Working Paper 204

Language, Nationhood, and Systems: insights from language policy at the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone 

David O’Kane 

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology 

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Working Paper 204

This paper examines language and national identity in Sierra Leone using Eric Kaufmann’s (2017) model of the rise of nationalism, which rests on four ‘pillars’ derived from complexity and systems theory: ‘tipping points’, feedback loops, distributed knowledge, and emergence. The ‘emergence’ here is that of nations and nation-states, which often involve some form of linguistic nationalism. In this form of nationalism, a language or languages are nominated as the keystone of national identity or the indispensable medium of communication in the systems that make up the nation-state apparatus and the civil society that accompanies it. The relationship between language and nationalism has been a difficult one in many African countries since independence. One such case is Sierra Leone, where ethnic languages, a lingua franca, and English all coexist within what one writer has called a ‘language ecology’. The evolution of that ecology is driven not only by national-level policy, but also by the independent policy decisions of civil society organisations such as the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone’s first private university. A consideration of the roots of the language policy of that university suggests that Kaufmann’s model of nationalism’s emergence has merit, but that it should be supplemented by attention to the exogenous factors that drive the crises through which his four ‘pillars’ have their combined effect.

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