Babel, Africa

The movement for Catalonian independence in northeastern Spain is gaining momentum, and makes me think of the possible alternative histories and future histories concerning the evolution of Romance languages. If Barcelona, rather than the Kingdom of Castilla, had fought and expelled the Moors out of Iberia, half of the American continent would likely be speaking a dialect of Catalán instead of Castellano, and we would all be calling the Catalonian dialect “español”. In Spain, the Castillian dialect is still called castellano, as speakers of the other Spanish dialects resent the monopoly of Castillian on the term “español”. You see, español means Spanish, and really all the languages of Spain are españolas. As the Catalonian Realm and its culture and language finally, after centuries of repression, asserts its natural destiny and aspires to become a player in the international sphere, it makes me think of other Romance and, most important in our day and age, post-Romance, tongues out there.

The main point of interest in this regard is Africa, which by all accounts will experience unprecedented future growth in terms of both demographics and power, and become the new Asia towards the end of the 21st Century (insofar as it does not implode due to scarcity and fight over resources).

The coming population explosion might make the French language in Africa what Spanish and Portuguese are in Latin America, and French will again become one of the dominant few world languages … but that’s assuming that literacy rates rise, that the region remains stable, and that standard versions of French gain enough stability in the educational systems to remain in use.

French, during the colonial era, acquired a similar role in Africa that Latin acquired during the colonial Roman period in antiquity. The Latin language had prestige and military power. The Roman Empire built roads and aqueducts, therefore wherever it went it bettered the quality of life of people and was seen as a bringer of civilization.

During several centuries, Latin became a lingua franca, was used in trade, and gave access to all the knowledge that was available; it provided formal educational institutions, and ergo had the self-perpetuating power that dialectal and local expressions didn’t have.

Listen to West African song Je Pense a Toi

The exact same process is happening with French in Africa. Because so many languages are spoken, in many parts of Africa French has become the lingua franca, as there is no other shared means of communication that unites entire countries and can become identity markers–both national and international. Also, the Catholic Church preserved Latin for centuries, helping to uphold the prestige of the language. In many parts of the Black Continent, where religious fervor is high, the Catholic Church is doing the same for French.

As the Roman Empire was built, Latin slowly replaced the Celtic and Gaulish languages and became a marker of new identities. This is already happening in the French-speaking regions of Africa. For instance, the city of Abidjan (Ivory Coast) already has a majority of residents who speak French as their mother language.

There are further simlarities with vulgar Latin in the Europe of the early centuries of Common Era: once standardized French language has been adopted as “official” in many countries, it begins to assume local ideosincrasies, accents, creoles and differences. Latin didn’t just replace the Celtic-Iberic languages in Hispania: it also was greatly affected by the character and speech of the ancestors of the Spanish and Portuguese; and when the Gauls and Franks became a Roman province, the nasal speech of the tribes forever left its mark on vulgar Roman, until it became recognizable as several varieties of French a few centuries later.

Today in Senegal there is a mixing of Wolof and French at all levels of society which is becoming increasingly culturally accepted. The prestige that French claimed only for itself during the colonial period is wearing off, and the new forms slowly gain increasing respect until, as we saw with Kreyol in Haiti, the local vernacular becomes recognized and gains its own identity and its linguistic sovereignty is recognized. Other post-Romance languages have also become standardized and recognized as independent languages on the American side of the Atlantic, most notably the Papiamento of the Dutch Caribbean islands.

Symptoms of increased acceptance of post-Romance language include the prevalent use of letters that are not usually seen in Romance languages. In Spanish and French, the letter w is only used in words recently borrowed from Germanic languages, but in Kreyol we find it in words like bwa, lwa (from the French bois or forest, loi or law). When this shift to post-French orthography is seen in continental Africa, we will know that the vernacular is evolving past French.

France and Spain never had a single language. Multiple dialects, more or less mutually intelligible but nonetheless distinct, evolved in various regions and what we know today as Spanish and French language are just the politically dominant variety of the local dialects. As we’re seeing with Catalonia, Spain is still not unified to this day. Based on the European experience, we should expect multiple varieties of French and French-like tongues to emerge. If and when post-Frencophone languages ever evolve in diverse parts of Africa, the versions of them that become standardized will be the ones promoted and advanced by whatever states consolidate and assert themselves in the coming centuries, just as we saw in France and Spain.

Click here to listen to a song in French by (North African) Gnawa Diffusion

Of course, no outcome is certain and there’s a small chance French may lose favor, or that Africa and not Paris may set the standard of the language in the future. In Congo, the French language is not without competitors: Swahili is among a few of the lingua francas there, and it’s also the national language in Kenya and Tanzania. But Swahili itself is beginning to exhibit evolutionary pangs. In the streets of Nairobi, a new speech known as the Sheng language is evolving among the youth of various tribal groups as an Esperanto, a shared trans-tribal language. It’s too early to tell if Sheng is here to stay and evolve, or if it’s a fad.

Although Latin united Europe for a few centuries, ultimately what we might call the Babel effect, which affects all natural languages, began to take shape and the tongues became unintelligible to each other again. When I visited Argentina twenty years ago with a group of students from Puerto Rico, the rioplatense dialect spoken there was sometimes unintelligible to me, and many locals reported not understanding Puerto Rican Spanish. Some actually believed we were speaking English at times. The French colonial project in Africa will likely have a similar long-term effect.

It took centuries for vulgar Latin to evolve into recognizable Romance languages. Unlike the European process, the African one will take place after the information age and will be slowly documented over the generations, just as the Sheng phenomenon is being noted in Kenya. The coming generations will be fascinating times for linguistics.


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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