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Afrocentrist Linguistics

This is an updated version of an article originally published in The Skeptic (Australia), Vol. 19:2, 1999, pp 18-23

Reproduced with permission

Illustrated from Ethiopic: An African Writing System: Its History And Principles by Ayele Bekerie and sections of Kemet, Afrocentricity And Knowledge by Molefi Kete Asante.

These two books are among the more prominent manifestations of a tradition of African linguistics embedded in the Afrocentrist ‘paradigm’ which has been popularised among African American students and researchers in recent years.

Afrocentrism involves the reassessment of matters concerning the history and culture of Africa and the African diaspora (especially the African American world) with a very heavy focus upon the experiences and traditional viewpoints of African people. Central to much Afrocentrist theory are the claims that African civilisation is very old indeed (eg, Asante p 33) and that Africans have had much more influence on word culture than is usually believed, notably (but not exclusively) through ancient Egypt, which Afrocentrists call Kemet and which they regard – very controversially – as ethnically and culturally part of Black Africa. It is also suggested that Africa is much more linguistically and culturally united, at least historically, than non-Afrocentrist scholars would allow: eg, Ancient Egyptian has often been identified – initially by the non-linguist Diop (see below) – as a pan-African ancestor language, contrary to the views of mainstream linguists. See below on Asante’s comments in this area.

The paradigm has aligned itself very overtly with ‘postmodernist’ cultural relativism, which – as an extreme manifestation of recent trends of that general nature – is sharply opposed to the vision of universal standards of evidence and argumentation which is characteristic of the mainstream scientific/social-scientific/analytical-philosophical paradigm. In consequence, it has been characterised by a dramatic reduction in the standards of argumentation and evidence upon which claims are based and supported. Instances include the very speculative ideas presented by Asante on p 16 as if authoritative, the pretentiously complex and openly partisan schema for Afrocentrist studies which he sets out on pp 12-13, his references to ‘harmony’ and other vaguely positive notions as aspects of the Afrocentrist program (eg, on p 26) and some very loose and/or tendentious arguments and criticisms of others’ arguments (eg, on pp 30, 58; note also the exaggerated use of the strong word demonstrate which Asante applies to his own conclusions on p 108). See below for some of Bekerie’s shortcomings in these respects. In its more extreme forms, Afrocentrism includes some extremely ‘fringe’ theories, incorporating ludicrously implausible claims on various fronts about the abilities and achievements of early African people: psychic powers, advanced technology, diffusion throughout the world (see below), etc. Even in the more moderate forms of Afrocentrism, many very dubious ideas are proposed and indeed presented as facts.

All this has not been helped by the dilution of learning (especially at postgraduate student level) which has inevitably accompanied the gathering together of many disciplines into single departments of African or African American Studies and the like (see also below). In my view, much of the work produced in such departments would not hold up academically in a more critical intellectual environment where genuine specialists were more readily available. Interdisciplinary studies need not be shallow, and they should not be: but no scholar can cover all the ground alone.

Through its role in seeking to ‘empower’ African Americans and in promoting their identification with their African origins, Afrocentrism has become very overtly ‘politically correct’ in the USA. Attempts to correct its many excesses have been somewhat muted, owing to the understandable fear of being accused of racism (if one is not African American) or of being deemed a dupe or worse (if one is). Even academics have found it difficult to obtain a hearing for their critical observations. (Note that the emphasis on ‘harmony’ in Afrocentrist works, referred to above, sometimes seems to involve an ominous move towards the rejection of internal dissent; eg, Asante p 85.)

Nevertheless, Afrocentrism has been criticised by various scholars and skeptics, most notably by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Mary Lefkowitz and her colleagues, and Stephen Howe. See Howe’s 1998 book for an excellent summary of the subject.

But – although some attention has been paid to the specifically linguistic aspects of this issue (notably in criticism of Martin Bernal, on whom see below) – much still needs to be done on this particular front. This is partly because few linguists – even if they are not afraid of being considered racists – will bother to review or criticise works which are of such a low standard in respect of scholarship and logic. Like criticism of the less central areas of Afrocentrism more generally, such negative reviews as exist are often buried in websites, and the brief reviews which accompany internet postings advertising such books are largely positive and in many cases almost comically uncritical (there is apparently no screening of moderately expressed negative comment, so this pattern must be put down to the reasons just mentioned). My own motivation for writing this present piece partly involves my very serious concern at the blatant abuse of my discipline in works aimed at an audience which is in general quite unable to detect the gross errors and non sequiturs and which in consequence is likely to be deceived into regarding such material as authoritative.

