African (il)literacy

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The following article is so revelatory, at least for me, that I wish I could copy it entirely.  Since that's not what we do at Language Log, I will just quote the opening portion (probably less than a quarter of the total essay), while pointing to a few additional highlights, and encourage others who are interested to read the whole piece (4,700 words):

"Africa writes back:  European ideas of African illiteracy are persistent, prejudiced and, as the story of Libyc script shows, entirely wrong", Aeon (6/17/21), by D. Vance Smith, edited by Sam Dresser

Four different writing systems have been used in Algeria. Three are well known – Phoenician, Latin and Arabic – while one is both indigenous to Africa and survives only as a writing system. The language it represents is called Old Libyan or Numidian, simply because it was spoken in Numidia and Libya. Since it’s possible that it’s an ancestor of modern Berber languages – although even that’s not clear – the script is usually called Libyco-Berber. Found throughout North Africa, and as far west as the Canary Islands, the script might have been used for at least as long as 1,000 years. Yet only short passages of it survive, all of them painted or engraved on rock. Everything else written in Libyco-Berber has disappeared.

Libyco-Berber has been recognised as an African script since the 17th century. But even after 400 years, it hasn’t been fully deciphered. There are no long texts surviving that would help, and the legacy of the written language has been one of acts of destruction, both massive and petty. That fate, of course, is not unique. It’s something that’s characteristic of modern European civilisation: it both destroys and treasures what it encounters in the rest of the world. Like Scipio Africanus weeping while he gazed at the Carthage he’d just obliterated, the destruction of the other is turned into life lessons for the destroyer, or artefacts in colonial cabinets of curiosities. The most important piece of Libyco-Berber writing was pillaged and sold to the British Museum for five pounds. It’s not currently on display.

But Libyco-Berber also reveals a more insidious kind of destruction, an epistemological violence inflicted by even the best-intentioned Europeans. There are numerous stories of badly educated, arrogant Europeans insisting that Africans not only never did, but never could, write books. Even as sensitive a philosopher as the French sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu, who had deep personal ties to Algeria, and who supported the Berber/Amazigh cultural movement, could essentially make the same assumption. He insisted that the Kabyle people, whom he lived among and studied for years, were pre-literate, although they used (and still do) the characters of Libyco-Berber. Bourdieu’s is a cautionary tale for intellectuals who are committed to social activism. The passion – the need – to do what’s right is all too often steered by the conviction that, precisely because we’re intellectuals, we know what’s right. For Bourdieu, for example, the very ability to think, to reflect about what’s right, is tied to literacy.

But Bourdieu’s observational mistake – the idea that the Kabyle weren’t literate – is actually not his most consequential misapprehension. That would be the idea that literacy is a supreme cognitive and cultural achievement. It’s one of the means by which universities shore up the value of their intellectual work – they police grammar, philology, literacy – in short, they define and champion rigour and ‘standards’. For those of us brought up within that system – even brought up, as I was, in a former colony (Kenya) – those standards might appear to be value-neutral. But they’re value-neutral only because they annihilate even the possibility of other values, of other modes of thinking or being. When Bourdieu went from the elite École Normale Supérieure to a Kabyle settlement, he saw, ultimately, the absence of what made the university, and his own mind, what it was. That supposed absence is the product of intellectual arrogance, yes, but it’s also part of a European cultural heritage.

There’s a depressing familiarity to the assumption made by Europeans that Africa is a site of lack. But that supposed lack is something that Europe has counted on since the destruction of Carthage. Indeed, the destruction of that ancient city by lake Tunis could lay claim to being the very lack at the centre of European intellectual culture. But that’s another story. At one point, Carthage was poised to become the greatest empire on Earth. It failed only because the great Carthaginian general Hannibal didn’t destroy Rome itself when he invaded Italy. If Hannibal had succeeded, Punic rather than Latin might have been the language of European intellectuals until the post-Enlightenment. Bourdieu’s own language might not have been a ‘Romance’ language at all, and his most famous term, ‘habitus’, might have been a Punic word. But then his whole project wouldn’t have assumed Africa to be a place deficient of literacy. Bourdieu might have been studying pre-literate Romans instead – or never have had the chance, as a member of a pre-literate group in the remote mountains of southern France.

