Staff linguist

« previous post | next post »

Mae Sander has passed on this fascinating story from the joint website of the Ghana Institute of Architects and the Architects Registration Council of Ghana. According to the story (attributed to Prof. Ablade Glover of the College of Arts of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi), every Ghanaian chief

has a linguist. He goes on errands to convey his master's ideas, or appears in public with him.

It is the linguist who puts the chief's whispers into poetic and eloquent language. He is not only a mo[u]th-piece as he is wrongly described today but rather [an] ambassador and a very useful and prominent courtier. Indeed a chief's fame, to a great exten[t], depends upon the wisdom and eloquence of his linguist.

The symbol he carries is the symbol (usually proverbial) of the state he represents. Some depict animal or human forms while others depict just simple abstract shapes. Whatever stands on that staff or stick represents the beliefs and aspirations of the entire state. The staff itself is made of wood wrapped with either silver or gold leaf, or sometimes of solid gold or silver.

When the linguist is about to pronounce judgement he transfers the stick from his right hand for gesticulation. A linguist represents the link between the chief and his people, and the staff is his symbol of authority.

A number of these symbols are illustrated on the site, most of them with accompanying proverbs. For instance, a tsetsefly on a tortoise: "the tsetsefly follows the tortoise in vain" ("unprofitable and therefore useless venture trying to steal from a fortress").

I'm trying to imagine how this might work in the U.S. political system, with senators, representatives, governors, cabinet members, and the like in the role of chiefs. And what symbols to use?


  1. dr pepper said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    That's not a linguist, that's a herald.

    Obviously the US version would be a pr flack. Except of course, in the US, as in nost other parts of the world, the chiefs first speak for themselves, then the heralds come up with euphonic recitation that explain what it was they *really* meant.

  2. ArthurDent said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    A spin doctor. Those for Obama have a rising sun in red white and blue. The proverb: a new day for America.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    Some information about the social role and social status of "designated speakers", in a culture a bit futher west in Africa, is here and here.

  4. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    I wonder why it was rendered as “linguist”. Some morphological parallel with the original term?

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    One of the German words for lawyer (maybe esp. common in Switzerland?) is Fuersprecher, which suggests (although etymology is not destiny . . .) the image of one whose job is to do the talking on behalf of his principal. Vorsprecher apparently refers to a proto-lawyer-like role at a much earlier historical stage. (Advocate is the wrong preposition/prefix with vocare, and thus suggests a different original image, more the lawyer talking to/toward/at the witnesses or the court.)

  6. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    @drpepper: It would be cool to have “linguists” instead. Just picture it: you’d never hear Obama’s voice; instead, he’d murmur mysterious words of wisdom to his linguist, who would then go “The President says…” instant credibility!

  7. dr pepper said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    I still prefer the idea of heralds. They'd wear tabards with the Stars and Stripes in the upper right and lower left quardrants, a pinapple in the lower right, and a profile of Lincoln in the upper left. Those are the heraldic symbols for Hawaii and Illinois, respectively. The full coat of arms would have two community activists, in their proper colors (tie-dye), bearing shovels, as supporters. Over the shield would be a crest in the shape of laughing donkey head. And below would be a banner with the legend: ITA POSSUMUS.

  8. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    Further north, in the French-speaking areas, they're called "griot" and are also storytellers and musicians.

  9. Fencing Bear said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    Definitely heralds (the original pr flacks). They carry your colors, announce your deeds before you engage, and then compose an account of "what really happened" to sing about at the dinner afterwards.

  10. mollymooly said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    Compose an account of "what really happened" to sing about at the dinner afterwards sounds more like a bard than a herald.

  11. NW said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

    Yes, that's a griot: combination bard and herald.

  12. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    Excuse me, but I prefer "moth-piece" to the mundane "mo[u]th-piece".

    Every American pol – incumbent chiefs and wannabees alike – should employ a moth-piece to contain the urge to fly toward the limelight. Enough pointless fluttering on talk shows, okay? We'll exempt Obama, not because he gives good press, though he does, but because he's our chief-in-chief.

    Moth-pieces aren't to be confused with cod-pieces, which only our female pols need.

  13. Zwicky Arnold said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    To Janice Huth Byer: the original text had "month-piece", and I corrected the "n". But I'm charmed by the idea of moth-pieces.

  14. Morgan said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    May I suggest to all interested the wholly excellent book Speaking for the Chief: Okyeame and the Politics of Akan Royal Oratory by Kwesi Yankah? This text was used in a class I took on Akan communication practices in Indiana University's linguistics department, and it is a very in-depth examination of the roles of these mistranslated "linguists". Highly recommended.

  15. dr pepper said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    The word "griot" had a popularity surge during the controversy over the authenticity of "Roots". The usual claims about the amazing fidelity of oral history and the high ethical standards of professional rememberers were made.

  16. Zora said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 3:51 am

    Tongan and Samoan chiefs (South Pacific) are represented by matapule (could be translated as "face of power"), who know the specialized vocabulary appropriate for formal occasions. There are numbers used only in counting pigs or yams given in ceremonial prestations. There are words that must be avoided, and replaced by euphemisms.

  17. Zwicky Arnold said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    What struck me about the site that Mae Sander linked to was not so much the Akan social role discussed there, but the use of the English word linguist to refer to someone in this role: yet another sense of the word. Sander has now posted a bit more, with photos, here.

    There's still the question of how best to refer to this role in English.

  18. mark said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    Yeah, when I tell people in Ghana what I do, I always have to add "but not an ɔtsiame!" (the Twi word for this role).

    For another linguistic twist to this issue, consider the fact that these systems of triadic communication (communication through a third person) have been linked to certain grammatical features of West-African languages, e.g. logophoric pronouns (Ameka 2004).

    Ameka, Felix K. 2004. Grammar and cultural practices: The grammaticalization of triadic communication in West-African languages. Journal of West African Languages 30, no. 2: 5-27.

  19. tom mears said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    This brings to mind the old Doonesbury cartoons of Honey translating for Mao.

RSS feed for comments on this post