Category Archives: language

Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:

What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.


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Slavery and the Ngaoundere State

From “Raiders and Traders in Adamawa: Slavery as a Regional System” by Philip Burnham, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 46-48:

The Adamawa jihad was undertaken by small groups of Fulbe who were substantially outnumbered by the autochthonous ‘pagan’ groups of the region. Ngaoundere was certainly no exception in this regard, and the rapid integration of conquered Mbum and other peoples into the Fulbe state, which transformed large numbers of former enemies into effective elements of the state political and economic apparatus, is truly remarkable.

The limited information that we possess concerning the organisation of the Wolarbe Fulbe who first penetrated the Adamawa Plateau and attacked the Mbum of Ngaoundere suggests that they were a semi-nomadic pastoral group. Slaves definitely formed a part of Wolarbe society prior to the jihad, and it is possible that some of these slaves were settled in fixed farming villages which served as wet-season foci and political and ceremonial centres for the transhumant families of Fulbe pastoralists. At least a rudimentary system of political offices, with titles for both freemen and slaves, was in operation prior to the jihad and had probably been adopted by the Wolarbe during their earlier period of residence in Bornu.

On analogy between the pre-jihad Wolarbe and better-documented cases of similar semi-pastoral Fulbe groups composed of both free and slave elements, it is probable that the initial group of Wolarbe who took Ngaoundere did not exceed 5,000 in number, including women, children and slaves. But in the course of several decades of fighting against the indigenous peoples of the Ngaoundere region, the Fulbe were able to conquer and reduce to slavery or tributary status large groups of local populations who certainly outnumbered the Fulbe conquerors by several orders of magnitude. These conquests were assisted by alliances between Ngaoundere and other Fulbe states as well as by the progressive incorporation of ‘pagan’ elements into the Ngaoundere army. Conquered ‘pagan’ village populations located near Ngaoundere town were often allowed to remain on their traditional lands. Their chiefs were awarded titles, and the whole village unit was allocated to the tokkal (political following) of a titled Fulbe or slave official in the Ngaoundere court, who became responsible for collecting annual taxes and raising levies of soldiers for Fulbe war expeditions. In return, the ‘pagan’ group’s loyalty to Ngaoundere was rewarded principally by opportunities to secure booty in war, and this incentive was probably the primary factor which allowed the Fulbe to secure the allegiance of conquered groups so rapidly.

The tokke units (plural of tokkal) which formed the basis of the Ngaoundere administrative system, had their origins in the leadership patterns of mobile pastoral society and were not discrete territorial domains ruled by resident overlords. Rather, tokke were sets of followers, both Fulbe and members of vassal peoples, who were distributed in a scattering of different rural villages or residential quarters in town and who were allocated to individual office holders living at Ngaoundere at the whim of the Fulbe ruler (laamiido). Such a spatially dispersed administrative organisation lessened chances of secession by parts of the Ngaoundere state and yet was an effective means of mobilising and organising an army.

In addition to locally conquered ‘pagan’ peoples, the size of the servile population at Ngaoundere was further enlarged by slaves captured at distances of 200 to 500 kilometres from Ngaoundere town itself. These captives were brought back for resettlement at Ngaoundere either as domestic slaves or as farm slaves in slave villages (ruumde). This long-distance raiding, which was a regular occurrence from the 1850s up until the first decade of the twentieth century, was a large-scale phenomenon, and European observers at the end of the nineteenth century estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 slaves might be taken on these raids annually (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972:76, 204-205; Loefler 1907:225; Ponel 1896:205-207). Those captives who were not settled at Ngaoundere were sold to Hausa or Kanuri traders, and Adamawa soon gained the reputation as a slave traders’ Eldorado (Passarge 1895:480). By the second half of the nineteenth century, Adamawa had become the main source of supply for the Sokoto Caliphate (Lacroix 1952:34).