More than four decades ago, I embarked on a serious study of the history of writing in the world, for my own edification.  I never had any particular intention to publish my findings, and the many notes I made are still in boxes and folders in my "dungeon" (study).  I remember that I paid a lot of attention to an ancient African script called Tifinagh.  The author of this article also devotes several paragraphs to Tifinagh, of which this is the first:

The name ‘Libyco-Berber’ is really just the name of the supposition that modern Tamazight (Berber) languages descend from it. Two other names, Numidian and Old Libyan, are used less frequently, but they don’t smuggle in the assumption that we know much about the language itself because of the continuity of the script. The script it was written in, however, has been taken up recently as the official script of the Amazigh movement in the Maghreb, which is fighting for greater recognition of the Tamazight-speaking peoples. They call the script tifinagh, a word that’s often taken to mean ‘Punic letters’; -finagh is derived, perhaps, from Latin punicus. Another etymology argues that it’s the plural form of afnegh in Tamazight that means letter/character/sign; the verb ‘to write’ is efnegh. The first derivation frontloads the supposition that the script is derived from Punic writing; and, to separate both its form and its origin from Carthage, scholars tend to use the terms Libyc or Lybico-Berber to describe the ancient script.

In the course of delineating the history of writing in Africa, the author also presents some remarkable methodological insights that weave together such diverse, yet interrelated, strands as narratology (storytelling), historiography, teleology, and pedagogy.  Here's an example of his elucidating exegesis:

Even if Bourdieu hadn’t invoked the German sociologist Max Weber, the underlying assumptions of Marxist historiography – that history is a dialectical elaboration, a development – are clear. Storytelling is replaced by something like capitalism, the ‘mode of accumulation’ and the ‘production and reproduction’ that writing allow. But Bourdieu does mention Weber, and in doing so implies that what’s being developed is more than just economic institutions: it’s the ‘process of rationalisation’. Weber means by this something like the overwhelming array of bureaucratic and technological mediations that seem inescapable in European and American modernity, if not almost everywhere in the world. But Bourdieu’s use of the term here also implicates a corollary assumption about the Kabyle: that they lack this ‘rationalisation’, even that they lack the faculty of fully ‘developed’ reason itself. Bourdieu is of course not overtly, or even consciously, endorsing crude historical schematisations of cultural development, but those schematisations are the consequence of thinking about writing without asking about its history. Merely to ask ‘When does writing begin?’ or ‘How does knowing how to write change things?’ is to require some kind of narrative of fulfilment or completion.

What sort of scholar could write such an illuminating foray into the history of writing in Africa?  It turns out that he is not an Africanist nor a linguist, but rather a European medievalist.  Here is a brief biographical note on the author, Professor D. Vance Smith, a medievalist in the Department of English at Princeton:

Ph.D. University of Virginia. D. Vance Smith is a medievalist who grew up in Africa, learning isiNdebele along with English as a member of the Khumalo clan of the amaNdebele.  Attending an all-African high school in Kenya, he also spoke Kiswahili and early Sheng (the Kenyan street vernacular). Before graduate school, he wrote two ethnographies on groups of people living in what is now the South Sudan. What he thought of as biographical contradictions—becoming a medievalist of Western Europe despite little direct exposure to Europe except as a postcolonial subject in a Kenyan government school—have become the subject of a full-scale project on Africa and the Middle Ages.


If I were ever to teach a course on the history of writing, I would definitely make Smith's profoundly learned and penetratingly perceptive "Africa writes back" required reading.


