LANGARCHIV Language as archive: European linguistics and the social history of the Sahara and Sahel in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is an ERC funded project (ERC Starting Grant 759390 (2018-2023) , hosted by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the IMAf
The eighteenth and nineteenth century history of the central Sahara and Sahel has primarily been written using European or jihadist Arabic sources. This has led to an overwhelming emphasis on religion, politics, and geography as core themes that shaped social and cultural dynamics in this region. By focusing on sources in African languages—until now largely forgotten by historians—the ERC-STG LANGARCHIV project aims at revealing a new corpus of texts in Hausa and Kanuri collected in the 18th and 19th century.
Between 1772 and 1913, European explorers, scholars, missionaries, and colonialists collected hundreds of word-lists, glossaries, grammars, proverbs, tales, anecdotes, (auto)biographies, life narratives, travel narratives, as well as accounts of historical and social events, folktales, or songs in these two African languages, and published them in books or papers or preserved them in their personal archives. From the second half of the 18th century, alongside the geographical curiosity for what was called discovering Africa, European science took a growing interest in describing African languages. Missionaries, explorers and amateurs based in Tunis, Cairo Freetown or Bahia in Brasil, asked slaves and pilgrims to tell the stories they knew in their own languages or to write them using Arabic script. Because their purpose was descriptive linguistic the collectors intervened as little as possible on what they were told.
On the other hand, invaluable manuscript documents written in ajami (hausa or kanuri written with arabic script) are preserved in private family libraries, as trace of a very long tradition learning and scholarly writing in ajami, in this region.
These materials in African language are pathways into local worldviews and local knowledge system that can help us explore the history of Sahelian societies through the stories that Sahelians told about themselves in their own languages. The project combines an epistemological analysis of European scientific attention for African languages, consolidated by an anthropology of verbal text to look at how the stories were told, what their performance context was and how they were shaped by literary conventions. At the center of the project is the collaboration between historians, linguists, and anthropologists.