Category Archives: Linguistics

Africa, linguistics and neo-colonialism: in search of the “right” path?

Africa is the cradle of humanity. Every scientist in the world admits today that the first human being has emerged in Africa. Even though nobody contests it, a lot of people forget it. I’m sure that if Adam and Eve were born in Texas we would hear about it everyday on TV.

The slow asphyxia of the African languages would be dramatic, would represent the way down to hell of the African identity.

Joseph Ki-Zerbo in «For when Africa?» (2006)

For most Europeans (and for some non-Europeans as well) the history of Africa begins with the history of colonization. Widely seen as a continent without history, Africa was living in pre-history until such event, passively waiting to be civilized and exogenously integrated in the world system and ultimately in the history of humanity (deprived of autonomy, playing a secondary role on other continents’ history). Such erroneous (and full of prejudice) idea still persists in European imaginarium despite the evidence that Africa has always been (1) an open system and (2) a diverse continent full of (3) dynamic forces and societies. Of course such dynamics are not easily observable with imported concepts and grills of analysis or through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know the African reality; to see and study such dynamics requires a deep knowledge of the continent’s culture(s) and historical path(s). Africa is still regarded as a Continent to be “civilized” (civilized is out of fashion and even Catholic entities now privilege the verb “to teach”) and as a passive agent in the sense that all good and, for some, all bad comes around exogenously (from outside the continent). To promote African development one must learn the African history from an African stand of view (with Africa in the center of the map): what happened in the continent since the beginning of times, when, by and for whom, how and for what reasons – pretty much like we learn European history. The inside-out approach must replace the failed academic neo-colonialism; probably this is the only possible way to overcome the present territorial and historical fracture between Europe and Africa.

Viriato and Afonso Henriques were seen as the founders of Portuguese nationality and therefore  as the ancestors of all Angolan populations. Huílas and muílas, mbundus and quiocos, bangalas and cuanhamas, all were “lusitanos” and all had as eponymous figures the uncertain Viriato and the more than certain Afonso Henriques.

Isabel Castro Henriques in Os Pilares da Diferença (2004)

The importance of African history and culture for the development of the region allows me to trace a parallelism with my last post Economics: does linguistics matter? (Part 1) – the part 2 is still to come. Colonial powers without exception always privileged the expansion of their language overseas and emphasized the overwhelming importance of such cultural tie; true that, cultural tie it is. Or should I say colonial tie? Who benefits from it? Cape Verde’s official language, and therefore language of instruction, is Portuguese even though the majority (students and teachers) of the population speaks creole at home and among friends; result? decreased effectiveness of country’s commitment to education due to participants’ poor command of the Portuguese language. Obvious isn’t it? The impact on the populations is ambiguous.

In the immediate post-colonialist era the African countries’ language policy aimed at reducing the great variety of languages and dialects in the continent in order to facilitate communication, reduce ethnic conflicts, promote social unity and cohesion and decrease transaction costs. However, as the awareness rises relatively to the importance of the continent’s cultural heritage, multilingualism gained importance. I’d love to see Cape Verde adopting a more sensitive approach to the language problem, favoring its culture, its society and its development and of its children.

Professor Ki-Zerbo advances with the idea of culture trade imbalance. North-South trade (and probably the increasing South-South trade as well) with Africa largely favors the developed world and the expansion of its model of society and development: industrial powers export industrial goods with a great added cultural value (coca-cola, jeans, mp3s, computers, cars) in exchange for primary goods with no embedded cultural value. Such imbalance leads to the prevalence of the foreign social and cultural values in the African societies. The adoption of colonial languages or, more recently, of the anglo-saxonic language in certain sectors comes to increase such effect and together with other factors they create a model of neo-imperialism and neo-colonalism and limit Africa’s ability to pursue its development with base in its history and culture.

Restrictive language policies are dangerous as well as the adoption of colonial ties because (1) it promotes all the erroneous ideas evidenced in the first paragraph and (2) it limits our perception of culture, history and context and, again, our ability to see. Rather than uniformity we must contemplate specificities and incentive diversity as a central element to good development policies and literature. Literature itself should be diversified instead of increasingly uniform. The missionaries’ time is over, shaping policies for or writing about Africa is not any different from doing that to anywhere else – work it out together with the society.