Selected readings


[h.t. John Rosenow]


  1. mg said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 10:53 am

    "What he thought of as biographical contradictions—becoming a medievalist of Western Europe despite little direct exposure to Europe except as a postcolonial subject in a Kenyan government school…"

    I'm sure Smith brings an important perspective to his studies of medieval Europe. My guess is that studies of this topic by those who didn't grow up steeped in European culture are few and far between, yet that can allow unique insights from those without the unquestioned, usually unrecognized, assumptions that come from having been raised in it.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    Pretty much anyone growing up in a Western country who knows even a little about the history of writing systems knows about Egyptian hieroglyphics, and thus doesn't think that "Africa," as a continent, was bereft of writing. Egypt is widely understood to have been literate way back when Europe was not. Now, at least from a U.S. perspective, when people conceptualize "Africa" they are often really conceptualizing sub-Saharan Africa (or maybe some subset thereof) and thus not really thinking about Egypt as a potential counterexample to whatever generalization they might be making. But (again from a U.S. perspective) modern Algeria and ancient Carthage are more or less the same as Egypt (modern and ancient respectively) in that regard. Not that Americans don't have negative stereotypes about MENA (the jargonish way to lump together the Middle East with North Africa), but they're somewhat *different* negative stereotypes than those about sub-Saharan Africa.

    Whether Bourdieu's misunderstanding of the Kabyle was influenced by specific negative French stereotypes of "Africa" as such or a more general romanticization of the quote unquote Noble Savage not limited to Africa (and even more Eurocentric because very disparate sorts of non-Europeans end up getting lumped together) is not clear to me.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 12:29 pm

    By the way, if you want some indirect insight into Prof. Smith's African childhood, here's a recent news update about his now-elderly parents, who first came to Africa in 1952.

  4. Scott P. said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 1:06 pm

    Pretty much anyone growing up in a Western country who knows even a little about the history of writing systems knows about Egyptian hieroglyphics, and thus doesn't think that "Africa," as a continent, was bereft of writing. Egypt is widely understood to have been literate way back when Europe was not.

    Well, this gets bound up in European conceptions of what counts as 'the West' or not. The Egyptians aren't seen as 'really' African, you see, regardless of how obtuse that sounds.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 2:05 pm

    @Scott P.: But that's my point. I don't find Smith's semi-suggestion that the Carthaginians should be thought "more African" from a Eurocentric POV than the Egyptians at all convincing, as he himself admits when talking about 19th century Europeans hypothesizing that maybe wandering Carthaginians had built Great Zimbabwe. Was Dido a more exotic or "non-Western" lady than Cleopatra? What's really going on, I think, is that he's trying to argue that the script in question is properly "African" (in some sense Egyptian script isn't regarded as) without being sure whether the script derives from one brought from the Levant by the Carthaginians or whether it arose indigenously from pre-Carthaginian pictographs.

    You would think any assumption that "real" (i.e. darkskinned and outside the boundaries of the ancient Greco-Roman world) Africans had no writing would be falsified by even passing familiarity with the Ge'ez literary tradition. Maybe that's unsatisfying because Ge'ez script is too obviously descended from Levantine models via South Arabia rather than being an independent indigenous creation. But that gets back to the problem that the possible descent of Libyco-Berber script from Phoenician script brought from the Levant to Carthage would seem to undercut the argument Smith seems to be trying to make.

    That said, the local writing systems used e.g. in Southeast Asia to write standard Khmer, Lao, and Thai all distantly descend (via India) from the Phoenician script. As Prof. Mair could confirm, the same is true (through an even longer chain of intermediaries) of the script traditionally used to write Manchu. I don't think any of those cultures should for that reason feel any sense of inferiority to Europeans who likewise write with scripts of indirect Phoenician origin.

  6. kormac said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 2:45 pm

    Europe wasn't all that great at coming up with indigenous scripts either. Sure, they had linear A and B, but those didn't survive the bronze age collapse. Futhark is nice but isn't used much beyond fantasy cosplay. The successful scripts Europeans used were borrowed from the advanced and literate Phoenicians.

  7. kltpzyxm said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 9:01 pm

    I personally would think twice before wanting to imply that scripts of Phoenician origin are superior.

  8. R. Fenwick said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 9:59 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: Was Dido a more exotic or "non-Western" lady than Cleopatra?

    Given that neither one was actually of African ethnicity at all – Dido (if she existed, of which there is some uncertainty) was born in Tyre in modern Lebanon, and although Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, her lineage was Macedonian and her culture and first language Greek – the question is moot.