My focus is upon Bekerie’s book (mainly certain sections; see below) and the specifically linguistic sections of Asante’s text. I commence with Bekerie’s book, which is on a more specific linguistic issue. I will refer to Asante’s book where it resembles Bekerie’s, and will later consider other aspects of Asante’s work.

Bekerie is himself Ethiopian rather than African American; he thus has a certain advantage in commenting on African culture – though this does not, of course, exclude the possibility of error. Asante represents himself as Ghanaian but is in fact African American (his name is assumed).

Bekerie’s book is promoted on his website and on its cover as demonstrating that the ‘Ethiopic’ writing system used for Amharic and other Ethiopian languages has a significance going well beyond its links with these languages, and relates directly to deep aspects of the non-linguistic culture of Ethiopia and Africa (including links with ancient Egypt). According to Bekerie, indeed, it is one of the most remarkable inventions of humanity. As early as p 3 of the book itself, Bekerie is dogmatically making dramatic (if vague) claims of this very kind, and this continues throughout his text (particularly grandiose statements appear on p 9 and pp 64-65). If such claims were correct, this would be highly unusual, and indeed important from a number of perspectives.

The book is based on Bekerie’s PhD thesis in African American Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia; he is currently Visiting Professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell. The arguably fringe-like activities of the Center For Frontier Sciences at Temple have been the subject of skeptical attention (eg, Gardner); and on the evidence of Bekerie’s book and other work of the same provenance (see later) the African American Studies Department also warrants scrutiny. As noted earlier, one might well consider that some departments labelled X Studies or the like (not only at Temple) seek to cover too many intellectual disciplines too thinly; certainly the linguistic material surveyed here does not inspire confidence (see below for some details).

I commence with Bekerie’s specific claims. By way of background, it must be said that the Ethiopic writing system is of a type which can be regarded as intermediate between an alphabet of the largely consonantal ‘Semitic’ type and a syllabary (although there are other ways of classifying scripts of these kinds). A typical Ethiopic character consists of a larger element representing the syllable-initial consonant and a smaller, attached element representing the following vowel. Thus the whole represents a syllable, but its form is predictable from the phonology – whereas the characters making up a ‘normal’ syllabary cannot be analysed into elements consistently representing consonants and vowels but are genuinely unitary, with the result that the characters representing two syllables sharing a consonant or a vowel need not share any features at all. The consonant-vowel system works well (with suitable variations) for most of the relevant languages, the best known of which are the classical Ge’ez and the modern Amharic. The date of the invention of the script is disputed but it must have been based on a rather sophisticated phonological analysis almost as impressive as that involved in the development of Korean Han’gul. Predictably, Bekerie makes a great deal of this latter fact; eg, pp 9-10, 22-25.

In this context, it should be noted that Bekerie repeatedly describes the script as a ‘syllography’ and downplays its alphabetic features, despite presenting these latter in detail and more or less admitting the truth on pp 91-92. Indeed, on one of the relevant websites (now apparently defunct) he displays sheer naivety, confusion and indeed (apparently) ignorance in respect of this and other linguistic issues. On such websites, the level of the linguistic comments – at least those made by most pro-Afrocentrist correspondents – is generally very low. In addition, they are typically uncritical in their admiration for certain early Afrocentrists – notably Diop, most of whose linguistic claims demonstrate his own lack of familiarity with the discipline, and also James, whose work can only be described as pseudo-scholarly. Bekerie and Asante themselves often fall into the same trap.

