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Towards an understanding of African endogenous multilingualism: ethnography, language ideologies, and the supernatural

Pierpaolo Di Carlo

Abstract

In a globalised sociolinguistics “[d]ifferent types of societies must give rise to different types of sociolinguistic study”, as Dick Smakman and Patrick Heinrich argue in the concluding remarks of their (Smakman, Dick. 2015. The westernising mechanisms in sociolinguistics. In Dick Smakman & Patrick Heinrich (eds.), Globalising sociolinguistics. Challenging and expanding theory, 16–35. London: Routledge) book Globalising sociolinguistics. Challenging and expanding theory. To this end, a basic condition must be met: both target languages and societies must be well known. This is not the case in much of Central and West Africa: with only few exceptions, here local languages and societies are generally under-researched and sociolinguistic studies have focused mainly on urban contexts, in most cases targeting the interaction between local and colonial languages. With regard to individual multilingualism, this urban-centered perspective risks to limit scholarly attention on processes that, while valid in cities, may not apply everywhere. For one thing, there might still be areas where one can find instances of endogenous multilingualism, where speakers’ language repertoires and ideologies are largely localised. The case in point is offered by the sociolinguistic situation found in Lower Fungom, a rural, marginal, and linguistically highly diverse area of North West Cameroon. The analyses proposed, stemming from a strongly ethnographic approach, lead to reconsider basic notions in mainstream sociolinguistics – such as that of the target of an index – crucially adding spiritual anxieties among the factors conditioning the development of individual multilingual repertoires in local languages.

Acknowledgements

Research for this article has been supported by generous funding from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (under Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship 0180) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (grant BCS-0853981). This article is based on a paper that was presented at the “Globalising Sociolinguistics” conference in Leiden in 2015. It was planned to be included in the conference proceedings but then, since these did not materialize, it was accepted for publication in this IJSL “Singles” volume thanks to Patrick Heinrich’s efforts and Florian Coulmas’s kind availability: I thank both of them for their help. I would like to thank my two collaborators in the field (and students), Angiachi Demetris Esene Agwara (University of Buea) and Angela Nsen Tem (University of Yaounde 1), as well as our many linguistic consultants who made the work presented here possible. A special thank goes to the late George Bwei Kum Ngong, the best guide a European fieldworker could ever hope for, and to Jeff Good, for his moral and scientific support to this and related multidisciplinary research in the Grassfields. I also want to thank David Zeitlyn and the two anonymous reviewers for their stimulating comments on an earlier draft of this article. Responsibility for the content of this article is of the author’s alone.

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