    Certainly my experience as an archaeologist speaking with laypeople on the topic is that ancient Egypt is indeed rarely thought of as being part of "Africa" per se; laypeople tend only to realise it when you point it out to them overtly. Even though the division between Asia and Africa along the Suez isthmus was first established in the second century by Ptolemy, it seems that Egypt has always been considered an entity unto itself; perhaps a little like the Caucasus, most commonly treated as an area of its own without regard for whether it lies in Europe or Asia. As Scott P. says, it's an obtuse perspective, but one that, unfortunately, does persist.

  9. Vance Smith said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 10:09 pm

    J.W. Brewer: Thank you for your interesting and useful pushback, which underscores and illustrates some of the assumptions about what is "African"–and why it is considered so–that I'm thinking about in my project. Your summary of what you describe as the U.S. perspective distills the Freudian "kettle" logic that comes up over and over. Here, as you summarize it in your first post, it goes like this: 1. Writing (and, if you like, the origins of the Western intellectual tradition) is originarily Egyptian–and therefore African. 2. Egypt isn't really Africa (nor is Algeria or Morocco). It's exactly that ambivalence that fascinates me. In the book from which this article is taken, I've written about the ways in which European historiography (from the Middle Ages on) has entertained that split idea about Egypt, and indeed about what "Africa" is (including a chapter on Egypt and, yes, hieroglyphics). There's far too much to discuss here, but my polemical summary is that the very question of where we place Egypt, and of what "Africa" is, is a question that is generated at the very roots of *European* historiography. To explain away, for instance, the "Africanness" of Augustine's Punic by only categorizing its origins is to miss the vital cultural work that it did in North Africa; the same with the unresolved questions of the "real" origins of tifinagh. I'm not trying to argue that tifinagh is the only indigenous African script. Far from it (I also had no say in the title). Think of it, maybe, as a kind of phenomenological bracketing, suspending the question of "origins." I'm trying to argue that we should think about writing, and culture, in African history in ways that are open to more capacious ideas about an African-centered world and historically African worldviews. The search for origins has a way of dulling sensitivity to the real, lived experience of a language, or, indeed, any cultural practice. What does it mean, for example, that Augustine thought of Punic as African, or that Fulgentius may have thought of "proto-Berber" as "nostra lingua"? Yes, indeed, Ge'ez and hieroglyphics are an important part of the story, too. But it's a much longer story than it's possible to tell in a forum like an Aeon article.

  10. JO'N said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 10:35 pm

    What a terrible article, full of strawman arguments and selective generalizations.

    One egregious example, though there are many others, starts with this quote, attributed to Bourdieu:

    the shift from a mode of conserving the tradition based solely on oral discourse to a mode of accumulation based on writing, and, beyond this, the whole process of rationalisation that is made possible by (inter alia) objectification in writing, are accompanied by a far-reaching transformation of the whole relationship to the body, or more precisely of the use made of the body in the production and reproduction of cultural artefacts. This is particularly clear in the case of music, where the process of rationalisation as described by Weber has as its corollary a ‘disincarnation’ of musical production or reproduction (which generally are not distinct), a ‘disengagement’ of the body which most ancient musical systems use as a complete instrument.

    In a following paragraph, Smith glosses this as:

    The seductive sheen of Bourdieu’s prose tends to distract one from the surprisingly crude colonialist tropes about Africans in this single passage: they lack the capacity for reason, they lack complex institutions, they prefer storytelling to technology, their base of knowledge is meagre, they’re natural mimics, they live much more fully in the body than in the mind.

    Really? Biased interpretation much?

    But then I wanted to track down the source of the quote, look at the context, and see if there was a "there" there. I discovered that this quote from Bourdieu — though it is in "The Logic of Practice" — wasn't even from Bourdieu. Instead, it's a block quote from Eric Havelock's "Preface to Plato". Bourdieu wasn't criticizing it, but using it for support, so perhaps academic argumentation beyond Thunderdome rules apply here.

    Since this is not my blog, and this is already a little long, I'll end here.