In any event: like all writing systems, the Ethiopic system is essentially a means of representing the words of the languages in question. Any other uses of the characters are secondary. It can be and has been used to represent a number of languages but in each such case it reflects the structure of the relevant language (well or not so well, depending on how various language-specific factors interact with its own resources). For instance, the 26 x 7 pattern of classical Ethiopic reflects the 26 original consonants and the seven vowels of Ge’ez. The suggestion that the script is of more dramatic cultural significance appears implausible. Scripts can come to have powerful symbolic value for the peoples who use them (eg, differences of alphabet can loom much larger than basic similarities between languages, as in the case of Croatian and Serbian); they can also come to be used for culturally significant, partly non-linguistic purposes, such as representing numbers (eg, Roman IVX etc; see below on Ethiopic equivalents) – but (with marginal exceptions) they are not closely connected with the content/meaning of what is written in them or with the thinking and culture of their users (this is especially true for syllabaries and alphabets, where the forms of the characters are arbitrary). Thus they cannot of themselves communicate, for instance, the philosophy or the ‘spirit’ of a civilisation. Pace Asante (see below), scripts (properly so-called) must represent languages (this distinguishes them from language-neutral pictograms and from non-linguistic visual art) – but they cannot themselves be languages, and still less are they cultures; they cannot even represent specific aspects of cultures.

One obvious piece of evidence for this is the fact that scripts can readily be abandoned for others, or adopted/adapted for the unrelated languages of unrelated cultures, and the important factors here are, again, linguistic ones (how well can the script handle the language?). There are no necessary non-linguistic consequences – even where the motivation for the change of script is itself partly non-linguistic, as in the case of the Turkish move from Arabic to Roman letters in the 1920s.

In any event, what Bekerie actually shows (and even much of what he claims, in terms of detail) is by no means as impressive as is claimed on the web-site or in the book’s ‘blurb’. Readers who anticipate specific, dramatic, strongly supported factual or interpretive points will find themselves disappointed. Firstly, the style is rather rhetorical and in places popular, which makes the ideas very accessible but often leaves the scholarly reader with major unanswered questions (one is often almost invited to agree, more or less uncritically, with Bekerie’s interpretation). But, more importantly, the claims themselves are very often suspect or worse. As we have noted, Bekerie assumes from the outset that his central idea is valid (pp 1-3, 9, etc), and despite much further discussion this idea is neither challenged nor persuasively supported.

The core of the book is Chapter 2 (pp 61-103), which deals with the writing system itself, and here I focus on this chapter, on the Introduction (pp 1-30), on the brief discussion of linguistics (pp 135-137) in Chapter 4 (which is very interesting but is otherwise only loosely linked with the book’s main theme) and on the Conclusion (pp 141-149). In Chapter 1 (and again on pp 61-63, 65-73) Bekerie argues that the script and other aspects of Ethiopian culture spread from Ethiopia to South Arabia rather than vice versa as has been claimed. I am not currently in a position to evaluate the evidence on this point (though mainstream scholars seem united in accepting the established view, and some of my criticisms below would also apply to these sections; eg, Bekerie’s language is at times intemperate, as in the tendentious use of the term fabrication on p 7); and, while this issue is of great interest, its significance largely depends on our view of the main issue, so I do not pursue it further here. Chapter 3 deals with the textual history of the Book of Enoch; here, many of Bekerie’s arguments seem rather unconvincing to me, but again the matter, though important, is not crucially relevant to the overall theme and need not be pursued here.

Turning now to this main theme: two associated problems with Bekerie’s discussion involve his use of sources. Firstly, he often uses very old sources, which may of course express outmoded ideas, even where the author was very eminent. One such author is Hegel, discussed on p 65. Hegel was not a linguist, but it is his ideas about language that are here criticised. (In fact, Hegel is a frequent target for Afrocentrists, including Asante on pp 31-35, 119.) Sometimes these older sources are cited in support of Bekerie’s ideas (eg, Delaney’s work of 1879 (pp 74-75)). (In a somewhat similar vein, Bekerie draws support (pp 5-6) from the more recent work of Gaur, who is not a linguist and whose discussion of writing systems, while useful, is relatively non-technical and in places inaccurate.) Elsewhere (eg, in references to Budge’s work of 1928 on pp 39, 59) older sources are set up as targets for criticism in that they allegedly embody the Eurocentric views of biased non-Africans. But in either case uncritical use of such dated material is inappropriate. Asante makes excessive use of dated sources in a similar way (eg, pp 17, 47, 51-52, 99-100, 120-122, 143-145).

In this context, it is perhaps ironic that Bekerie’s negative comments on Hegel (p 65) involve the latter’s excessive praise of alphabets. As we have noted, Ethiopic is itself more alphabetic in character than Bekerie allows.