Summing up the demographic situation at Ngaoundere in the nineteenth century, we can say that at no time following the establishment of the Fulbe state did the proportion of slaves and vassals to freemen ever fall below a one-to-one ratio and that for most of the period, the ratio was probably more like two-to-one. Modern census figures, although they can be applied retrospectively with only the greatest of caution, tend to support this interpretation. Thus, in 1950, there were approximately 23,000 Fulbe living in the Ngaoundere state as compared with 35,000 non-Fulbe who were still identifiable as ex-slaves, vassals, or servants of the Fulbe (Froelich 1954:25). It goes without saying that in modern conditions, when all legal disabilities and constraints on movement have been removed, the proportion of servile to free would be expected to drop. But nonetheless, as late as 1950, we still encounter almost a three-to-two ratio.

Whatever the exact number and proportion of slaves in the pre-colonial period, they were not all of uniform social or legal status, and it is instructive to attempt a classification of the various forms of servitude in practice in nineteenth-century Ngaoundere. The Fulbe language makes a distinction between dimo and maccudo, meaning respectively ‘freeman’ and ‘slave’, a discrimination paralleling the basic one made in Koranic law. Membership in the legally free category was attainable through birth to two free parents, through birth to a slave concubine having relations with a freeman, or through manumission. A slave concubine herself, having borne a free child, would also become free on the death of her child’s father. Free offspring of slave concubines were not jurally disadvantaged and as the decades passed after the conquest, many of the Ngaoundere aristocracy and even several of the rules had such parentage.

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Filed under Cameroon, Central African Republic, Islam, language, migration, slavery, war

Orwell’s Recent Popularity Abroad

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle pp. 253-255:

Instead of fading away, Orwell has enjoyed a new surge of popularity. The passing of the historical context of 1984 seems to have liberated the novel and allowed its message to be recognized as speaking to a universal problem of modern humankind.

The evidence for this is that in recent years, readers and writers around the world have responded to Orwell’s depictions of a nearly omniscient state. “We live in a new age of surveillance, one where George Orwell’s concept of living in a society whereby every citizen is under constant watch is becoming alarmingly prevalent,” one blogger wrote matter-of-factly in July 2015. An Iraqi writer, Hassan Abdulrazzak, said in 2015, “I’m sure George Orwell didn’t think: ‘I must write an instructive tale for a boy from Iraq,’ when he wrote 1984. But that book explained Iraq under Saddam for me better than anything else before or since.” In 2015, 1984 was listed as one of the ten bestselling books of the year in Russia.

In 2014, 1984 became so popular as a symbol among antigovernment protestors in Thailand that Philippine Airlines took to warning its passengers, in a list of helpful hints, that carrying a copy could cause trouble with customs officials and other authorities. “Emma Larkin,” the pen name of an American journalist working in Southeast Asia, wrote, “In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984.

Orwell seems to have resonated especially in modern China. Since the year 1984, some thirteen Chinese translations of 1984 have been published. Both it and Animal Farm also have been translated into Tibetan. Explaining the relevance of Orwell to China, one of his translators, Dong Leshan, wrote, “The twentieth century will soon be over, but political terror still survives and this is why Nineteen Eighty-four remains valid today.”

Orwell’s earlier meditations on the abuses of political power also found new audiences. An Islamic radical, reading Animal Farm while imprisoned in Egypt, realized that Orwell spoke to his private doubts. “I began to join the dots and think, ‘My God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,’” said Maajid Nawaz. In Zimbabwe, an opposition newspaper ran a serialized version of Animal Farm that underscored the point about a betrayed revolution by running illustrations in which Napoleon the pig is depicted wearing the big-rimmed eyeglasses favored by Zimbabwe’s president-for-life, Robert Mugabe. In response, someone destroyed the newspaper’s press with an antitank mine. A Cuban artist was jailed without trial for plans to stage a version of Animal Farm in 2014. To make sure the authorities got the point, he painted the names “Fidel” and “Raoul” on two pigs.

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Filed under Africa, China, Cuba, democracy, education, language, Middle East, Southeast Asia

Booker T. Washington in Austria-Hungary

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 892-922:

In 1910, Booker T. Washington and the University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park set out for Europe. Their goal was to determine what was propelling millions of Europeans to American shores. “I was curious . . . to learn why it was that so many of these European people were leaving the countries in which they were born and reared, in order to seek their fortunes in a new country and among strangers in a distant part of the world,” Washington explained. Eschewing “palaces, museums, art galleries, ancient ruins, monuments, churches, and graveyards,” he embarked on an inverted grand tour, determined to immerse himself in the “grime and dirt of everyday life.”