  11. James said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 11:46 pm

    Nowhere a mention of the Vai writing system, developed entirely indigenously by an ethnos in what is today's Liberia!

  12. David Marjanović said,

    June 22, 2021 @ 5:00 am

    They call the script tifinagh, a word that’s often taken to mean ‘Punic letters’; -finagh is derived, perhaps, from Latin punicus. Another etymology argues that it’s the plural form of afnegh in Tamazight that means letter/character/sign; the verb ‘to write’ is efnegh.

    Obviously, these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

    Europe wasn't all that great at coming up with indigenous scripts either. […] Futhark is nice but isn't used much beyond fantasy cosplay.

    It is also obviously derived from Venetic or some northern Italian mix of Phoenician-derived scripts including Venetic, carried north on the amber road.

  13. Vance Smith said,

    June 22, 2021 @ 9:25 am

    @JO'N: Doesn't sound like we'll agree on much. But let me point out that that passage is not, in fact, a quotation from Havelock. The Logic of Practice uses those offset passages in a variety of ways–philosophical asides, methodological meditations, fieldwork observations–but they're almost always his own words, as they are in that passage.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    June 22, 2021 @ 8:47 pm

    My impression is that the article could have been titled "Africa writes back to the Western intellectual". It traces a common thread from the way that colonial Europeans viewed other cultures as sources of rapine (postcolonial and Orientalist overtones here) to the way that modern Western intellectuals of even the most up-to-date vintage view the world through their own literate, intellectualised glasses (postmodern overtones here). Colonialist preconceptions of "backwardness" and the cult of literate intellectualisation in the ivory tower world of Western academia combine to cause a blindness to the value other cultures. The Western high intellectual, in particular, is unable to see value in traditions of literacy that differ from what they "ought to be" according to the lights of Western thought. (One is reminded of debate over why the Ottomans were so slow to adopt the printing press, as though any culture that didn't follow Western norms of modernity was backward and doomed to failure.) The last paragraph of the article highlights the author's point that the preconceptions of intellectuals stop them from seeing what is valuable even in their own immediate milieu.

    What I did find objectionable was the treatment of "Africanness" as a given, something encompassing the entire continent, from Egypt to Zimbabwe, along with the unrelenting "Western Europeanness" of the gaze. There is too much missing here.

    The Roman destruction of Carthage was not the "European" destruction of "Africa"; it was the destruction of a rival for dominance of the Mediterranean — a world that should be seen as its own entity. History has intervened decisively to tear that cohesive world apart, in particular the split between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, and the incursion of Islam right across North Africa. I suspect that the European world would have been different in many ways if Christendom had remained united and North Africa had remained within the Christian camp. This is, of course, alternative history, but it is of crucial importance in considering the way that "Europeans" view "Africa". It's disappointing that so much non-European history has been ignored in making the article's point.

  15. Bathrobe said,

    June 22, 2021 @ 10:26 pm

    What I meant but didn't spell out in the last paragraph is that North Africa (and the whole Middle East, for that matter), originally part of the Roman Empire and then the Christian world, were transformed into the "Other" by the rise of Islam. This is not how it originally was; the change was due to history, and it is this history that lies behind later attitudes.

    For instance, had North Africa remained Christian, Augustine would possibly have been seen not as a disembodied voice writing from a now foreign place, but as a writer situated within a living part of Christendom. Both North Africa and the Middle East became "lost territories" for Christians, which resulted in a certain cognitive dissonance. Originally part of "our world" but now conquered by an alien and hostile power.