Bekerie’s negative assessment of some older sources relates closely to the second of these two problems: his frequent attacks on hostile ‘straw men’. Examples include: (a) an unreferenced belief that Africans could not invent alphabets/syllabaries (pp 2, 62), (b) some nonsensical claims about Greek philosophy cited with reference only to another hostile Afrocentrist commentator (p 12), and (c) alleged major distortions in scholarly views on the significance of writing systems (again unreferenced) arising from ethnocentric bias in favour of alphabets (p 24; Bekerie is, of course, claiming that some non-alphabetic writing systems are much more significant and powerful than is suggested, but again note the irony of his position). It is a pity that Bekerie does not pay more attention instead to the real ideas of the relevant mainstream scholars. In a rather similar vein, Asante creates straw men and ‘straw theories’: eg, a naïve conceptual separation into East and West which is allegedly important in ‘the West’ (p 123), a grossly oversimplified version of ‘Western’ thought on individual vs community in the context of human rights and alleged ‘cultural imperialism’ (p 187). In addition, he unfairly associates contemporary mainstream ideas of proof (legal and scientific) with medieval trials by ordeal and the like (pp 105-106).

Just as damaging, moreover, is the associated focus upon the alleged motivations for the interpretations of history and linguistics which Bekerie rejects. It should be clear, I think, that the issue of the strength of the evidence and argumentation for and against particular theories is independent of that of the motives of those who propose them; even if the latter are, eg, racist in nature, the associated factual or interpretive claims require examination in their own terms. Some ‘postmodernist’ writers for whom notions such as ideology and paradigm loom extremely large might disagree; I think them too obviously misguided to take up space here debating the point. But Bekerie’s own focus upon such matters – though not as pervasive as that of some of his fellows at Temple – repeatedly interferes with his judgment on the merits of claims, and indeed on the motives of other scholars. For instance, he criticises (p 27) a number of scholars who have studied writing systems for paying too little attention to Africa because of their alleged Eurocentric biases. There seems no reason to accept this judgment. In particular, Bekerie complains that Sampson in his 1985 book on writing systems (a) identifies Sumeria as the earliest known literate civilisation (but this is no more than the facts – as currently in – suggest; and Bekerie gives no evidence to the contrary) and (b) ignores Africa (but Sampson’s book is organised typologically and provides extensive discussion only of cases given as examples of types; in any case, he does refer to African systems as appropriate). In the same way, those who differ from Bekerie on the main direction of influence between Ethiopia and South Arabia are accused of anti-African bias (eg, pp 42-48). (Asante’s work also illustrates this fallacy, notably on pp 25, 31.)

Even where earlier claims do appear suspect, Bekerie’s decision to approach them in these terms is surely unfortunate. And, as we will observe, his own case is so faulty that an unfriendly commentator could well consider that Bekerie himself has been led by his allegiances into the acceptance and indeed the development of claims that do not in fact hold up in the face of evidence/argumentation. This would not be unusual; I have encountered similarly nationalist/culturalist proposals from native speakers of languages ranging from Chinese to Latvian, each perceiving their own language and/or culture as crucially unique, as especially well-formed or as overwhelmingly significant for human history.

Bekerie’s approach to these issues is also connected with his endorsement (especially pp 12-18) of the ‘trendy’ (postmodernist) idea that theories or paradigms which arise in a specific culture (as all naturally do) are thereby biased; thus they should not be applied to other cultures, and in fact there can be no genuinely universal theories or paradigms. Examples of this viewpoint in action include the discussions on pp 19-20, 62, etc about the direction of cultural influence/diffusion between Ethiopia and other areas; this is repeatedly treated as a matter of paradigm and dogma rather than as an empirical issue to be decided by careful examination of evidence. (Interestingly, one of the authors cited on p20 is the fringe archaeologist Hancock; on pp 20-21 there is also some rather uncritical reliance on the Bible as a historical text.)

