Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Sociolinguistics of Wolof: Language and Identity in Senegal

The Sociolinguistics of Wolof: Language and Identity in Senegal
mykl g sivak
December 2007

Baobab tree, Senegal
What is “correctness” in language, and how are the sociological specifics of an individual speaker linked to/defined by his/her own idiosyncratic sociolinguistic class of linguistic correctness a perceived by the self and his/her peers? In this paper, by examining various cases of use of the Wolof language in Senegal, I hope to explore these concepts more fully.  In these cases, we will see, just how plastic concepts of correctness can be, and how for some speakers in these cultures, correctness can be achieved only through acceptable types of incorrect usage.  This paper will concentrate primarily on two ethnographies which examine different sociolinguistic aspects in Wolof-speaking communities in Senegal. The first ethnography was composed by Judith T. Irvine, whose work focused on the study of sociolinguistically-caused noun classification divergences in rural Wolof-speaking communities.  The second ethnography, composed by Leigh Swigart, focuses on speakers of so-called Urban Wolof (An amalgamated form of Wolof and French) by residents of the Senegalese city of Dakar. Swigart examines Senegalese speakers’ use/perceptions of language, and illustrates the role language plays in the construction of individual identity in urban post-colonial Africa. These two studies, each focusing on a different societal system within the political and linguistic boundaries of a single country, each with social dynamics and socially-informed rules of use that differ greatly in their respective urban/rural social frameworks, illustrate just how complicated the relationship between social identity and language actually is. Paralleling these studies will also illustrate divergences in rural/urban identity as influenced by Western colonial influences or a relative lack thereof, respectively.  To further inform the conversation, I will incorporate the concepts considered by Donal Cruise O’Brien in his article The Shadow-Politics of Wolofisation which takes a more political-sociological perspective of the sociolinguistic tapestry that is modern Senegal. By taking this multi-angled approach, one can begin to appreciate the nuanced complexity of sociolinguistically-defined concepts of identity within the boundaries of a particular multifaceted linguistic arena.
William Labov, in his work The Social Stratification of English in New York City (1966), Illustrated just how interwoven are the concepts of class, prestige, and identity are with the ways in which a speaker speaks.  Labov’s work famously concentrated on the “presence or absence of consonantal [r] in postvocalic position” (Labov 44). The study demonstrated how factors such as a speaker’s age, class-background, place of employment, and (I believe) professional upward mobility[1] can affect the speech patterns of a member of a society.  In the case presented by Labov, concerning the concept of prestige between the pronounced and unpronounced /r/, prestige seemed to fall upon the pronounced /r/ as the more correct form based on sociological factors.  This is interesting when one considers the fact that American English as offspring of British English, diverges in the pronunciation of /r/ in postvocalic position. The pronounced postvocalic /r/ may have at one point been viewed as the “incorrect” form, however, over time it seems to have moved to the position of being more “correct” than the unpronounced form. I present these concepts merely to illustrate how plastic and changeable concepts of correctness are in speech, and how closely that correctness is linked to the sociological specifics of an individual speaker.  These ideas reach a great level of blatancy and complexity in the societies of certain Wolof-speaking rural Senegalese.  