    Within Western Europe itself the focus shifted from the Mediterranean (Portugal, Spain, Italy) to northwest Europe (France, Netherlands, Britain), and it is this area, cut off from both North Africa and the East, that constitutes the roots of what we know as "the West". "Colonialism" grew from the Atlantic-facing maritime states — the general view is that the Islamic occupation of the Middle East was a factor spurring on European colonial expansion — and the intellectual development of the modern West increasingly took place in the northwest. These intervening stages are important in apprehending how "Western intellectuals" view "Africa". The whole idea that Rome destroying Carthage can somehow symbolise (or presage) the modern encounter between the West and Africa just seems to me to be too simplistic.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    Bathrobe, I agree entirely with your points about when and why North Africa came to be perceived in medieval-to-modern times as "Other" from a Eurocentric POV, but I'm not sure they fully account for what Prof. Smith (whose engagement in the thread I appreciate) is doing here. Literacy in Arabic has been a thing all the way from Egypt west to Morocco for approx. 13 centuries now, but (even more so than Egyptian hieroglyphics) apparently isn't a sufficient counterexample to the "Africans are illiterate" stereotype precisely because it's so obvious that it was imported from outside Africa via imperialism and conquest and because of its ongoing contact with Arabic literacy in southwest Asia. Arabic literary culture is thus perceived as Other, but not as the specifically "African" sort of Other. This then gives rise to the fascination with the Berbers and their current and ancient scripts, as potentially representing an indigenous pre-Arabic and thus more "African" alternative example of literacy.

    That said, Punic seems to fill exactly the same sort of historical role and position as Maghrebi Arabic subsequently did (except that the latter was more successful in assimilating the indigenes into it out of the ancestral tongues), and I am puzzled by why Prof. Smith would treat e.g. Hannibal's failed invasion of Italy as an "African" event somehow different in kind from the successful Maghrebi invasion and lengthy occupation of Christianized Iberia.

    Although in fairness to Prof. Smith, since apparently this article was not really a freestanding thing but an excerpt from a much longer book, perhaps many of the questions/objections the article raises are addressed more explicitly elsewhere in the full book.

    Going back to Pierre Bourdieu and his noble-savage misunderstanding of Berber literacy, when he was born in France in 1930, France's overseas imperial possessions variously included inter alia Algeria, Syria, and Togo, all of which were Other in various ways. But did he (or the median French intellectual of his generation) think of Algeria as more like Togo (because Africa) or more like Syria (because of the continuity of Arabic/Islamic culture)? If the latter, were the Berbers that had not been fully assimilated into Arabic culture an exception who were conceptualized as more Togolese-like than Syrian-like? Or were they perceived as more akin to, I dunno, the Druze or some such similarly exotic Levantine subgroup that stood out from generic Arabic/Islamic culture?

  17. Bathrobe said,

    June 23, 2021 @ 8:57 am

    A rather interesting article here (Linguistic Inequality is a Social Inequality: The Berber Example in the Southern Mediterranean by Tassadit Yacine) discussing the imposition of Arabic on Berbers in France by the French educational system. This is despite the very high proportion of Berbers among immigrants from North Africa. The policy appears to be based on the view that Arabic should be the language people from North Africa should be taught.

  18. Bathrobe said,

    June 23, 2021 @ 9:31 am

    This then gives rise to the fascination with the Berbers and their current and ancient scripts, as potentially representing an indigenous pre-Arabic and thus more "African" alternative example of literacy.

    My apologies. The article dealt so long and lovingly with Carthage, Punic, and related matters, that I lost sight of the main point: that Libyco-Berber is ignored precisely because no one thinks Africans could have been literate.

  19. James Wimberley said,

    June 23, 2021 @ 1:15 pm

    What I find astonishing in Bourdieu as reported here is his apparent obliviousness to the fact that his Kabyles had survived a thousand years of rule by Arabic-speaking and Arabic-writing sultans, imams, and judges. Arabic's prestige as an imperial language is reinforced by its unique religious status: it's the language of God Himself, a claim never made for Greek or Latin, let alone French. (Is it made for the Hebrew of the Torah? )However, Muslim rulers have rarely SFIK attempted to impose Arabic ideologically as a secular daily language on their millions of Turkish, Persian, Berber, Indian, or Indonesian subjects.

  20. Bathrobe said,

    June 23, 2021 @ 6:02 pm

    I read this article once and thought I understood it. But I’d missed the point. I read it again and got the point. But in order to figure out what is going on I had to resort to Wikipedia on ethnic groups in Algeria and languages in Algeria. And it’s complicated. Who are the Kabyle? What language do they speak? What script do they actually use? Very complicated. Smith’s article is no substitute for concrete knowledge of Algeria’s linguistic situation. Both the language and (even more) the script have been sidelined for a very long time. In Algeria, it appears that Kabyle is almost completely written in the Latin alphabet.

