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Rettovà, Alena. The role of African languages in African philosophy
2002, Rue Descartes. 36 (2): 129-150.
Added by: Sara Peppe and Björn Freter
Introduction: Since the beginning of the development of the corpus of African philosophical writing, African philosophy has been written exclusively in European languages. African philosophers write in English, in French, in Portuguese, in German, in Latin, and if we may include the non-African authors who made substantial contributions to African philosophy and the languages into which the major works of African philosophy were translated, we would arrive at a large number of European (and possibly even Asian) languages, but very few, if any, African ones. There are authors among African philosophers who stress the importance of a renaissance of the traditional thought systems, some go as far as to claim that the usage of African languages may have far-reaching consequences on the philosophical conclusions at which we arrive. In spite of this, the same authors often acknowledge certain shortcomings of African languages to express philosophical ideas. In any way, they all continue writing in European languages. The reasons for this state of affairs are obvious. Historical conditions such as colonialism, economic and political dependency, contribute to the fact of the international weakness of regional languages, this being the case not only of African languages. English and French, but especially English, have a large international public, books in English get sold, get read, etc. African languages were ignored or even suppressed during the colonial era, so that speaking a European language became a matter of high prestige, whereas African languages were looked down upon. Even if that changed, economic underdevelopment leads to cultural underdevelopment, propagating African languages is only possible if there are the means to do it. But even then, there is the large number of African languages: which are we to choose? On the grounds of these reasons, African languages are underdeveloped, lack the vocabulary to express realities of modern life.

Comment (from this Blueprint): This article explores the theme of African philosophy that is generally expressed in European languages. Some African philosophers want to propose a renaissance of the traditional body of thought, even if some acknowledge that African languages face issues in expressing some philosophical ideas. African philosophers are continuing to write in European languages due to some historical conditions (e.g., colonialism) that are responsible for the weakness of regional languages on the international scene. One of the main issues is that neither efforts have been made yet to develop a corpus of African philosophical terminology nor Western philosophical books have been translated into African languages. The major questions of the article focus on whether it is possible to write philosophy in African languages and analyse the role of African languages in the development of African thought. The author considers the usage of African languages in African philosophy, the use of African languages in the four major branches of African philosophy and finally, she considers African languages that serve as a tool for African philosophy.

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