In Asante’s work an overtly relativist position is more explicitly developed, for instance on pp 24-25 (though the subsequent discussion on pp 25-27 is more reasonable), 36 (where he praises aspects of Feyerabend’s radically relativist thought), 39, 104-158 – especially 106-107, 110-112, 116-117, 125 (one of a number of places where views contrary to Asante’s are dismissed as ‘false discourse’), 136-139, 141-142, 145-155 – and 186-193. It should be noted, however, that – as earlier critics of Afrocentrism and other such ‘postmodernist’ systems have noted – Afrocentrists’ relativism is soft-pedalled to the point of inaudibility when the validity of their own most cherished interpretations is in question (eg, Asante’s comments on p 107). Furthermore, non-Africans in Africa, such as the French under Napoleon, apparently cannot win: they are blamed either for despising and ignoring African/Egyptian achievements or for studying them and thus ‘appropriating’ them (pp 127-129). In addition, some of Asante’s discussion descends into uncritical treatments of traditional metaphysical ideas (eg, the account of ‘soul’ on pp 108-109). The sympathetic study of a culture does not require such naïve acceptance of its beliefs – nor should it involve the suspension of normal standards of evidence and argument.

I do not have space here to take issue with this postmodernist tradition as a whole, and will confine myself to two summary comments: (a) the view very clearly does not hold up; (b) it is often, effectively, an excuse for poor scholarship which does no service to the cultures in question.

To turn to specifics: Bekerie claims that the Ethiopic writing system has the following properties over and above the representation of the relevant languages:

‘Numerographic’

As Bekerie explains (pp 23, 79), each of the basic 26 x 7 = 182 ‘syllographs’ of the system was at some stage assigned a numerical value in the range 1-5,600. Now symbols can readily be created to represent numbers and other concepts, independently of any writing system; but the use of these particular symbols with these numerical values is, of course, (a) wholly conventional and (b) almost certainly later in date than the use of the characters with their phonological values. Clearly, the values are arbitrarily determined by the conventional order of the characters and by the number system(s) of the relevant languages/cultures. In these respects the written number system resembles the equivalent systems using Greek and Roman letters; it is in no way unique. Bekerie presents no evidence to support his claim (eg, p 65) that Ethiopic is somehow more suited than other systems to this function (or related functions) and was designed with such functions in mind (see also below). But he has already mentioned numerology in this context (pp 9, 65); and in fact the later discussion (notably pp 86-91) descends into an uncritically positive discussion of traditional numerological analysis involving the script. This is of anthropological interest but any claim that it is valid cannot be taken seriously.

‘Astrographic’

Bekerie claims (pp 23, 86) that the 26 x 7 array of characters represents the 26 seven-day weeks (moon phases?) of a six-month period (on p 86 he introduces the technical notion of an equinox, although his wording is odd). However, he does not show that the array is actually used in this way; and even if it is so used there seems no reason to believe that this correspondence is other than accidental. As Bekerie admits here and elsewhere, the array derives its form from the range and relationship of possible syllables in the relevant languages, notably Ge’ez; a further, unsupported explanation is redundant. (If Ge’ez had had eight vowels, the array would presumably have had eight columns.) In addition, Delaney’s dated work on the alleged invention of astronomy (and astrology) by Ethiopians is cited with uncritical approval (pp 74-75). (Delaney’s interpretations are often oversimplified and one-sided; note his incomplete picture of African attitudes to slavery and war, which Asante endorses, eg, on p 112).

‘Philosophical’

Bekerie also claims that the script (independently of the languages written in it) encodes deep philosophical notions and other knowledge (especially pp 9-11, 15-17, 26, 63-65, 97-101). He provides a discussion of African and other philosophers in early modern times (pp 63-64), and in places (pp 26, 64) even suggests that examination of the Ethiopic script leads one to understand the very definition of what philosophy is (!). But in the context of Ethiopian history as a whole (during much of which philosophy as such was not practised), the so-called philosophical significance of the script can be accepted, if at all, only in terms of a rather popular interpretation of the term philosophy, involving the traditional beliefs and ideas of the peoples using the script. Even here genuine connections between the ideas and the script per se are not usually obvious; eg, pp 26, 63, 75-76, 84-86, 97-101 and parts of Chapter 4, where links, often implausible or simply vague/obscure, are drawn between features of the script and aspects of African culture, including the Ethiopian aesthetic/ethical system known as se’en. In places (especially pp 75-76) the discussion appears mystical and also overtly nationalistic. On p 10 a rather different claim is made, to the effect that the script ‘contains the major properties of philosophy, for it is critical, systematic, rational and holistic’ – but this claim too appears dubious and might indeed be judged obscure. Other authors’ quoted claims about writing systems (eg, those of Hailu on p 80) are equally strange (some are mystical in character). Bekerie uses unusual and sometimes novel terminology (se’enologyepicology), apparently so as to suggest the novelty of his ideas, whether these are really novel or not (the matter of their validity is, of course, a further issue).

Bekerie does not lay much stress on linguistic issues for their own sake; but, since the issue involves linguistics, it may be worthwhile to list some important errors (etc) made by Bekerie in this area. Bekerie’s linguistic terminology is often strange and/or obscure (monovocal/multivocal graphs, polygraph, polyrhythm, syllograph, etc), suggesting isolation from the linguistic mainstream and/or the desire to appear novel (compare his use of se’enology etc). He also treats as special/unique some features of Ethiopic which are in fact very widely shared (eg, p 82 on the notion of the development of scripts through successive types – which is, ironically, decried by Asante as Eurocentric; see below). More specifically:

p 3Bekerie seems to accept (uncritically) hyper-diffusionist accounts of the development of human civilisations – especially those formulated by Afrocentrists – and the associated (discredited) methods of comparative reconstruction. Note also p 63 (the etymology given for Greek Sophia (as in philosophy, etc) in terms of Egyptian and Ethiopian words is highly dubious), p 72 (some monosyllables from various languages are identified as cognates with no worthwhile evidence; see below on similar etymological nonsense in Asante’s book), p 74 (Delaney is again invoked as support for a highly tendentious view of the origin of the Greek alphabet), and pp 10, 24, 62, 94 etc (on alleged links between Armenian script and Ethiopic).
p 9Bekerie’s use of evolved to refer to short-term linguistic change is non-standard and potentially misleading.
p 11It is strange to describe grammar as a ‘linguistic value’ and to claim that ‘grammar’ can be deduced from the writing system. The discussion on pp 23, 93 which appears to relate to this early point, is conceptually confused and suggests an unsure grasp of some basic linguistic notions.
p 16The African origin of humanity is hardly relevant to the issues at hand, given the very much later date at which writing systems or any language known today emerged. This confusion is common in such works. Asante makes similar claims, for instance on pp 18, 139 (especially nonsensical), 184-185.
p 23The specifically linguistic discussion here is vague/obscure and the facts described are not apparently very striking.
p 63The notion of ‘perfection’ is oddly applied here; the discussion appears folk-linguistic in character.
pp 80-86The account of the origin of Ethiopic symbols (and their names) is not adequately supported by evidence.
p 91Bekerie uses phonetic(ally) to mean ‘phonemic(ally)’ (another folk-linguistic element in his work). Also, the claim that a ‘syllography’ is ‘opposite’ to an alphabet is obscure and, on any reasonable interpretation, overstated.

Towards the end of the book (pp 135-137) Bekerie returns to specifically linguistic matters, drawing on the work of Amsalu and Kagame (as discussed by Mudimbe) on idiom. The idea is that certain formal structures in some African languages closely reflect African philosophy. The term philosophy is once again to be understood as referring to folk-beliefs, and given this the theory appears not implausible (though one must beware of hyper-Whorfianism or its converse, and in any case the extension of this theory to Amharic involves further analysis by Bekerie himself); but all this has nothing to do with writing systems (contrary to Bekerie’s concluding comment on p 137). Then, on pp 146-147, Bekerie makes a claim about the relation between writing systems and the languages for which they are used (originally introduced on p 23) and the extent to which this is evidence of whether the users of the languages are native speakers or not. This claim is far too sweeping and ignores the possibilities of (a) gross unplanned change over time and (b) deliberate intervention accompanied by metalinguistic awareness (in the latter case, in fact, the reverse of the pattern suggested by Bekerie is more than likely).

Other aspects of Bekerie’s book which warrant critical comment include: the rather pretentiously formalised ‘locational model’ (a paradigm) developed on pp 15-17 (this section also involves some of Bekerie’s philosophical oddities); some badly non-standard uses of familiar terms, eg, the use of null hypothesis to mean ‘invalid/false hypothesis’ on p 62; the repeated use of vague but positive ‘buzz’ words such as holistic to describe the script (eg, pp 10, 26, 65 etc); and the rather careless duplication of several sentences from pp 64-65 on p 125.

