Chantal Zabus


A decade and a half after Achebe revised Conrad's jaundiced vision of men-eating Africans in his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958),1 sociolinguists were noting that the anthropophagi were not African but European and devoured not men but words. As the French Marxistinfluenced linguist, Louis-Jean Calvet, contends in his Linguistique et colonialisme (1974), 'Le premier anthropophage est venu d'Europe. II a devore le colonise ... il a devore ses langues; glottophage donc.'2 'Glottophagia' thus refers to the fact that many African languages were 'devoured' by the colonizing powers and supplanted by the European languages which, Gerard reminds us, had themselves fallen prey to the Romans' Latin linguistic imperialism.3 Modern colonial glottophagia was achieved, according to Calvet, by demoting African languages to the status of 'patois' or 'dialects' in a way analogous to the Victorians' demotion, in the vocabulary, of African kings to chiefs and of nonMuslim priests to 'witch-doctors'. Cal vet pushes the argument even further by suggesting that the turn-of-the-century practice of linguistics inexorably completed the process of glottophagia in the colonies under European rule: 'La linguistique a ete jusqu'a l'aube de notre siecle une maniere de nier Ia langue des autres peuples, cette negation, avec d'autres, constituant le fondement ideologique de notre "superiorite" de !'Occident chretien sur les peuples "exotiques" que nous allions asservir joyeusement' (Linguistique, p. 10). Linguistic imperialism is here presented as the most insidious and pervasive aspect of colonialism, for, more than economic or political imperialism, it depersonalizes the colonized to the extent of estranging him from his own language and his linguistic group.



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