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Learning languages by the colonial stick…

July 17, 2013


Administrer la “chicotte” (Congo belge)


I just love the old colonial linguistic erudition. I have gathered a little personal library of grammars and dictionaries of indigenous peoples written by generals and army surgeons from the English, French, Russian, Dutch or Belgian colonial troops (by contrast, the Spanish and Portuguese didn’t care that much for the languages of their Negroes and Indians).

These refined military were sometimes building a common pool of painfully gathered erudition. I have thus bought from Mr. Shah, the famous bookseller of Kabul, among other treasures, not only the Notes on the Bashgali (Kafir) Language, compiled by Colonel J. Davidson (Calcutta, The Asiatic Society, 1902), but also the painfully restructured Bashgali Dictionary, An Analysis of Colonel’s J. Davidson‘s Notes on the Bashgali Language (!!!), by Steve Konow (Calcutta, 1913). (This is the language of a pagan tribe from the wild mountainous north of Afghanistan.)

All these military amateur linguists wouldn’t bother with common frills. The dialogues in their conversation books are thus very often strangely similar, because most often they teach the reader to deal with the servants and to know how to punish or reward them.

Thus from

1.) A Grammar of the Pushto language, in a new and improved system, by Henry Walter Bellew, Assistant-Surgeon – Bengal Army (Arbab Road, Peshawar, 1867) :

— Did you clean my gun? : Bandookh mi de pak kru ?

— The day after tomorrow we will go hunting. : Sabah na, bul sabah, ba khkaar la dzu.

2.) And from a slightly later Belgian internal army survival manual Eléments de Kiswahili véhiculaire à l’usage des militaires de la base de Kamina (Congo), par le Lieutenant-Colonel d’Aviation Henri de la Lindi :

— Nettoie mes fusils Safisha bunduki.

— Après demain nous partirons en brousse. : Kesho kutwa, ndani ya pori.

(Same word for “gun/fusil” in Pashto and Swahili, because it comes from Arabic in both languages.)

Most of the time, the texts and exercises had to do with practicalities, like here :

(I’ll skip the Swahili original)

When the negroes meet an European on the road, and when they have a load upon their head, or something in their hands, they put all these things on the ground, and stand straight saying: Good Day, Sir (Jambo, Bwana) !”… (Reichart-Küsters’s Key to the Elementary Kiswaheli Grammar, Julius Groos, Heidelberg, 1926, p. 45)

There is, of course, a great deal of punishing going on in very good indigenous syntax. The general mentality in learning the languages is summarized in these lovely advices from the Introduction to the Lieutenant-Colonel d’Aviation Henri de la Lindi’s  Eléments de Kiswahili véhiculaire :

Ne prenez pas de boy connaissant le français, car ce faisant, vous céderez à la facilité et c’est lui qui se perfectionnera en français et non vous en Kiswahili.

Il y a à cela un autre inconvénient. Le noir est très curieux des actes et des paroles des blancs ; il épiera vos conversations sans en avoir l’air, et saura vite des choses qu’il est préférable qu’il ignore.

De plus, pour peu qu’il sache lire, il y a de grandes chances qu’en votre absence il mette son nez dans vos papiers et perfectionne ses connaissances à votre insu.


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