Final Public Oral Exam: Morgan Jean Robinson

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
May 21, 2018 - 10:00am

An Uncommon Standard: A Social and Intellectual History of Swahili, 1864-1925


Emmanuel Kreike, adviser
Michael Laffan
Jacob Dlamini
Mariana Candido, University of Notre Dame
Elisabeth McMahon, Tulane University


What follows is a social and intellectual history of Standard Swahili, focusing on the process of knowledge production that created the modern language. Swahili is a language at once local and global, spontaneous and constructed, spoken and written; today, nearly 100 million people speak it. I use the story of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) as the scaffolding with which to build the history of the early codification and dissemination of Standard Swahili. My work reveals a group of rarely-acknowledged, yet centrally important, participants in this process: the former-slave students of the UMCA. After having been caught up in the East African slave trade, these students became the mission's greatest force of teachers and evangelists, using pedagogical and biblical works printed by the mission. They shared a written standard of Swahili that framed their communication with one another and with potential converts, shaping and then disseminating written Swahili throughout eastern Africa, and thereby changing forever the social and linguistic landscape of the entire region. My project traces their movement along an extensive network that stretched from Zanzibar, to east-central Africa, and even on to England.

In 1925, the Swahili standard of the Universities' Mission was adopted as the administrative language of the British colonial state in eastern Africa. This is the moment when the conventional histories of Standard Swahili begin. But my research demonstrates that the story of Standard Swahili actually began in the 1860s, not in the 1920s, and that while its rise was shaped by missionary and colonial interventions, its form was constituted through the lived experiences of the adherents of the Universities' Mission in eastern Africa. Just a few decades later, Standard Swahili would be taken up by Tanganyikan nationalists and Tanzanian nation-builders, and eventually rise to become an emblem of the African continent both at home and abroad. With my research, I show that the work of the African adherents of the UMCA produced the direct linguistic forebear of the language as it is taught in classrooms around the world today.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.