Irvine writes: “Wolof society is highly stratified, organized in a system of exclusive, ranked categories…these ‘castes’ are named status groups with occupational specializations, and there are eight categories” (Irvine 39). These principle categories range from the highest-ranking ‘nobles,’ which include farmers, administrators, and religious leaders. The ‘noble’ cast is also the largest, comprising as much as 30% of the population of a specific Wolof group. The lowest ranking groups are known as ‘girots’ and consist of the ‘praise-singers’ or speech specialists and the drumkeepers, also called ‘slaves of girots’ and together make up about 12% of the population. Between the ‘nobels and ‘girots’ exists a number of social gradients comprised of (in highest to lowest order) soldiers and police, ‘slaves’ and weavers, smiths, and leatherworkers (Irvine 39). Irvine also notes that there exists the ranking of individuals/families within each caste, creating a level of upward-mobility within each caste, especially for early-middle-aged males of the nobility caste (Irvine 39-40).
The most interesting aspect of rural Wolof sociolinguistics would have to be the role Wolof-language mastery plays within the dynamics of the caste system. As Irvine writes:
“Fundamental to the role of speech in Wolof social life is the prevailing assumption among rural villagers that fluency in speaking is an attribute of low social status.” “restraint…is supposed to characterize the speech of high-ranking nobles. Thus it is a sign of nobility to speak little” (Irvine 40).
At first consideration, this may seem little more than a concept of nobility based on careful elucidation and reservedness on the part of the so-called nobility. However, the characteristics considered part of ‘noble speech’ do not end with relative silence.  The more remarkable criterion is the expectation for ‘nobels’ to speak “incorrectly” (Irvine 40).
‘Girot’ speech is marked by its relative verbosity; and it is this verbosity that is not only agreed to be ‘correct’ by the members of the society for the ‘girots,’ but it may also be a means of income for them.  Since it is considered inappropriate for a ‘nobel’ to give long speeches, let alone possess the ability to do so, oftentimes a ‘noble’ will hire a ‘girot’ to deliver a speech for them (Irvine 41). This seems to equate to the admission of the superiority of ‘girot’ speech in rhetorical matters, and is interesting when viewed through the stereotypic lenses of a Western mind.
Wolof ‘nobels’ are expected to make errors when they speak. Some common error-types cited by Irvine include a breathiness of voice, a lisp/stammer, altered or ‘incorrect’ vowel sounds, omitted consonants, and errors in the noun class system.  This expectation for ‘noble error’ is so rooted that when Wolofs describe the speech of a Wolof king (none of which had existed fro over one hundred years at the time of Irvine’s study) they describe errors in the king’s speech. Likewise, if a modern ‘noble’ were to speak without an ‘adequate’ number of errors, his ‘too pure’ Wolof would be viewed as a betrayal of his high birth-rank (Irvine 42). Irvine illustrates, however, that speech errors are viewed as a positive/appropriate trait only in the case of a ‘noble.’ If a non-noble were to speak with a number of errors perceived by a listener (noble or otherwise) to be too great, he would be viewed as a ‘moron,’ careless, or possibly a foreigner.  In this respect the same linguistic error may be viewed as an appropriate characteristic of a high-ranking Wolof, or as a sign of incompetence in non-nobles (Irvine 42).
It is necessary at this point to include Irvine’s sketch of Wolof noun classification, as it is noun classification on which Irvine focused her study.  In a nutshell, Wolof minimal classification is comprised of eight singular and two plural classes, and it is only the singular classes which Irvine focuses on.  The singular classes are as follows: BI, GI, WI, MI, JI, SI, LI and KI.[2] Here are a few of Irvine’s examples of usage for the BI and GI classes:

