At the 2008 American Renaissance conference, Dr. Eugene Valberg spoke about African languages. Having spent many years in Africa, and being a particularly bright individual, Dr. Valberg is certainly more qualified than most to speak on this subject.
The main points Dr. Valberg made were as follows:
a) Native African languages have very limited vocabularies. He recounted how native Africans expressed wonder that a speaker of English would ever need an English dictionary. He seemed to be saying that this is, at least in part, a reflection of the simplicity of the African mind. As I remember, this was strongly implied, if not stated explicitly.
b) Native African languages lack words for abstract concepts. Instead, they borrow words for concrete ideas and clumsily use them to approximate abstract concepts that more advanced peoples had introduced into Africa. One example is the word “obligation”, which one African language attempts to convey through the words “to tie together one’s feet”.
c) African languages do not include terms of precision. For example, there is typically no way to say “the fruit is half way up the tree”; either it is up the tree or it is not. This is a product of the African mind seeing things in absolutes.
While I do not claim to be as knowledgeable about African languages, and African mentality, as Dr. Valberg, I have had my doubts as to the accuracy of his claims. Firstly, I find it hard to believe that all of the hundreds (if not thousands) of tribal African languages suffer from every one the above deficiencies. Certainly some of them are more sophisticated. Lurking in the back of my mind was the suspicion that Dr. Valberg was seeing things in absolute terms, ironic as this would be.
I recently met a gentleman who is from Southern Sudan, near Uganda. He is a speaker of Kuku so I availed myself of the opportunity to get his perspective on the above questions. First I asked him how many words, excluding recent foreign loan words, are in Kuku. He guessed that Kuku has around 1,000 words and that there is no need for a Kuku dictionary for native speakers. On this count, he was in agreement with Dr. Valberg – though he would probably disagree with his explanation. As for me, I do not doubt that traditional African’s are of simple mind compared to more technologically advanced peoples. However, I think a limited vocabulary necessarily goes hand in hand with non-literal languages. I would wager that pre-literate European languages were also limited in their vocabulary. Therefore, I do not see a paucity of vocabulary as clear evidence of racial disparities. Of course, the fact that they were, until recently, non-literate, does bolster the other evidence we have concerning their mental abilities.
I asked the man about words for abstract concepts such as “responsibility”. At first, he was not sure how to answer. In all fairness, he is rather rusty since he has few opportunities to speak his native language these days. He did tell me that there certainly is a word for “trustworthy” and he gave me an example of a man who has promised to marry somebody. If he keeps his word, then he is trustworthy. In other words, he has honored his responsibility. Every society on Earth has laws against aggression and theft – even in Africa. What is a criminal if not one who has shirked his social responsibility? Yes, there is a difference between a good citizen whose motivation is altruistic and linked to a higher goal versus a good citizen who’s motivation is simply fear of punishment. This distinction merits further study and it is very possible that language differences would throw light on such distinctions – but Dr. Valberg’s presentation is, at best, skeletal in this regard. So, while I am not saying he is wrong, I am saying that he needs to elaborate much more and flesh out his theories.
I have pointed out to Dr. Valberg that even advanced languages had to borrow mundane terms, early on, to convey abstract concepts. For example, the word for “forbidden” in Hebrew literally means “tied”. The word for “obligation” is closely related (and probably derived) from the word for affection/love. As for “responsibility”, I do not believe there is even a word for it in ancient Hebrew. Modern Hebrew uses a term that is derived from the word for “end” as in “the buck stops here”.
What about English? A good place to start would be the word “responsibility”. It is derived from the word “response”, which simply means “an answer”. Apparently, its current connotations are very recent.
The word “responsibility” is surprisingly modern. It is also, as Paul Ricoeur has observed, “not really well-established within the philosophical tradition” (2000: 11). This is reflected in the fact that we can locate two rather different philosophical approaches to responsibility.
The original philosophical usage of “responsibility” was political (see McKeon, 1957). This reflected the origin of the word. In all modern European languages, “responsibility” only finds a home toward the end of the eighteenth century. This is within debates about representative government…
What about the word “obligation“?
c.1300, “to bind by oath,” from O.Fr. obligier, from L. obligare, from ob “to” + ligare “to bind,” from PIE base *leig- “to bind” (see ligament). Main modern meaning “to make (someone) indebted by conferring a benefit or kindness” is from 1560s.
So it turns out that it comes from the Latin word “ligare” – to bind. Indeed, it would appear that Dr. Valberg should have been obligated to look up the etymology of European words before making generalities about African ones.
I asked the man about expressing the concept of a fruit being only three quarters up a tree. This question took him off guard and his response led me to concede this point to Dr. Valberg. He explained to me that, in Kuku, one cannot state that a glass is only partly full. Either it has contents or it does not. Kuku speakers have no concept of fractions.
In conclusion I’d like to say that arriving at the conclusion that H.B.D. is real and that humans are not all the same is a great milestone in anyone’s life. That being said, we should not get carried away and assume that every racial difference that could exist actually does exist. When we find ourselves amongst our own, as in an American Renaissance conference, it is easy to get caught up in the cheerleading mentality. Once this state is reached, we sometimes find ourselves shouting “Amen” and “Hallelujah”! Our cause would be better served by stubbornly clinging to our skeptical natures even when in the company of friends.