language, Identity and Society in Africa, that reflect 21st century Africa and the connections between people on the continent and diasporas in the UK and Europe, have been created or are under development.

Our research is now focussed not just on understanding Africa but also on using our expertise to tackle current social, economic, political and health challenges faced by African communities. The UKRI-funded project ‘Cultural translation and interpreting of Covid-19 risks among London’s migrant communities’, for example, builds on our researchers’ knowledge and connections with African communities in London and the UK to understand how COVID-19 and more generally health policies can be better communicated to migrant communities. And who knows, maybe this project will be the topic of the movie my daughter and I watch while working on her next Black History Month assignment. 

Dr Aicha Belkadi is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Linguistics in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at SOAS, where she teaches syntax, semantics, morphology and sociolinguistics. 

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