Colonizing Language? Missionaries and Gikuyu Dictionaries, 1904 and 1914

Driven by the linguistic and material imperatives of the civilizing mission, early 20th-century British missionaries sought to reduce Gikuyu, spoken in much of central Kenya, to a systematic code of words and phrases. Two of them – A.R. Barlow (1914) and A.W. MacGregor (1904) – produced Gikuyu grammars in an ‘effort to ameliorate the linguistic difficulties of European settlers and Christian evangelists’. This essay reads these two dictionaries as historical texts, highlighting the ways in which they embodied the complexities and contingencies built into colonial hegemony. It begins with a brief description of the political economy of early 20th-century Gikuyuland, situating Barlow and MacGregor’s linguistic interventions within the contexts of settler production and expropriation of labour. It highlights the gravity of the European-run plantation economy in missionaries’ rendering of language, suggesting that Barlow’s grammar was particularly intended to be a functional tool for European farmers. It outlines the ways in which these grammars worked to colonize the language of Gikuyu subjects by creating and imposing linguistic meaning through the dictionary. Finally, it shows that missionaries’ theological agendas vitally informed their translations. Notes, ref.

Title:Colonizing Language? Missionaries and Gikuyu Dictionaries, 1904 and 1914
Author: Peterson, Derek
Year:1997
Periodical:History in Africa
Volume:24
Pages:257-272
Language:English
Geographic terms: Kenya
Great Britain
External link:https://www.jstor.org/stable/3172029
Abstract:Driven by the linguistic and material imperatives of the civilizing mission, early 20th-century British missionaries sought to reduce Gikuyu, spoken in much of central Kenya, to a systematic code of words and phrases. Two of them – A.R. Barlow (1914) and A.W. MacGregor (1904) – produced Gikuyu grammars in an ‘effort to ameliorate the linguistic difficulties of European settlers and Christian evangelists’. This essay reads these two dictionaries as historical texts, highlighting the ways in which they embodied the complexities and contingencies built into colonial hegemony. It begins with a brief description of the political economy of early 20th-century Gikuyuland, situating Barlow and MacGregor’s linguistic interventions within the contexts of settler production and expropriation of labour. It highlights the gravity of the European-run plantation economy in missionaries’ rendering of language, suggesting that Barlow’s grammar was particularly intended to be a functional tool for European farmers. It outlines the ways in which these grammars worked to colonize the language of Gikuyu subjects by creating and imposing linguistic meaning through the dictionary. Finally, it shows that missionaries’ theological agendas vitally informed their translations. Notes, ref.