Research leave is turning out to be unexpectedly hectic, with a number of projects all on the go. The contents of this section of a shelf in my study at home are curiously emblematic of the ways in which several research interests and projects seem to collide in a reminder of the various things that I’ve been busy working on and a nudge about what needs to get done.
History is dominant at the moment; I am writing up an article on the ways in which the term ‘native’ acquires very different meanings over time depending upon the place, stance and period of the speakers who use it. So, for instance, as Britain distances itself ideologically as well as administratively from its colonial possessions, so the discourse once shared splits. It is domesticated in the colony at the same time as it begins to fall out of use in the language of the metropole. I’m particularly interested in what happens in colonial Zimbabwe and New Zealand in the early twentieth century as the reach of the Colonial Office diminishes. That’s the reason for the presence of Fredrick Cooper’sColonialism in Question, and Roberts’ book on the ‘Colonial Moment in Africa’. This work is preparation for a bigger project that looks more generally at the language of British imperialism and its changing meanings from the perspective of the empire. So questions about the meanings, structure and force of the concepts of imperialism, colonialism and post-colonialism over time are both interesting and exercising. Although I can’t remember how it got here, Defoe’s Touroffers an eighteenth century metropolitan perspective on the provinces and outlying areas of GB and is a neat reminder of the power of the centre.
History, literature and language are at the heart of an ongoing project on language in Zimbabwe. I recently gave a talk in Helsinki about the value of literary texts in helping to understand the attitudes of particular communities towards ways of speaking. Postcolonial Zimbabwe has witnessed demographic, social and economic changes amidst political upheaval, changes which have been written about by Zimbabweans of all colours and races, a great deal of it in English. These depictions of places, people and events have prompted me to think how far we might regard fictional constructions of the language use of Zimbabweans as data on the language variation that ranges across race and class. So I’ve been reading Petina Gappah’s luscious new book, The Book of Memory, as well as revisiting NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Not here (because they are on my desk) are The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu and Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope. These novels provide an extraordinary context in which to inspect afresh the spoken narratives that I have collected from Zimbabweans over the past four years.
The major goal tying this together is to write a history of language in Zimbabwe since 1880, understanding the place of English (and Englishes) in a country with a raced biography. The consequences are separate and different histories and fortunes for languages; the imperial (and imperialistic) English remains dominant in a country where no fewer than 18 languages are spoken (according to Hachipola). We see only ghosts of the presence of these languages in the white Rhodesian memoirs represented by Godwin’s Mukiwa and Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight but there is colourful evidence of a distinctive Rhodesian/white Zimbabwean variety of English. The received grammar of Shona and the classification of its varieties and dialects, now hotly contested, were determined by missionaries and codified by Doke in the 1930s. All of this is involved in the challenge of understanding the history of Zimbabwe, aided no end by books like Alois Mlambo’s A History of Zimbabwe, and the important collection, Becoming Zimbabwe, edited by Mlambo and Brian Raftopolous.
There doesn’t seem to be anything here that is obviously relevant to the centre of my research at the moment, namely, the Linguistic DNA project, except, I suppose the presence of language and the change of meanings over time. This is all about historical semantics and how concepts emerge in the world of early modern discourse that citizens regard as of key cultural importance. Although we’re coaxing these meanings out of early modern English, I guess we might test our theories by examining how concepts such as race, imperialism and postcolonial work and mean in Africa and Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.