Washington’s self-proclaimed mission was to hunt for “the man farthest down” on the European continent. In this quest to explore “the worst” that Europe had to offer, he found rich terrain in Austria-Hungary. During their two-month scavenger hunt for misery, Washington and Park toured Cracow’s Jewish ghetto, Prague’s YMCA, Bohemian mines, Hungarian farms, Viennese slums, Adriatic ports, Galician border towns, and tiny Carpathian villages.

Booker T. Washington hoped that by locating the man farthest down in Europe, he would not only diagnose the root causes of emigration but also find new salves with which to heal American social and racial inequalities. “I believed . . . that if I went far enough and deep enough I should find even in Europe great numbers of people who, in their homes, in their labour, and in their manner of living, were little, if any, in advance of the Negroes in the Southern States,” he reflected. “I wanted to study first hand . . . the methods which European nations were using to uplift the masses of the people who were at the bottom in the scale of civilization.” As he projected the racial politics of the American South onto the terrain of the Austrian empire (which he identified as part of “Southern Europe”), he found many parallels. By the time he returned home, he had concluded that the situation of the Slavs of Austria-Hungary was “more like that of the Negroes in the Southern States than is true of any other class or race in Europe.” Not only were Slavs, like African Americans, “an agricultural people.” They were also distinct from and discriminated by what Washington called “the dominant classes” of Austria-Hungary. “Although they were not distinguished from the dominant classes, as the Negro was, by the colour of their skin, they were distinguished by the language they spoke, and this difference in language seems to have been, as far as mutual understanding and sympathy are concerned, a greater bar than the fact of colour has been in the case of the white man and the black man in the South.” Indeed, Washington concluded that the peasants, workers, and Jews of Eastern Europe actually lived in more debased conditions than African Americans in the South. “There are few plantations in our Southern States where . . . one would not find the coloured people living in more real comfort and more cleanliness than was the case here,” he observed, after touring a desolate Bohemian farm. “Even in the poorest Negro cabins in the South I have found evidences that the floor was sometimes scrubbed, and usually there was a white counterpane on the bed, or some evidence of an effort to be tidy.”

By the time he returned to America, Washington was so disturbed by the poverty he encountered in Austria-Hungary that he began to sympathize with the American movement to restrict immigration. The arrival of millions of destitute East Europeans threatened to create a new kind of “racial problem” in America, he warned. “Whatever else one may say of the Negro, he is, in everything except his colour, more like the Southern white man, more willing and able to absorb the ideas and the culture of the white man and adapt himself to existing conditions, than is true of any race which is now coming into this country.”

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Filed under Austria, democracy, economics, Hungary, labor, language, migration, nationalism, U.S.

National vs. Imperial Emigration Priorities

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 388-410:

In part, the preoccupation with maintaining population in imperial Austria was linked to the explosive growth of popular nationalist movements at the end of the nineteenth century. In the nationalist battle for supremacy, numbers mattered. Beginning in 1880, when citizens were first asked about their “language of daily use,” the imperial census escalated into a high-stakes campaign for citizens’ allegiances, as the number of Czech-speakers, German-speakers, Polish-speakers, or Ruthene-speakers counted came to be seen as a measure of national strength. Increasingly, numbers determined how state resources were allocated, where schools were built, and in which languages children could be educated.

It follows logically that nationalists would mobilize to prevent the emigration of members of their own national community and encourage the exodus of national rivals. The Hungarian government, which operated somewhat like a nation-state within the Dual Monarchy (sharing only a common foreign policy and military with Austria), did just that. As of 1904, two-thirds of the emigrants leaving the Hungarian half of the monarchy were not native Hungarian-speakers. A secret memorandum from the Hungarian undersecretary of state to the Hungarian prime minister explained, “For the institution of national statehood it is absolutely necessary that the ruling race . . . become the majority of the population. . . . Providence . . . has granted another population factor which has significantly raised the proportion of the Hungarian element at the expense of the nationalities. . . . This important new factor is the mass emigration of the non-Hungarian population.”

