Thursday, May 17, 2007

There are no Africans

Science Daily has an article about the The Louisville Zoo’s new baby pygmy hippo. It has pictures and the baby is completely adorable. The piece should be pure candy, but they ruined it with this sentence:
The Louisville Zoo’s female baby pygmy hippo heard her name for the first time—Isoke (ee SO keh), which is African for satisfying gift.

Let's see if I can say this without shouting, there is no language called "African." There is a language called "Afrikaans" and it's a dialect of Dutch, but that's not what they are talking about. There is also not a culture called African, nor is there a people/tribe/nation called African. What there is, is a continent called Africa. On that continent are over a thousand distinct cultures. Africa is home to half of the human languages spoken on this planet. While I'm on the subject, there also is no Native American people, culture, or language called "Indian."

When an American refers to something as being in the African language, they usually mean kiSwahili, a language spoken on the East coast of the African continent. KiSwahili is a trade language made up of a simplified grammar drawn from the Bantu subgroup of the Niger-Kordofanian language family (also called Niger-Congo B) and a vocabulary made up of equal parts of Bantu and Arabic with a smaller portion of Persian and English loan words. It is the one language from the African continent for which it is easiest to find a cheap dictionary in the United States. Just for the record, kiSwahili is spoken on the wrong side of the continent to be part of the heritage of slave-descended African-Americans. It is, however, part of the heritage of Barack Obama whose father came from East Africa.

When someone says that the Indians believe this, or that something else is a word in African they are speaking from ignorance and, worse, showing an utter contempt through indifference for the people, cultures, or languages they are supposedly quoting. Either that or they are doing it just to tick me off.

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