I have learned many new facts about Ethiopia from Bekerie’s book, though I take it that few if any of these would be new to Ethiopists.

Other works produced within the relevant tradition display similar features. For instance, Bernal’s work on the alleged links between Egyptian and Greek – while more careful and more scholarly than Bekerie’s – is carried out within a comparative- linguistic methodology which has long been superseded, for good reasons. (This is true of much ‘fringe’ historical linguistics, going well beyond Afrocentrism.)

But a more striking case involves the linguistic sections of Asante’s book, which comes from the same department as Bekerie’s. This book deals with Afrocentrism more generally, focusing especially on the alleged close links between ancient Egypt and Black Africa. We have already seen that there are many problems with Asante’s book; in addition, it contains very many highly dubious statements about language and related matters, including the following:

p 15 Asante identifies the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea as African, the result of a very early African diaspora. There is no reason to accept this claim, which is repeated on pp 99-100 with a reference to a ‘fringe’ source a century old (a source which Asante rather misleadingly identifies on p 201 through a 1978 reprint, and which he describes on p 136 as ‘racist’). The theory proposed here resembles other Afrocentrist diffusionist theories regarding early African influence in Europe, Asia and the Americas (Van Sertima’s books are the most accessible parts of this tradition)
p 28The etymologies given here are ludicrous and the level of scholarship is fearfully low. Similar nonsense appears on pp 79, 90. Compare Bekerie’s naïve philologising as described earlier. (Asante also makes a basic error with a Latin expression on p 49.)
pp 47-50Asante’s account of Egypt and its ancestral significance for the languages, cultures and ‘science’ of Black Africa is highly partisan and (to say the very least) contentious. Note also pp 57, 63, 67, 99-104 (with references to Bernal).
pp 51-52Asante writes as if ancient sources are (or should be) treated by contemporary scholars as authoritative in the same sense as modern analyses. This arises again on pp 90-92, 120-122.
pp 72-80Asante first seems to endorse (pp 72-76) the notion of the development of scripts through successive types, in Africa as elsewhere (as also Bekerie on p 82); but later (pp 76-79) argues that the ‘Eurocentric’ notion of script is too narrow to cover all relevant African systems (some of which do not really appear to be written language; as remarked earlier in discussing Bekerie’s claims, scripts properly so-called must represent languages). Still later (p 80; also pp 136-139), Asante decries emphasis on the development of writing as itself Eurocentric. This seems to be motivated by the fact that focusing on details of script development detracts from his more fundamental claim that the whole idea of writing as crucially important to civilisation is Eurocentric and hence flawed (perhaps he feels that he can argue this latter case with more safety, given the limitations of traditional African writing systems and similar systems of markings; more specific claims about the virtues of genuine African writing systems might founder). But this conflicts with his claim (pp 72-73) that any advanced civilisation must have written language (also, what of the Inca?). Further, Asante’s terminology on p80 is confused; he seems to equate alphabets and writing systems, which indeed conflicts with his analysis on pp 72-76. This entire section is, in fact, utterly confused.
pp 73-76The typology of scripts is itself somewhat ‘amateur’ in style; perhaps under the influence of Gaur (see also above on Bekerie’s use of Gaur), the term ideogram is used where logogram would be more accurate (at least as applied to Egyptian). Genuine ideograms, where found, would not necessarily be associated with particular languages – which would help cases such as Bekerie’s – and would probably not qualify as writing. Asante claims (p 76) that Chinese characters are (genuine) ideograms (this is not merely an error of terminology) and thus are indeed language-independent; this is ludicrously wrong, as they are clearly language-specific logograms. He seems thoroughly confused here, treating only phonological scripts (alphabets and syllabaries) as language-specific. The converse of this error (‘all language-specific scripts represent sounds’) appears on p 118. (It should be explained that genuine ideograms rarely form systems as extensive as entire scripts, for the rather obvious reason that they do not represent specific languages.)
p 77The account of the Aroko script is confused and virtually self-contradictory; either Asante or his source is mistaken or confused in at least some respects.
p 78Asante seems here to confuse languages with scripts, a truly basic error!
pp 80-98Asante presents as factual the mystical notion of Ma’at and many concepts and issues associated with it.
pp 125-126The discussion of Indo-European and of ancient languages and their relations is badly confused.
pp 126-127Mainstream classifications of cultures are typically based on better criteria than Asante suggests (even where they could be disputed). The same is true of mainstream ideas about history and prehistory (pp 138-139).
pp 132-136The account of the uses of the term negro and related terms is confused and in places tendentious.
p 138Asante is over-optimistic about the reconstruction of very ancient languages using only modern data.
pp 142-145Asante uses dated sources and the views of near-‘fringe’ linguists to support his theories about the relationships between African languages, as developed in particular by Diop, who extended already dubious notions even further (see also above on this influential but highly suspect figure).