    This piece must be read as a polemic. A passionate, poetic polemic against the sidelining of an “African” script. Especially by Western academics working within their intellectual frameworks. Read about Algeria’s highly complex ethnic, cultural, and linguistic situation. Read about its history. Read about the Berbers and Kabyle. Read about Tifinagh and Neo-Tifinagh. Read about the policies of the Algerian government. Then come back and read this passionate account of how deep-seated prejudice stops people from seeing that Africans might have been literate, too.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 23, 2021 @ 8:31 pm

    James Wimberley: I think it's fair to say that for all religious Jews who believe there's a single language of God, that language is Hebrew.

    And for linguistic interest, here's a rabbi answering the question 'Is "Lashon HaKodesh" (The "Holy Language") only Biblical Hebrew or also Modern Hebrew?' With Talmudic references about the status of Hebrew.

  22. Alex said,

    June 24, 2021 @ 2:48 am

    No one in Europe has ever thought that North Africa, being a part of the Mediterranean civilization in antiquity, is illiterate.

  23. DCA said,

    June 24, 2021 @ 12:12 pm

    Let me, as a geoscientist to whom the ocean is just water that gets in the way, point out that there is a lot of abitrary nominalism, inherited from the Greeks, in the usual definition of Africa. Why use the coastline as the boundary of something? Well, because it is a barrier to travel. But by that definition, the boundary between Europe and Africa is in the Sahara, which while not quite the barrier the Atlantic Ocean was, still was a pretty good separator of civilizations. Similarly for a line through the Empty Quarter, or Tibet and the deserts to its north. All porous, of course, but if we have to draw boundaries so we can put writing systems into geographical buckets, we shouldn't use "continents" as the Greeks happened to define them. (Or geoscientists either: if a continent is a large connected landmass totally surrounded by oceanic crust, there are only four: Africa+Eurasia, Australia, the Americas, and Antarctica. Geologically meaningful, but not a good classification for humans and their history.)

    I do appreciate that Prof. Smith's argument applies to how educated Europeans divided up the world, but then there is an empirical question of how "Africa" was thought of (constructed as a category, if you will). That's a whole question in itself (see Bathrobe and Brewer above)–and maybe it is part of Prof Smith's paper. But without agreeing on a definition it is easy to talk past each other.

  24. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 24, 2021 @ 4:31 pm

    the boundary between Europe and Africa is in the Sahara

    Thank you @DCA. That's exactly what I would like to say if I had the ability to do so in such a succinct way.

  25. Bathrobe said,

    June 24, 2021 @ 9:07 pm

    To rehash: this piece accusing Western intellectuals of ignoring an African script due to their own intellectual blinkers and ideological preconceptions contains two assumptions that are open to challenge:

    One is that Bourdieu, despite being an advocate of the Berbers, deliberately ignored Tifinagh. Professor Smith speaks as if the existence of Tifinagh were blindingly obvious. As a total outsider I am not in a position to judge, but from the tangled history of language and script in Algeria, the existence of Tifinagh does not appear to have been very prominent.

    As English Wikipedia states:

    Tifinagh is believed to have descended from the ancient Libyan (libyque) or Libyco-Berber script, although its exact evolution is unclear. The latter writing system was widely used in antiquity by speakers of the largely undeciphered Numidian language, also called Old Libyan, throughout Africa and on the Canary Islands. It is attested from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.

    Regarding Tuareg Tifinagh: According to M.C.A. MacDonald, the Tuareg are "an entirely oral society in which memory and oral communication perform all the functions which reading and writing have in a literate society… The Tifinagh are used primarily for games and puzzles, short graffiti and brief messages."

