Language, Identity and Society in Africa

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

This module discusses the question how language is related to the conceptions of identity and society in the African context. Language is one, possibly the most important, aspect in the construction, negotiation and communication of cultural, ethnic, historical and national identities – both of individuals and of social groups. For example, ethnic identities are often negotiated with reference to linguistic affiliation (which is sometimes even more important than linguistic competence and use), and many African states have designated national language(s). On the individual level, speakers can define and express aspects of their identity by, for example, their choice of language, or variety of language they use in a communicative situation. Multilingualism is one of the key concepts in the African linguistic landscape, and the co-existence of different languages in many African contexts results in rich and complex patterns of language use and language structure, which are often tied to discourses about individual and social identities. In this module, we are looking at different examples of this relation, drawn mainly from (descriptions of) spoken language, but also from language use in literature and other media. The module offers different perspectives on the relation between language and identity, and on the dynamics of language use in Africa.



Objectives and learning outcomes of the module


At the end of the module students will have a good understanding of the structure and function of different African languages, and language in general. They will be familiar with the sociolinguistic situation is different African countries, and have a good understanding of different aspects and dynamics characterizing the language situation in Africa. They will also be able to relate the study of African languages to wider discourses about history, culture and society in Africa.




Total of 10 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week


Scope and syllabus


This is an introduction to thinking about the human property/institution of language within a specifically African context. Although the module necessarily operates within a conceptual and terminological framework proper to General Linguistics, no previous acquaintance with any branch of that subject is assumed on the part of the student.

Following a general introduction to the phenomenon of language generally and a survey of the range of languages found in Africa, the module is organised as a response to the questions, ‘Who is interested in language in Africa, and why?’ The four groups identified as those having such an interest – government, linguists, historians and language-users – respectively furnish a framework for considering four sets of topics which will include:

language planning, writing and education
African languages as a database for investigating universal and real linguistic features
the place of language in history
the role of language in expressing personal, social and political identities.


Method of assessment


  • 1 x Case study (1000 words) due in Term 1 (40% of overall mark)
  • 1 x Essay (3000 words) due in Term 2 (60% of overall mark)


Suggested reading

  • Webb, Vic and Kembo-Sure, eds., 2000, African Voices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse, eds., 2000, African Languages. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Suggested Readings:

  • Batibo, Herman, 2005, Language Decline and Death in Africa: Causes, Consequences and Challenges. UK/USA/Canada: Multilingual Matters Ltd
  • Githiora, Chege, 2018, Sheng: Rise of a Kenyan Swahili Vernacular. Oxford: James Currey.
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Languages in African Literature. Nairobi/London: EAEP/James Currey


Professor Lutz Marten


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules