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I speak of Africa

African dialects

Throughout the long and often troubled history of its relations with Europe, sub-Saharan Africa retained its fascination for a wide range of European observers – scholars, travellers and travel writers, traders, missionaries, soldiers, big game hunters, diplomats and government officials. In this final case we show a selection of items which testify to Europe’s interest in the landscape, natural history and peoples of Africa.

Colours in various African languages: [John William Colenso?]. [African dialects] [manuscript]. [between 1851 and 1855?][FCO Historical Collection FOL. PL8019 AFR]Colours in various African languages: [John William Colenso?]. [African dialects] [manuscript]. [between 1851 and 1855?][FCO Historical Collection FOL. PL8019 AFR]European missionaries and colonial officials posted to Africa needed to acquire at least the rudiments of the language spoken by the posting’s local inhabitants. Learning a language which had never been written down and of which there were no existing grammars or dictionaries was a daunting task, but for some what began as a burdensome necessity became a lifelong scholarly interest. This large manuscript volume, which charts dialectal variations in the some of the languages of Africa’s south-eastern corner – the area covered today by Mozambique and part of South Africa – represents the efforts of one such scholar.

Though the manuscript contains no statement of authorship, internal evidence suggests that the author may have been John William Colenso (1814-83), first bishop of Natal and a champion of its indigenous peoples. In the introductory pages to the manuscript the author refers to a number of pioneering works on the languages of southern Africa published in 1849 and 1850 and states: ‘It will be, I trust, my next task, to compose a grammar of this language [the Zulu language]’.

Colenso’s Elementary grammar of the Zulu-Kafir language was published in 1855; he went on to produce an abbreviated version, First steps in Zulu-Kafir, which ran to several editions, and a substantial Zulu-English dictionary (1861), containing over 10,000 entries. Many of these works were printed under his supervision at the press he established at Ekukanyeni, Natal.

If Colenso were the author of this manuscript, this would be consistent with his energy, scholarship and interest in the languages and way of life of the peoples of southern Africa. His readiness to listen and engage in debate with prospective converts and to accept some of their traditions, such as polygamy, as not incompatible with Christianity, led him to fall foul of some of his Church of England colleagues, who joked that, having set out for Natal to convert the heathen, Colenso had ended up being converted by them.

The manuscript shows the richness of languages that had been dismissed by some European observers as little more than the semi-articulates grunts of savages. The pages on display contain words used to denote different colours.

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