    German Wikipedia states:

    Eine Literatur, die in Tifinagh abgefasst war, hat es nicht gegeben. Die gebildeten Schichten bei den Tuareg, die Inislimen ‚Männer des Islam‘, benutzten seit dem Mittelalter die arabische Schrift. Auch die Chroniken der einzelnen Tuareg- bzw. Berber-Konföderationen, etwa die Chronik von Agadez, wurden nicht in Tifinagh abgefasst, selbst wenn sie in einer Berbersprache geschrieben waren und die Phoneme des Berberischen dem arabischen Zeichen nicht immer entsprachen. Tuareg-Fürsten, die selbst das Arabische nicht beherrschten, hatten in ihrer Nähe stets einen schreibkundigen Mann, meistens einen Marabout, der die Korrespondenz mit anderen Tuareg-Gruppen oder mit arabischen, maurischen oder – etwa im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert – osmanischen Adressaten (in Murzuk oder Tripolis) – führte.

    Einer der bekanntesten Mythen, die sich um die Kultur der Tuareg ranken, besagt, dass die Mütter ihren Kindern die traditionelle Schrift beibrachten. Tatsächlich handelt es sich bestenfalls um die Verallgemeinerung von Ausnahmefällen. Die meisten Tuareg waren Analphabeten, das schriftliche Kommunikationsmittel war allenfalls das Arabische. Lediglich in den Adelsclans, wo die Frauen nicht zu den körperlich schweren Arbeiten herangezogen wurden, fand eine solche Vermittlung traditionellen Wissens statt.

    Bourdieu's oversight is perhaps unforgivable but it is perhaps also understandable given the circumstances. Professor Smith's point is that this oversight is due to Western intellectual perceptions of what a script is, and a bias against a kind of literate culture that does not equate to European standards. This may be true, but it is clear that Tifinagh was largely eclipsed as a script within Algeria itself.

    The second assumption is that this is due to a bias against "Africans". As has been discussed above, this leans heavily on Professor Smith's own perception of what "Africa" is. The main difference from traditional perceptions is the claim that North Africa should be geographically and historically regarded as a part of Africa, not an an extension of either the Middle East or a part of Mediterranean antiquity. Treating all of Africa as an integrated, unified entity is a challenging and interesting innovation, but it flies in the face of both geographical and historical realities and needs a firmer foundation than the mere assertion that it is so.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    June 24, 2021 @ 9:15 pm

    Since Bourdieu is no longer alive we have no way of asking him why he ignored Tifinagh. But like many French intellectuals, his "over-intellectualising" tendencies make him an easy target.

  27. Lameen said,

    June 29, 2021 @ 3:01 am

    "the Kabyle people, whom he lived among and studied for years, were pre-literate, although they used (and still do) the characters of Libyco-Berber."

    In Bourdieu's heyday, the Kabyle people hadn't used the "characters of Libyco-Berber" for nearly 2000 years; neo-Tifinagh was only invented in the 1960s. Only thousands of kilometres to the south, among the Tuareg, was Tifinagh still in use. It is indeed absurd to characterize 1950s Kabylie as pre-literate, despite its then very low literacy rate, but the scripts they were using were Arabic and Latin (and the languages they were writing in, mostly Arabic and French; writing in Kabyle was a minor sideline to either of the region's two literary traditions). If you want to read more about the history of Kabyle writing practices, there's an article of mine that's open access (Kabyle in Arabic Script: A History without Standardisation).

  28. Bathrobe said,

    July 3, 2021 @ 6:06 pm

    Thanks to Lameen, who is an expert on linguistic matters in this part of the world, for clarifying the inaccuracy of Prof Smith's characterisation of the use of Libyco-Berber in Kabyle. The linked article is well worth reading in its own right, but the picture of the status of Berber in Algeria that emerges from its wealth of detail is particularly relevant to this post.

    In the end, I stand by my characterisation (rough as it is) that Prof Smith's great sense of indignation at a EUROPEAN INTELLECTUAL ignoring an AFRICAN SCRIPT, while passionately felt and powerfully expressed, is based on two shaky foundations: 1) the belief that Libyco-Berber was a living, thriving script used to write Kabyle when Bourdieu was active, and 2) the identification of Libyco-Berber as an "African" script, according to Prof Smith's ideologically-based view of what constitutes "Africa". As we have seen, both of these are questionable.

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