Asante also uses the word illusive confusingly; sometimes it is not clear whether he means ‘elusive’ or ‘illusory’.

In respect of their main theses, I must obviously conclude by stating that I do not find these works at all impressive.

It goes without saying, of course, that I have the most profound respect for the ancient cultures of Africa and in particular that of Ethiopia (even though my own world-view may at times be at odds with what most Ethiopians would believe). Africans and members of the African diaspora are the proud bearers of great traditions which have survived through much discrimination and hardship. Ethiopians, specifically, are the users of an impressive writing system ingeniously devised at a remarkably early date. Such people as these have no need to base their cultural self-esteem on vague, exaggerated and ill-founded claims. Unless Bekerie and Asante can provide much better support for their particular claims, neither their fellow Africans (in the broad sense) nor non-African Africanists should be tempted to embrace their ideas.

References

Amsalu A. ‘Characteristics of Amharic Idiomatic Expressions’, Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Vol 1, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, 1988, pp 571-580
Asante, M. K. Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge, Africa World Press Inc., Trenton (NJ), 1990/1992
Bekerie, A. Ethiopic: An African Writing System: Its History and Principles, The Red Sea Press, Laurenceville (NJ)/Asmara, 1997
Delaney, M. Principia of Ethnology, Black Classic Press, Baltimore, 1879
Bernal, M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Free Association Books, London; Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1987 (Vol. 1), 1991 (Vol. 2)
Budge, E.A.W. A History of Ethiopia, Nubia and Abyssinia, ECA Associates, London, 1928
Diop, C.A. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, Lawrence Hill, Chicago trans., 1974
Feyerabend, P. Against Method, Routledge, New York, 1988
Gaur, A. A History of Writing, Abbeville, New York/London/Paris, 1992
Gardner, M. Did Adam and Eve have Navels?, WW Norton, New York/London, 2000, pp 221-233
Hailu, H. ‘The Fallacy of the “Triple Heritage” Thesis: A Critique’, Issue, A Journal of Africanist Opinion, XIII, 1984, pp 26-30
Hancock, G. The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, Crown, New York, 1992
Howe, S. Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, Verso, London/New York, 1998
James, G.G.M. Stolen Legacy, Philosophical Library, New York, 1954
Lefkowitz, M.R. & Rogers G.M (eds) Black Athena Revisited, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill/London, 1996
Mudimbe, V.Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988, p 46
Ortiz de Montellano, B. ‘Spreading Scientific Illiteracy Among Minorities – Part I: Multicultural Pseudoscience’Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp 46-50; ‘Part II: Magic Melanin’Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 16, No. 2, Winter 1992, pp 162-166
Sampson, G. Writing Systems, Hutchinson, London (etc), 1985
Van Sertima, I. They came before Columbus: The African presence in ancient America, Random House, New York, 1976

Note

I learned of Bekerie’s ideas through his website [Ed.: link n/w] and e-mailed him with a view to raising some of the points made here. He referred me to his book. I then found Asante’s book while following up references and surfing (I already knew Bernal, Diop, James, Van Sertima etc). After preparing notes for this article I e-mailed Bekerie again and invited him to respond to my points prior to any attempt at publication. He did not respond to this or to a second e-mail.

Mark Newbrook
Linguistics
Monash University/University of Sheffield

Mark Newbrook assesses some of the cunning linguistics perpetrated by the Afrocentrists Ayele Bekerie and Molefi Kete Asante and concludes that “Unless Bekerie and Asante can provide much better support for their particular claims, neither their fellow Africans (in the broad sense) nor non-African Africanists should be tempted to embrace their ideas.”

Webmaster Note: the database date for this article shows the date it was added to the Hall of Ma’at website and not its original publication date in The Skeptic (Australia)

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