A linguistic Utopia


In John Reader’s Africa: The Biography of a Continent, the author tells us of an island in Lake Victoria named Ukara. Having never heard of the place our interest is piqued, and in this sprawling, meticulously researched book one’s focus is always rewarded. But what holds our attention is the strange locution at the end of the introductory sentence: “Ukara is an island lying off the south-eastern shore of Lake Victoria, part of what is now Tanzania.”*

Why does the author qualify the name Tanzania in this way? What justifies the turn of phrase? Presumably, historical perspective on Ukara calls for verbal discretion; the author implies that the island both pre-dates and may outlast the African state whose territory it now occupies. A valid qualification, then, particularly in a book that studies Africa’s history in a vast geological time-frame. But in that case, couldn’t one also refer to Lake Victoria as “what is now called Lake Victoria,” and Ukara as “what is now called Ukara”? After all, the English name Victoria is a colonial imposition on the landscape, while even the name Ukara is surely not immune from the vagaries of history. But of course such a painstakingly conscientious sentence would be a stylistic horror.

And yet the lack of such scruples can lead to their own abominations. Consider Edith Wharton’s heedless anachronism as she writes on the paleolithic cave-paintings of southern France. In her devoted praise of her adopted European homeland, the American author extends the modern country’s name to the place that existed there before the last ice age, when the paintings were created.

“Thirty thousand years ago … there were men in France so advanced in observation and training of eye and hand that they could represent fishes swimming in a river, stags grazing or fighting, bison charging with lowered heads … and long lines of reindeer in perspective.”**

The claim that “men in France” made the cave paintings is not an accidental lapse, as the author repeats it, pressing her point that France, unlike less cultured places, has a long and unbroken artistic heritage: “drawing, painting and even sculpture of a highly developed kind,” Wharton says, “were practiced in France long before Babylon” (78-9). The phrase, then, is more than a convenient shorthand expression; it is a territorial ‘claim’ laden with ethnocentric bias. Nativism and national pride are always based on retroactive fictions and aggressive rivalry. In this respect the conservative and aristocratic Wharton shares something with the racist delusions of France’s National Front party.

In contrast, and as a direct challenge to such ethnocentrism, the historian Graham Robb pointedly refuses to extend the name “France” to the prehistoric territory that predates the country. Likewise, in his version of history the indigenous inhabitants of the place share no solid link with the modern French state. Robb says, “The only coherent, indigenous group that a historically sound National Front party could claim to represent would be the very first wandering band of pre-human primates that occupied this section of the Western European isthmus.”

Robb’s periphrasis “this section of the Western European isthmus” is admirably neutral. It makes one dream of a language so cold and detached, so reasonable and impartial it could defeat all chauvinism and vanity. A language that might not have the power to impose a higher standard of reason, but that could smother patriots’ emotions and bore them to tears. A language that could defang all political sound bites. The historian falls somewhat short of this linguistic utopia, however. He should have known that his “primates” were not “pre-human” but fully homo sapiens. And might he not have pointed out they came from Africa, and qualified the name of that continent with a sensible and scrupulous, if pleonastic, redundant, and circumlocutory “what is now”?

* John Reader, Africa: The Biography of a Continent (New York: Vintage, 1999), 255.

** Edith Wharton, French Ways and their Meaning (New York: Appleton, 1919), 77.

*** Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography (New York: Norton, 2007), 26.



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