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Writing Across the Sahara

UF professor receives NEH fellowship to research under-studied African writing traditions

Researcher: Fiona McLaughlin, 352-392-4829,

Fiona McLaughlin, professor of linguistics and African languages at the University of Florida, has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to work on a new book, Trans-Saharan Literacies: Writing across the Desert, in the 2019-2020 academic year. Only 8 percent of applicants were awarded fellowships this year. This fellowship will support McLaughlin in exploring the social consequences of two overlooked writing traditions in Africa.

The project brings a sociolinguistic perspective to two writing traditions used by populations within and adjacent to the Sahara desert to argue for the conceptualization of a trans-Saharan world of shared historical, religious, and linguistic influences. McLaughlin developed the project over the past decade as she and colleagues have identified cultural continuities across the Sahara. “I decided that looking at writing practices would contribute to reconceptualizing the Sahara and the areas directly to its north and south as a coherent cultural sphere of mutual influence rather than a barrier,” she says.

Both literature and popular conception have tended to portray the Sahara as a barrier between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, but McLaughlin’s work suggests that the Sahara should be conceptualized as a cultural sphere of influence, and of religious, economic and intellectual exchange, of which writing is a crucial part.

The research focuses on the everyday writing of African languages in scripts other than the Latin script, specifically the Arabic script, in a tradition known as ajami which arose in the 15th century, and tifinagh, which since the third century BCE has been used to write Berber languages such as Tashelhiyt in Morocco and Tamasheq in Mali and Niger. These vernacular literacies persisted throughout, and provided an important social function in resistance to the imposition of colonial languages. Despite their importance, these literacies have been under-studied, due in large part to colonial and postcolonial depictions of Africa as the “oral continent.”

“There are many ways in which colonialism and Western scholarship have constructed Africa, not least of which is painting it as a continent devoid of literacy before European intervention, and this is simply not accurate,” says McLaughlin.

Moreover, ajami and tifinagh are rarely counted in official surveys of literacy, meaning that we likely don’t have an accurate picture of the prevalence of written language in the region. McLaughlin’s research will break new ground by using these writing systems as a point of departure to re-conceptualize the three countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), the West African Sahel (Senegal, Mali, Niger), and the Saharan country of Mauritania, as a coherent trans-Saharan sphere.

“Being awarded an NEH Fellowship allows me the precious gift of time off to concentrate on this project, and it also reaffirms to me that the project is an intellectually worthwhile one,” McLaughlin says.