nen ‘(an) egg’
satala ‘(a) kettle’
nen bi ‘the egg (close)’
satala gi ‘the kettle (close)’
nen ba ‘the egg (distant)’
satala ga ‘the kettle (distant)’
satala gii ‘this kettle’
nen bee ‘that egg’
ab nen ‘a certain egg’
ban nen “which egg’
genn satala ‘one kettle’
bii, bu wex la ‘this (egg), it’s a white one’ (Irvine 44).

There are constructions in which noun markers can be avoided, Irvine notes that several male noble informants of early middle age, the precise demographic she notes as having the greatest possibility of upward mobility, viewed the sans-marker variety as being ‘safer’ speech, in terms of status appropriate speech.  Members of this demographic often “contradicted” their own speech in terms of noun class usage, pointing toward a conscious though not totally successful effort on their part to speak in a manner contradictory to their internally solidified speech patterns (Irvine 59).
Irvine notes an interesting factor in the sociology of the high ranking males’ tendency toward “erroneous” speech. Since this group has the least amount of interact with young children, Irvine believes it is unlikely that these “incorrect” usages will easily be passed onto younger generations. It seems to me, that if this is true, it marks an interesting evolution of the system in that to at least some extent, it assure that only members of society who effectively climb the social ladders of the highest castes will appropriate the proper though “erroneous” speech style deemed characteristic of said class, and that only through concerted effort can the style be adequately achieved.  This coupled with the view that anyone who speaks as incorrectly and is not a recognized member of the caste in which this is considered proper would themselves be considered defective and possible mentally flawed.
In sum, the caste system of rural Wolof communities, with the emphasis it places on proper/improper speech as connected to positions of prestige, is a highly interesting example of the sociological contortions a group of speakers who so directly link language with their social stratifications.  It is interesting especially to Western minds that may be quick to view such a framework as illogical and even, literally, backward in its logic. However, I do believe there are relative analogs in Western culture, specifically relating to the vilification of “correct” grammar usage among American teenagers and the prestige dialect of youth slang, which is in many ways out-of-joint with the rules of “proper” ASE language rules. I believe however, there are greater correlations to be found in the various idiosyncratic uses of what is commonly called Urban Wolof, specifically in the more westernized urban center of Dakar, Senegal.  Here African and Western societies mesh in a post-colonial mishmash and, as we will see, these duel-continental concepts of language and identity become equally muddied.
Swigart claims to have intended to focus on Senegalese French/Wolof codeswitching. However, after observing no discernible logic in the continuous intermingling of French and Wolof in urban Dakar, Steward placed his attention elsewhere. Swigart describes urban Wolof, a muddling of French and Wolof, as less a creole and/or codeswitching system than a Variété Urbane, or rather, as the spoken language of a culturally creolized society. Swigart calls a Variété Urbane the “code of preference for an educated elite,” and links it to a reduction of traditional culture. The view of such a Variété Urbane can be met with broad gradients of views from those who live in the society in which it is spoken, even by those who speak it themselves. Swigart views this as endemic to post-colonial societies, where a creolized language will fall into widespread use before it gains a true widespread cultural acceptance bu its speakers (Swigart 175).  While a creole usually develops as a pidgin between speakers of two languages who share no common tongue, a Variété Urbane developed by speakers who share more than one common language who wish to sculpt and expand their speech in a manner which allows them to communicate with more nuance and expression (Swigart 178).
Urban Wolof is a complex thing. Usually, it manifests itself as a Wolof matrix that utilizes a French lexicon. These terms may or may not me assimilated into Wolof phonology, Wolof tense requirements, or Wolof morphemes. Sometimes French terms will be inserted untouched between purely Wolof phrases, or French phrases may be rendered literally into Wolof. Essentially all of these examples may also manifest form in their respective opposite formulations as well (Swigart 176). It seems that nearly any mixture of French and Wolof is possible in Urban Wolof, however, Swigart cites three fundamental features:  Urban Wolof Form is comprised of a mixture of French and Wolof elements, and may incorporate elements of a third or fourth language as well; and switches between elements are unmarked, without specific cause beyond choice of expression by the speaker (Swigart 176-177)..