In Russia as well, imperial authorities began to encourage Jewish emigration in the 1890s, while restricting the emigration of nationally “desirable” citizens. The Russian government allowed the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) to set up branches across the empire beginning in 1892, effectively legalizing Jewish emigration, even though emigration remained illegal for non-Jewish Russians. The JCA had established four hundred offices throughout Russia by 1910, providing migrants with information about opportunities to emigrate and assisting with the burdensome paperwork.

In Vienna, by contrast, imperial authorities officially mourned the loss of all the kaiser’s subjects equally. In 1905, out of 111,990 emigrants from Austria to the United States, 50,785 (45 percent) were Polish-speakers, 14,473 (14 percent) spoke Ruthene (a language later known as Ukrainian), and 11,757 (10 percent) were Czech-speakers. In contrast to their proportion in the emigration from imperial Russia, where anti-Semitic persecution was much more severe, Jews were not heavily overrepresented among emigrants from the Dual Monarchy. Out of a total of 275,693 emigrants from Austria-Hungary in 1905, for example, 17,352 emigrants (6 percent) were Jewish, only slightly more than the percentage of Jews in the total population in 1900 (4.7 percent in Austria, 5 percent in Hungary).

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How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

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Filed under Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, education, language, nationalism, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Danish Language Loss Overseas

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 737-67:

Two centuries ago, Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain. Now, the language is contained in scarcely more than a single country that’s just over half the size of Scotland. Read on for a chronicle of ruin.

The decline began in 1814 when Denmark, a loser in the Napoleonic Wars, was forced to cede part of its territory. All of Norway – many times larger than Denmark proper – suddenly gained independence, albeit initially under the rule of the Swedish king. Danish, having been the official language for centuries, had exerted a strong influence on Norwegian, particularly the kind spoken by the urban elite. Norwegian nationalists now had two objectives: out with the Swedish king, and out with the Danish language. It took a while, but eventually they managed both.

The Danish language was also losing ground further afield. In 1839, school students in the Danish West Indies (yes, they existed) were no longer taught in Danish, but in English instead. In 1845, the Danes sold their Indian trading posts to the United Kingdom, and followed suit in 1850 with their West African colonies. And in 1917 the Danish West Indies were sold off as well, this time to the United States. With that, Denmark was no longer a tropical country. Granted, few people actually spoke Danish in these colonies. But in 1864 the motherland itself also took a hit: in the spoils of war, the region of Slesvig was given to Prussia and renamed Schleswig. To this day, the German province of Schleswig-Holstein is home to a Danish-speaking minority numbering tens of thousands.

Then, in 1918, Danish morale took another blow: after more than five centuries under Danish rule, Iceland gained independence. Admittedly, Danish had never been more than an administrative language, but even this status was now lost. Some time later, Iceland also demoted Danish from its position as the most important foreign language. From then on, young Icelanders would focus on English at school instead.

The Faroe Islands, to the north of Scotland, acquired autonomy within the Danish kingdom in 1948 and promptly declared their native Faroese to be the national language. To help soften the blow, Danish retained its administrative status, but in practice it was used only for official contact with the motherland.

And so all that remained of Denmark’s colonies was the largest and most sparsely populated of them all: Greenland. Until 1979, that is, when the island was granted limited autonomy and permission to govern in its own language, Kalaallisut, otherwise known as Greenlandic. This decision came as no great surprise. Although Danish was a mandatory school subject, many Greenlanders struggled to speak the language, which was poles apart from their own. In autonomous Greenland, Danish initially retained more official functions than in the autonomous Faroe Islands. But that has since changed as well: in 2009, Kalaallisut became the one and only official administrative language. With this move, Greenland achieved a unique position: the only country of the Americas (yes, Greenland is part of the Americas), from Canada all the way down to Chile, where the indigenous language doesn’t play second fiddle to that of its colonial master. The poor Danes. Rejected by the Norwegians, betrayed in the warm-water colonies, defeated in Slesvig, then dumped by the cold-water colonies as well. But the Danes do have one consolation: their ancestors were among those who occupied England in the fifth century and thus laid the foundations for English – a language that has conquered the world like no other.

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Filed under Britain, Caribbean, Ghana, language, nationalism, North America, Scandinavia, South Asia, U.S.