Economics: does linguistics matter? (Part 1)

Language: communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signs, such as voice sounds, gestures or written symbols; such a system as used by a nation, people, or other distinct community; often contrasted with dialiect.


Idiom: the specific grammatical, syntactic, and structural character of a given language; regional speech or dialect.


Dialect: a particular form of language or – of a language – which is specific to a specific region or social group.


Differences among societies exist both in time and space. Distinct language forms are born from and evolved with different values, societies, histories and cultures; we can therefore expect idioms or dialects to differ in sense and transmit different considerations according to the contexts they evolved from. Such thought states the basis for this post: (1) idioms evolve from and depend on social contexts and – more than communication vehicles – (2) work as an implicit matrix of analysis for all social scientists’ work.

One can say that a specific idiom is probably particularly fit to study and write about the specific society it came from; meaning that when I write about the portuguese economy/society (can you really make any distinction between the two?) I should write in portuguese in order to catch and transmit properly its particular features. That’s probably true, social studies must always depart from an inside-out perspective if they want to be effective. Such issues gain particular importance if you want your fellow citizens to understand and profit from your writings.

Good governance, government expenditure, austerity, government failures, market failures, rent-seeking, moral-hazard, asymmetric information, transaction costs, corporate finance, structural adjustement, poverty, capabilities expansion, theory of second-best, general equilibrium, human development, human capital, austerity, export-driven growth, import substitution; the list goes on. We are not adopting the english language: in fact, we are adopting its concepts; pre-determined, pre-fabricated concepts to analyse specific realities. Such concepts – and here’s the real danger! – limit our perception, our creative thinking and our ability to see. If we fail to see, we fail to analyse. If we chronically fail to analyise, we have no use.

Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking.

May 1968 slogan, unkown author

I believe I do that, to adopt such concepts I mean, to feel less stupid; to feel like I know something. I the end, we all do that when we accept dogmatic constructions, paradigms and all kinds of theoretical or political frameworks. However, we can only become good social scientists after deconstructing all such beliefs and assuming how limited our perception is and how stupid we are. Creativity, honesty and humility and pre-conditions for good social research and for good social contributions.

I love these days when I feel that I don’t know shit; too bad arrogance will come back in no time.

Short note on negative institutions

Negative institutions are institutions that constrain human behaviour by imposing certain mandatory conduct (see below). By oposition, positive institutions give people the freedom to choose between right and wrong actions. There’s no good without evil, or right without wrong. Without the power to choose our actions are neither good nor bad: are empty. The greatest danger of negative institutions is the notion that public good is greater and more important than private good and thus private actions should be limited. As said below, some negative institutions are needed and do promote the expansion of human capabilites; however, (1) is it possible to exist good without choice? a citizen that promotes public welfare just because such behaviour is mandatory or institutionalized is choosing to do right actions and act with responsability or is he acting like a robot without the option of choosing to do wrong? and (2) the notion of a subjective greater good is one of the most dangerous socio-economic ideas and can easily be misused – think about the freedom-security trade-off: how much liberty are you willing to sacrifice to obtain greater security?

Positive and negative institutions: does it make any sense?

Just an embrionary ideia inspired on both institutionalist economics and UNDP’s human development paradigm. These last days (or weeks, not sure) I’ve been thinking in terms of positive vs. negative institutions. The words positive and negative are strong and easy to misunderstand in this context but they don’t mean to impose any value judgment of the good vs. bad type. By adopting the human development paradigm, development must be seen as human capabilities expansion. Therefore, positive institutions are institutions that increase human capabilities (notably democracy, Dani Rodrik’s metainstitution) and negative institutions are institutions that restrain human choices (law, moral conventions, traditonal values, patriotism and religion are a few examples) . Some development goals can be achieved using negative or positive institutions but, in my opinion, negative institutions are intrinsically more dangerous as they constrain human individual freedom and liberties in favour of some sort of (always) subjective greater good or objectives. Anyway, positive and negative institutions work (and will always work) together and I believe in the existence of a set of negative institutions that indirectely increase human welfare and capabilities (“your freedom ends when mine begin” type of institutions). Difficult is to find the right balance between the two types and, even more important, is to understand when negative institutions stop influencing positively human development and pass to simply restrain individual freedom and human agency. My main idea is to use negative institutions only when positive institutions fail to deliver the expected results and to alert for the danger of excessive constraints to human freedom ad behaviour. Share your thoughts.