 As plastic as Urban Wolof may be, the specifics of a speaker’s approach may be met with varying degrees of acceptance among various social groups and may be seen as carrying a range of sociological meanings and implications.  For some, speaking a Variété Urbane can mean a high level of education and sophistication while holding on to traditional values (Swigart 178).  For example, Senegalese who overuse French, that is, speak French outside of its context as the language of the state, risk being viewed as too complacent to the nation’s colonial past, or assimilé. Likewise, an urban speaker who overuses Wolof, that is, does not adequately pepper his speech with common French words, will be viewed as a kawkaw, or “hick,” a person out of touch with modern life (Swigart 179-180).  Interestingly, this opinion does not carry over to the women of Dakar, or members of older generations.  Interestingly, even urban non-speakers of French have come to interject French words of phrases in their speech, perhaps in order to align themselves with the truly bilingual urban elite. In a way, Urban Wolof requires of its speakers a position of limbo, with a foot in both sides of post-colonial African life.  That is not to say there is a general happy acceptance of Urban Wolof as a mode of communication.  There seems to be the view that the mixing if languages equates to a cultural coarseness.  One particular group who is loathed for their behaviour and their unabashed acceptance of a particular dialect of urban Wolof which incorporated a number of English wordsis the group dubbed the jeunes bandits de Dakar, or ‘young Dakar low-lifes.’  These young men are known for their love of urban trappings, their overtly Western dress, and perhaps even delinquency (Swigart 181).
To speak Urban Wolof in certain company is considered disrespectful.  The great irony here is that among most speakers of Urban Wolof, there seems to be a general ignorance of the level in which the Variété Urbane has made it into their everyday speech.  Even in dubious cases, as in the case of presidential candidate Abdoulaye Wade who denied his having mixing French and Wolof even though he did this constantly during his campaign, there seems to be an actual mass misconception as to just how much of Urban Senegalese Wolof language utilizes French words and influences (Swigart 185).
Recently, there has been some intellectual uprising in support of a pure Wolof, devoid of French influence. One case involves a Senegalese newscaster who refuses to use any French in his broadcast. Instead he has chosen to pepper his Wolof with words he borrows from Arabic, which he “Wolofizes.” Many Dakarois claim they can only understand 60-70 percent of his newcasts (Swigart 181). However, as O’Brien points out:
“The most ardent advocates of written Wolofisation were often those who had already been through the best of French-language instruction, some of the more prominent of them were French nationals: Most Wolof speakers on the other hand wanted to see better French-language instruction, as a passport to occupational and geographic mobility to their children” (O’Brien 40).
Since French is the official language of Senegal, and at times 70 percent of employment was within the governmental bureaucracy, people are likely to see education in this area as far more important than in Wolof. A further irony does exist in certain Senegalese claims that the French want the Senegalese people to preserve the use of French in official contexts to save their dying language (Swigart, O’Brien). The Senegalese people may be all too away of the fact that their own Wolof poses no threat of becoming a global lingua franca as widespread and multi-national as English or Spanish.
O’Brien describes the expansion of Wolof across Senegal, specifically in Urban areas. Though French is the official language, government jobs are declining, and Wolof is the home language of the majority of Senegalese. He points out that concepts of ethnicity fall largely on the criteria of language in Senegal, and as more speakers of other languages switch to primarily speaking Wolof, in essence they switch their ethnic identity as well[3] (O’Brien 25-26).
O’Brien also points out the difficulty of the prospect of shifting the official language of Senegal from French to Wolof. Firstly, Wolof is a largely written language. It is sometimes transcribed phonetically in either roman or Arabic characters, depending on context. Another issue exists in the fact that only about half the population of Senegal speak Wolof as their primary language. To make Wolof the official language would be to, in effect, risk alienating another 50 percent of the population. And so, in some ways, French, though the remnant of colonial invaders, represents a relatively benign left-over of the colonial era (O’Brien 29-31). O’Brien writes:
“A linguistic confrontation in the Senegaliese National Assembly in the 1980s showed perhaps some future possibilities, when a speaker from one of the small opposition parties…spoke in Wolof…this speaker wanted to make a symbolic point on behalf of the Wolof language. He was answered by a government minister in Pilaar, a language which the previous speaker did not understand, making another point, that ‘Wolof was not the only indigionous alternative”’ (O’Brien 32).
This does not seem to be an issue with an easy solution and it may be evident why a number of Senegalese are content to stick with the status quo in matters of national language.
            It is clear by this brief exploration of the great scope of divergence in the sociolinguistic politics of just one language in only one nation, just how important and complicated language is where issues of identity are concerned.  It is obvious that issues of identity, social appropriateness, and other factors concerning an individual’s place in the framework of a society are highly contingent upon that individual’s relationship with the language he or she speaks.  The Wolof language indeed represents a complex tapestry of sociolinguistic nuances, and I believe it serves as an appropriate representation for the sociolinguistic dynamics of many other languages as well.

