Friederike Lüpke: Studying African linguistics helps to understand a multilingual society

African linguistics was conceived as a colonial discipline and carries a lot of colonial baggage. Professor Friederike Lüpke is excited to see the field reinvent itself.

What are your research top­ics?

My field is African linguistics, which traditionally has looked at languages that have their origin in Africa. I am interested in languages as a social practice – how we use language(s) and how we imagine the usage.

Romance and English philologies look at Africa’s colonial languages, and pidgin and creole studies look at the so-called mixed languages that were created in the wake of European expansion.

But if we want to look at language use in African multilingual societies, as I do, it doesn’t make sense to look at these languages separately, so I’m developing new perspectives that account for the entire range of fluid and adaptive language use.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an im­pact?

Europeans tend to think of Africa as far away, and as an exotic and very different place. But Africa has been entangled with the world from the 15th century onwards in various, often violent, ways.

Today, we see immigration from African countries to Europe and Finland as a consequence of Europe’s long-lasting dominance, and that makes my research – on multilingual repertoires and how they adapt to sociopolitical circumstances – directly relevant for Finnish society. In Finland, there are new diaspora communities, whose languages are now spoken in Finland.

Another example is the current Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 is a global disease that doesn’t respect borders, and only global prevention can stop it. For me as an Africanist, this means that I’m involved in providing access to health information in languages and media that are accessible to people in the rural communities in Senegal where I work through the LILIEMA programme that was developed jointly with local activists. Participants in the LILIEMA programme use the official alphabet of Senegal for multilingual literacy, aptly suited to Senegal, where numerous local languages are spoken.

What is par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing in your field right now?

The development of new holistic approaches to African communicative practices in Africa and Europe is something that inspires me. It requires thinking out of the box of established academic disciplines, but also creating new partnerships with African actors, from community activists to academic institutions and researchers in Africa.

African linguistics was conceived as a colonial discipline and carries a lot of colonial baggage, and it’s exciting to see the field reinvent itself.

Friederike Lüpke is a professor of African studies at the Faculty of Arts.

Watch Friederike Lüpke's inaugural lecture as a new professor on the 9th of September on YouTube.

Read about the other newly appointed professors here.