Making Africa Legible Kiswahili Arabic and Orthographiic Romanization in Colonial Zanzibar

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Caitlyn Bolton



European colonialism and missionization in Africa initiated a massive orthographic shift across the continent, as local languages that had been written for centuries in Arabic letters were forcibly re-written in Roman orthography through language standardization reforms and the introduction of colonial public schools. Using early missionary grammars promoting the “conversion of Africa from the East,” British colonial standardization policies and educational reforms, as well as petitions and newspaper editorials by the local Swahilispeaking community, I trace the story of the Romanization of Swahili in Zanzibar, the site chosen as the standard Swahili dialect. While the Romanization of African languages such as Swahili was part of a project of making Africa legible to Europeans during the colonial era, the resulting generation gap as children and parents read different letters made Africa more illegible to Africans themselves.

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