Works Cited

Guiterrez, C. Paige. Cajun Foodways. Jackson, Miss: U. Press of Mississippi, 1992. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, (12/10/2007).

Irvine, Judith T. “Wolof Noun Classification: The Social Setting of Divergent Change.” Language in Society 7.1 (1978): 37-64. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, (12/10/2007).

Labov, William. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P, 1972.

O’Brien, Donal Cruise. “The Shadow-Politics of Wolofisation.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 36.1(1998): 25-46.

Swigart, Leigh. “Cultural Creolisation and Language Use in Post-Colonial Africa: The Case of Senegal.” Africa: Journal of the International Affairs Institute 64.2 (1994): 175-189. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, (12/10/2007)

[1] Labov writes: “the shift from the influence of new England prestige pattern (r-less) to the Midwestern prestige pattern (r-full) is felt most completely at Saks. The younger people at Saks are under the influence of the r-pronouncing pattern, and the older ones are not. At Macy’s…stockboys, the young salesgirls, are not as yet fully aware of the prestige attached to the r-pronunciation. On the other hand, the older people at Macy’s tend to adopt this pronunciation…” (Labov 59). This may have been illustrative of the possible class background of the employees. In cases in both stores, employees of the ages between 35-50 pronounced (r-1) exactly 26 percent of the time. As opposed to employees of the ages between 15-30. In this case Saks employees pronounced (r-1) 67 percent of the time as opposed to similarly aged Macy’s employees who pronounced (r-1) only 21 percent of the time. It may have been that the employees of the younger demographic in Sak’s may come from wealthier backgrounds then their counterparts at Macy’s. it is also worth considering the fact that the level of prestige that comes with working in a department store probably decreases as an individual moves from the 15-30 years old demographic to the 35-50 years old demographic. People of the older demographic in both stores may come from comparable levels of social class, which may be close to the social class of the younger Macy’s employees, but lower than the younger Sak’s employees.
[2] Irvine notes that the BI class “has the largest membership and takes most loan words. It is frequently the alternate for noun stems assigned to other classes, a fact that has been interpreted as historical trend” (Irvine 45).   Irvine attaches a level of semantic importance on this trend as a signal to the shrinking of semantic meaning of noun markers.  Though there is little general agreement of semantic meaning for noun markers, a few of the more common include: Trees (GI), Fruit (BI), Large (GI), Small (SI), Neutral (BI), Birds, Nests, Eggs (MI), Collectives (JI, SI) (Irvine 56). The broadening of the BI class may be due to its designation of semantic marker for all things neutral.  This may be evidence that Wolof speakers are abandoning semantic meaning (some of which are clearly founded in the natural world) for a less specific markers.  The Wolof speakers are evidently aware of this shift. This is evident, for example when one speaker stated, “Some people nowadays just use BI for everything” (Irving 56). It is worth noting, however, that girots and noble females trend away from the BI class and toward noun class elaboration (Irvine 58).
[3] This brings into consideration Gutierrez’s examination of Cajun identity. She writes that though Cajun self-identity is stronger than it has ever been, many Cjuns find it difficult to answer the question: What is Cajun? (Gutierrez 16).  “For those Cajuns who speak French today, the particular dialect they speak is not what determines whether they arew Cajun or non-Cajun French ethnicity, although dialect is associated with class distinctions…they call white Creole and tourists from france “real French people” (Guitierrez 17).  This should not be confused with their term for all Cajun and non-Cajun native French speakers in Louisiana which is French People. This designation includes Cjuns, white French Creoles, black French Creoles and Creoles of color. The term French People is contrasted to the term Americans. Cajuns call any American who is not a native-french speaker American but stress that this does not equate to a lack of American patriotism on their part (Gutierrez 20).

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