The historical determinants of language status in Sub-Saharan Africa

Katalin Buzasi

Languages are one of the most naturally evolving human institutions. Although thestatus of languages is closely associated with the well-being of their speakers in multilingualsocieties, this issue gains only a marginal attention in economics and development studies.This paper aims to reveal the long-term determinants of the status of languages in Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the most linguistically fragmented areas of the world. Based oneconomic, anthropological and historical studies, we identify the following factors that arelikely to have long-term effect on the current status of African languages: geography,precolonial contact with Europeans and the Arabs (Islam), precolonial development ofindigenous societies, Christian missions and colonial policies. The main data sources are theEthnologue, the Joshua Project, Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, Roome’s map on the locationof missions, various sources on the first Bible translations in African languages, andgeographical data available online in shapefile and raster format. Using OLS and IVestimation techniques, we find that indigenous groups with relatively high socio-economicdevelopment before the European dominance, early Bible translation and relatively largeshare within current country borders are less likely to have their language in an endangeredstate today. Geographical variables and the nature of colonial policy seem to affect currentlanguage status indirectly through their impact on socio-economic development andmissionary activities. The counterfactual analysis suggests that the contact with Europeanscontributed to higher polarization in terms of language status.

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