Issue 4.1, February 1989


Cultural Anthropology's February 1989 issue indulges itself mainly in Language Ideological topics. This issue amalgamates authors from Universities all across the United States. Four articles presented encompass very different contexts -- language meaning in Yemeni Legal Documents (Messick), functions of the Reniassance Codpiece (Vicary), language shifts in postcolonial Kenya (Eastman, Laitin), and a dialogue on CBS News (Dillon, Doyle, Eastman, Schiffman, Silberstein, Toolan, Kline, and Philipsen)-- and include gender and sexuality themes throughout. 

Two issues remain. First, which perspective provides the better understanding of the future of language in Kenya? Second-only if we can resolve the first-how can public policy enhance language welfare efficiently?

To answer the first question it is necessary to combine theories of glotto-chronology and state-building. Standard formulae to understand language shift do not take into account the degree of centralization of authority. States subsidize language academies and literatures; their bureaucracies create standardized forms and written examinations. Centralization of state authority retards autonomous language shift at the same time as it can promote standardization of use. And so, European vernaculars developed most fully after the collapse of Roman authority. Chinese languages did not develop autonomously in large part because of continuous bureaucratic rule by a linguistically homogeneous elite.

In regard to Kenya, as long as the state runs a school system, employs bureaucrats, sponsors examinations to acknowledge educational achievement, responds to petitions, requires forms to be filled out to acquire licenses, letters of credit, construction contracts or government-protected monopolies, we can predict that the expansion of the Kenyanized Swahili or the urban mixed language into new language domains with wider overall use will be somewhat constrained at the expense of standard English and even standard Swahili.

Yet the Kenyan state is a weak one, and in regard to language, divided. Without a coherent language policy coming from state elites, the relative power of societal interests is greater than that of the state. The extensive use of "Pidgin" (or "street") Swahili in Nairobi reflects a vibrant commercial life that is relatively untouched by state bureaucrats or school examiners. That politicians gamer public legitimacy through use of Swahili-at least in some areas-also shows the society's influence on the state. Kenyanized Swahili grows with the pace of the underground economy.

Both the micro and macro theories have captured halves of the reality of the Kenyan language scene. To the extent that the Kenyan state exists, English will remain the language of elite mobility, the vernaculars will get local funding and support as media of instruction at lower levels of education, and Swahili will get (from party elites) strong moral but weak economic support. To the extent that the Kenyan state is weak and divided, its vibrant cities will develop a Kenyanized Swahili and perhaps a new vernacular which will express the language style of Kenyan urban society, and will be used increasingly by writers to reflect and challenge this new culture.18

The answer to the second question, given the dual reality in reference to the first question, is ambiguous. A coherent language policy for Kenya would require a degree of state centralization and ruthlessness to the desires of the population that would offend the democratic sensibilities of the authors (and we would be unwilling to advocate such a policy) as well as most Kenyan citizens, who feel that overcoming colonialism in 1963 gives them a historic right to cultural self-determination.19 (When Ethiopia under Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam tried to do as Francois I did in 16th-century France-that is, legislate the language of the political center as the official language of the state-it was accused of denying peoples their basic rights of self-determination.) Yet the present course seems to point to chronic and unresolvable problems. While the three games analyzed in this article have what is known in game theory as "efficient" or "Pareto optimal" solutions, we might still ask ourselves (for example, in reference to Matrix C) what are the opportunity costs in education for students in three languages: their vernaculars, Swahili, and English? Is an efficient outcome in game theory one that makes for good public policy?

Of course, Kenyans themselves will have to determine whether high-cost inefficient outcomes (such as "Swahili only" for state; "Swahili immersion" for society) may have longer term benefits transcending present preference orderings. Choices-whether rational in the game theory sense or not-will be made by Kenyan elites and masses, in reference to the domestic situation in Kenya and with an eye toward global constraints and opportunities. Out of these choices will emerge new patterns and possibilities.

The barrier for future understanding of language processes should nonetheless be clear. Only if we can weigh the relative influence of micro and macro processes, and only if we can use data from each level to inform the other, can we model more accurately the direction and pace of language change, and to weigh the costs of benefits of different strategic choices. It is a worthwhile research program, in our judgment, to specifiy more precisely just how macro and micro language analysis can systematically inform each other. In this article, perhaps with imprecision and lack of consistent and cogent data, we have tried to break down that barrier by taking into account microsocial as well as macropolitical forces to better understand the politics of language change in Kenya. 

"Language Conflict: Transactions and Games in Kenya." Carol M. Eastman and David D. Laitin. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb. 1989) pp. 67-68