Conference focused on urbanization, youth languages, and technological innovations in Africa

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Kiarie Wa’Njogu, a senior lector on Swahili, was one of the organizers of the conference.

Linguists and researchers from around the world specializing in the study of African languages gathered at Yale in early October to discuss the evolution of languages through urbanization, technological innovations, and youth cultures throughout Africa.

Eddie Mandhry, Yale’s director for Africa in the Office of International Affairs, opened the conference. He noted in his speech Kenyans’ rapturous response to President Obama’s use of Sheng (a combination of Kiswahili and English) during his 2013 visit as a fitting example of the power of language to act as a cultural and generational bridge.

Indeed, the use of slang in political discourse was a topic covered by many speakers during the conference. Aurelia Ferrari of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the various ways in which Kenyan politicians have used slang to appear more relatable and to empower youth. In his presentation “Sheng as a Language of Political Mobilization” Bosire Mokaya of the University of Oregon described language as the badge of a nation, often with the largest tribe having the most influence on its structure and function. In many African countries today the largest “tribe” in this sense is the youth. Keynote speaker Rajen Mesthrie of the University of Cape Town told how youth are increasingly utilizing the performative dimensions of language as identity construction, noting that understanding these complex repertoires of communication requires a socio-linguistic approach.

Other topics explored at the conference included the use of language in pop culture and technological mediums. Elias J. Magembe of American University spoke about the use of ingenious and catchy Kiswahili phrases in enhancing competition between mobile phone companies in Tanzania, and Phephani Gumbi of the University of KwaZulu-Natal discussed the integration of information and communication technology with indigenous African languages in South Africa’s education sector. As the variety of topics and speakers demonstrated, the work of African linguists is important and ever-growing as African languages and their various dialects, slangs, and pidgins continue to create new symbols, subcultures, and social networks.

Conference participants Jemima Anderson and Josephine Quarshie, who travelled to Yale from Ghana, described the event as exciting and thoughtful. “It’s been a learning experience,” said Quarshie, who was excited to hear from other linguists whose work she had only seen on paper. Anderson described the event as a “brilliant conference with interesting papers and insightful findings.”

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