You are here: Home / News/Events / All Events / “Sound Politics: Early Colonial Projects for Print Literacy in African Vernacular Languages” Talk with Judith T. Irvine

“Sound Politics: Early Colonial Projects for Print Literacy in African Vernacular Languages” Talk with Judith T. Irvine

When Apr 19, 2017
from 12:30 PM to 02:00 PM
Where 216 Willard Building
Add event to calendar vCal

Judith T. Irvine, Edward Sapir Collegiate Professor of Linguistic Anthropology, University of Michigan


Before a language can be printed, it must have a script: a system of symbols in which printing – and any writing and basic literacy instruction – will be done. Focusing mainly on languages of West Africa, this paper explores the process of “reducing a language to writing,” with particular attention to debates about script. For linguists connected with Protestant missionizing movements in the nineteenth century, with their emphasis on Bible reading, print literacy was so dominant a goal that missionary decisions about scripts for African vernacular languages were driven by print technology from the beginning. Yet, even where the Protestant project was agreed upon, the specific scripts were not. Moreover, the Latin-based orthographies favored by Protestant missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa were not – and are not – the only forms of writing in the region. Differences between colonial powers (Britain and France) and policies, differences in religious confession (Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and African heritage religions), and in levels of state sponsorship have influenced the forms and distributions of writing, printing, and literacy, their competition sometimes undermining the literacy education they claimed to promote.

Judith T. Irvine is an anthropologist who studies language and communication in social, cultural, and historical context, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. She is known particularly for her studies of linguistic practices that both shape and reflect social hierarchy, inequality, and ideology. She was educated at Harvard University, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and the University of Pennsylvania (PhD in Anthropology, 1973). She began her teaching career in 1972 as a member of the faculty in Anthropology at Brandeis University. In 1999 she joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where she was named the Edward Sapir Collegiate Professor of Linguistic Anthropology in 2006. She has been president of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology – a section of the American Anthropological Association – and editor of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Currently she serves as Associate Editor of the journal Language in Society. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.