Secret manipulations: Language and context in Africa

Secret manipulations: Language and context in Africa. By Anne Storch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xx, 242. ISBN 9780199769025. $45.

Reviewed by Ángela Lobo López, Universidad Complutense Madrid

This book by Anne Storch represents the outcome of extensive fieldwork started in 1995 and carried out in Nigeria (Jukun-speaking communities), Uganda, and Sudan (Western Nilotic area). The book aims to show that the manipulation of language, by strategies such as secrecy, mimesis, sacrilege, and ambiguity, is functional to the construction of power and of social norms.

 The book is divided into ten parts: an introductory section with a preface by the author (ix–x), followed by acknowledgments (xi–xii) and  lists of maps (xiii), tables (xv), illustrations (xvii), and abbreviations (xix–xx); eight chapters; and a final reference section with a list of languages (235–36), bibliographical references (221–34), an index of languages (235–36), an index of authors (237–39), and a subject index (241–42).

 In the first chapter (3–18), the author defines the form of language change under investigation (i.e. deliberate manipulations of a language by its speakers), the sociocultural background (i.e. language change in the Africanist tradition, started by Westermann), and the theoretical framework for which ‘languages are seen […] as a powerful form of socially active knowledge maintained by and belonging to people who share ideas and ideologies of aesthetics, truth, sacredness, and identity’ (9).

 The second chapter (18–52) offers a typology of manipulated languages. The author discusses and exemplifies the following types: play languages, honorific registers, hunting and blacksmithing special-purpose registers, avoidance language, and taboo words, and ritual language. The third chapter (53–83) deals with the notion of secrecy with examples taken from Jukunoid languages (e.g. the story of Kona), Lango (e.g. Western Nilotic, morphologization), and Fulfulde (e.g. Niger-Congo, accumulative manipulation).

 In the fourth chapter (84–132) the author discusses the concept of mimesis, taking into consideration the language used in spirit mediumship and in cathartic possession, and also discusses the mimetic strategies displayed in expressive language (e.g. ideophones). The fifth chapter (133–67) takes into account sacrilege that is the revelation of a secret through unmasking. One paragraph in particular is dedicated to the role of Hone proverbs, by means of which it is possible to expose a secret (in a ritualized context) without destroying it.

 The sixth chapter (168–86) explores how potentially dangerous items and actions may be grammatically encoded as ambiguous concepts. Ambiguity is explained here through the conceptualization of food and poison. In the seventh chapter (187–200), the author outlines ‘how alterity is negotiated in the intercultural setting of African scenarios’ (187). Such an enquiry may be an arduous undertaking, given the number of intertwining features that play a role, such as trade contacts, inter-marriage, river systems, and geo-political issues. The author discusses the importance of rivers as cultural pathways in the history of Jukun-based empires. The final chapter (201–13) draws the conclusive remarks, offering some considerations about the way in which deliberate manipulation can improve our understanding of language change.

 Extremely rich in examples and approaches, this book is an important tool that can be used to attain a deeper understanding of the linguistic and cultural dimensions of language change.