Clear Language: Script, Register And The N’ko Movement Of Manding-Speaking West Africa

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Sulemaana Kantè
African Languages and Societies
African Studies
Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics
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What role should indigenous languages and literacy play in education and society in West Africa in the 21st century? My dissertation investigates this question in the context of the N’ko (ߒߞߏ) movement, which labors to promote an eponymous script invented for writing Manding in 1949 by the intellectual and author Sulemaana Kantè. Based primarily on three summers (2012, 2013, 2016) of fieldwork carried out between Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, this ethnographic study sheds light on why N’ko-based literacy and education continue to spread across Manding-speaking West Africa by focusing on how the metalinguistic practices—that is, “talk about talk”—of N’ko’s students, intellectuals and interlocutors are connected to larger sociopolitical projects. Specifically, I analyze fieldnotes, artifacts (such as pictures, N’ko texts, online postings etc.), and audio recordings of both public interactions and semi-formal interviews that I collected between 2011 and 2016. In part to establish the relevant context, the dissertation begins with an investigation of Sulemaana Kantè and, drawing on his own words, analyzes him as a particular iteration of the Afro-Muslim vernacular tradition that gave rise to local language literacy in Arabic script or what is often called Ajami (Arabic ʿajamī) today. Subsequently, I demonstrate how alternative glosses of the word N’ko as either ‘Kantè’s script’ or ‘the Manding language’ are indexical of the heterogenous voices and ideas within and about the N’ko movement. Specifically, in Chapter Five, I explore how acts where N’ko references a script point to both a politically palatable and authentically embraced notion of pan-Africanism that is particularly salient for a younger generation of Western-educated N’ko activists. Alternatively, in Chapter Six, I investigate how the emergence and use of N’ko today as a label equivalent to Manding is rooted in not just ethno-nationalism, but also a desire to discursively cultivate savvy, hard-working and logical citizens as a basis to remake post-colonial West African society. This dissertation thereby shows the importance of metalinguistic discourse in accomplishing social action and sheds light on why state-directed efforts at promoting mother-tongue education in the region have failed.

Nancy H. Hornberger
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