First International Conference of Young Urban Researchers (FICYUrb)
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Eline Versluys

Multilingualism and the city: the construction of urban identities in Dakar (Senegal)

Eline Versluys
Department of Linguistics, University of Antwerp

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     Last modified: May 16, 2007
     Presentation date: 06/11/2007 4:30 PM in ISCTE-II B201
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In this paper I would like to examine how the multilingual situation in an African metropolis like Dakar leads to the construction of multiple identities among its inhabitants, and how these identities are in their turn related to concepts of place. The findings are based on two periods of ethnolinguistic fieldwork in 2004 and 2006, conducted in Yoff, a suburban neighbourhood of Dakar. 14 young inhabitants of the neighbourhood constituted the main group of informants. In performing a detailed case study, based on participant observation, informal talks, individual interviews and group discussions, I have tried to examine how young urban dwellers construct language attitudes, identities and world views.

As in many other postcolonial cities, the sociolinguistic situation of Dakar is characterized by extended multilingualism. Extremely rapid urbanization causes a range of quick social changes, making Dakar into a bustling urban centre with various interacting cultural spheres. Beside the indigenous Wolof culture, there are many other influences which play an important role in the city’s life : rural immigrants, the ex-colonial French power, other African citizens and the Arab and Anglo-Saxon presence. Yoff was once a fishermen’s village home to the Lebou ethnic group but has now become one of Dakar’s suburbs because of its rapid growth.

This in-between character of the place reflects strongly in the informants’ identity positions. It is these positions which I would like to examine in this paper. I will analyse how my informants construct different identities, and how these multiple identities are related to their reported language use on the one hand and to the concept of place on the other hand. With regard to Yoff for example, they take up very fluid identities in the twilight zone between ‘urbanites’ and ‘village people’, each one linked to a particular language usage. We will note that what is constructed here is a complex network of flexible positions and changing identities, combining ethnic identities, urban identities, ‘global’ identities, ‘African’ identities, social class identities, and many others. The informants engage in ‘we’- versus ‘they’-alliances in constantly changing ways. We will thus come to understand how life in a highly multilingual city as Dakar offers a broad choice of identity positions between which urban citizens make daily moves.

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