In Memoriam D. W. Arnott (1915-2004)

D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula
D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula

This article creates the webAfriqa homage and tribute to the memory of Professor David W. Arnott (1915-2004), foremost linguist, researcher, teacher and publisher on Pular/Fulfulde, the language of the Fulbe/Halpular of West and Central Africa. It is reproduces the obituary written in 2004 par Philip J. Jaggar. David Arnott belonged in the category of colonial administrators who managed to balance their official duties with in-depth social and cultural investigation of the societies their countries ruled. I publish quite a log of them throughout the webAfriqa Portal: Vieillard, Dieterlen, Delafosse, Person, Francis-Lacroix, Germain, etc.
The plan is to contributed to disseminate as much as possible the intellectual legacy of Arnott’s. Therefore, the links below are just part of the initial batch :

Tierno S. Bah


D. W. Arnott was a distinguished scholar and teacher of West African languages, principally Fulani (also known as Fula, Fulfulde and Pulaar) and Tiv, David Whitehorn Arnott, Africanist: born London 23 June 1915; Lecturer, then Reader, Africa Department, School of Oriental and African Studies 1951-66, Professor of West African Languages 1966-77 (Emeritus); married 1942 Kathleen Coulson (two daughters); died Bedale, North Yorkshire 10 March 2004.

He was one of the last members of a generation of internationally renowned British Africanists/linguists whose early and formative experience of Africa, with its immense and complex variety of peoples and languages, derived from the late colonial era.

Born in London in 1915, the elder son of a Scottish father, Robert, and mother, Nora, David Whitehorn Arnott was educated at Sheringham House School and St Paul’s School in London, before going on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and won a “half-blue” for water polo. He received his PhD from London University in 1961, writing his dissertation on “The Tense System in Gombe Fula”.

Following graduation in 1939 Arnott joined the Colonial Administrative Service as a district officer in northern Nigeria, where he was posted to Bauchi, Benue and Zaria Provinces, often touring rural areas on a horse or by push bike. His (classical) language background helped him to learn some of the major languages in the area — Fulani, Tiv, and Hausa — and the first two in particular were to become his languages of published scientific investigation.

It was on board ship in a wartime convoy to Cape Town that Arnott met his wife-to-be, Kathleen Coulson, who was at the time a Methodist missionary in Ibadan, Nigeria. They married in Ibadan in 1942, and Kathleen became his constant companion on most of his subsequent postings in Benue and Zaria provinces, together with their two small daughters, Margaret and Rosemary.

From 1951 to 1977, David Arnott was a member of the Africa Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), London University, as Lecturer, then Reader, and was appointed Professor of West African Languages in 1966. He spent 1955-56 on research leave in West Africa, conducting a detailed linguistic survey of the many diverse dialects of Fulani, travelling from Nigeria across the southern Saharan edges of Niger, Dahomey (now Benin), Upper Volta, French Sudan (Burkina Faso and Mali), and eventually to Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. Many of his research notes from this period are deposited in the Soas library (along with other notes, documents and teaching materials relating mainly to Tiv and Hausa poetry and songs).

He was Visiting Professor at University College, Ibadan (1961) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1963), and attended various African language and Unesco congresses in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Between 1970 and 1972 he made a number of visits to Kano, Nigeria, to teach at Abdullahi Bayero College (now Bayero University, Kano), where he also supervised (as Acting Director) the setting up of the Centre for the Study of Nigerian Languages, and I remember a mutual colleague once expressing genuine astonishment that “David never seemed to have made any real enemies”. This was a measure of his integrity, patience and even-handed professionalism, and the high regard in which he was held.

Arnott established his international reputation with his research on Fula(ni), a widely used language of the massive Niger-Congo family which is spoken (as a first language) by an estimated eight million people scattered throughout much of West and Central Africa, from Mauritania and Senegal to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad (as well as the Sudan), many of them nomadic cattle herders.

Between 1956 and 1998 he produced almost 30 (mainly linguistic) publications on Fulani and in 1970 published his magnum opus, The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula (an expansion of his PhD dissertation), supplementing earlier works by his predecessors, the leading British and German scholars F.W. Taylor and August Klingenheben. In this major study of the Gombe (north-east Nigeria) dialect, he described, in clear and succinct terms, the complex system of 20 or more so-called “noun classes” (a classificatory system widespread throughout the Niger-Congo family which marks singular/plural pairs, often distinguishing humans, animals, plants, mass nouns and liquids). The book also advanced our understanding of the (verbal) tense- aspect and conjugational system of Fulani. His published research encompassed, too, Fulani literature and music.

In addition to Fulani, Arnott also worked on Tiv, another Niger-Congo language mainly spoken in east/central Nigeria, and from the late 1950s onwards he wrote more than 10 articles, including several innovative treatments of Tiv tone and verbal conjugations, in addition to a paper comparing the noun-class systems of Fulani and Tiv (“Some Reflections on the Content of Individual Classes in Fula and Tiv”, La Classification Nominale dans les Langues Négro-Africaines, 1967). Some of his carefully transcribed Tiv data and insightful analyses were subsequently used by theoretical linguists following the generative (“autosegmental”) approach to sound systems. (His colleague at Soas the renowned Africanist R.C. Abraham had already published grammars and a dictionary of Tiv in the 1930s and 1940s.)

In addition to Fulani and Tiv, Arnott taught undergraduate Hausa-language classes at Soas for many years, together with F.W. (“Freddie”) Parsons, the pre-eminent Hausa scholar of his era, and Jack Carnochan and Courtenay Gidley. He also pioneered the academic study of Hausa poetry at Soas, publishing several articles on the subject, and encouraged the establishment of an academic pathway in African oral literature.

The early 1960s were a time when the available language-teaching materials were relatively sparse (we had basically to make do with cyclostyled handouts), but he overcame these resource problems by organising class lessons with great care and attention, displaying a welcome ability to synthesise and explain language facts and patterns in a simple and coherent manner. He supervised a number of PhD dissertations on West African languages (and literature), including the first linguistic study of the Hausa language written by a native Hausa speaker, M.K.M. Galadanci (1969). He was genuinely liked and admired by his students.

David Arnott was a quiet man of deep faith who was devoted to his family. Following his retirement he and Kathleen moved to Moffat in Dumfriesshire (his father had been born in the county). In 1992 they moved again, to Bedale in North Yorkshire (where he joined the local church and golf club), in order to be nearer to their two daughters, and grandchildren.

Philip J. Jaggar
The Independent

Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his  acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”

Tierno S. Bah


In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.

Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.

A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.

One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.

Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.

The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.

It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker