Redefining the sociolinguistic ‘local’: Examples from Tanzania

Wajanja DSCN5923 2

Jan Blommaert 


In a visionary book, Arjun Appadurai (1996: 194) noted ‘new forms of disjuncture between spatial and virtual neighborhoods’,  seriously complicating the actual meaning of a term such as ‘local practice’. This disjuncture, Appadurai argued with amazing foresight, would be an effect of the growth and development of a new infrastructure for globalization both in its hard and soft dimensions: the internet. With equal lucidity and at the same moment in history, Manuel Castells (1996) predicted the development of a new type of social formation which he called ‘network’ and which was not constrained by the traditional boundaries of social groups. Castells, too, saw the internet as the engine behind such far-reaching transformations in the sociocultural, political and economic order worldwide.

Appadurai and Castells made these claims while observing this global technological infrastructure in its infant stage. More than two decades later, and now living in what has effectively become a network society, one can only be amazed by the accuracy of their predictions, as well as by the very slow pace at which scientific disciplines devoted to humans and their societies have adjusted their gaze and frames of reference in addressing transformations predicted in the mid-1990s (see e.g. Eriksen 2016). It is clear, for instance, that sociolinguistics has been quite slow in addressing globalization as a fundamental mechanism of sociolinguistic change (Coupland 2003; Pennycook 2007; Blommaert 2010), and that the disjunctures between spatial and virtual neighborhoods anticipated by Appadurai – or rather, in an updated formulation, the complex intersections generated by spatial and virtual social spacetimes – still await satisfactory analysis and theorization (cf. Coupland 2016; Blommaert & Rampton 2016; Varis 2017; Blommaert 2017).

To be fair, the task is challenging, for sociolinguistics quite consistently relied on a particular imagination of spacetime in analysis and theory. Such spacetimes were ‘local’, meaning: they were enclosed and autonomous, allowing the analysis of clear sociolinguistic patterns within the specific spacetime unit – the neighborhood, the village, the city, the region, the nation-state. This imagination of the ‘local’ provided clarity for another key concept: the speech community (cf. Rampton 2009). Such communities, it was assumed, derived levels of stability and sharedness from their ‘local’ roots, which in turn allowed analysts to zoom in on the normative modes of social interaction, the forms of socioculturally relevant variation, the effects of institutionalization, and the dominant patterns of sociolinguistic change. This ‘sedentary’ logic was, of course, dislodged by ‘non-sedentary’ phenomena such as migration and the various forms of language contact it provoked. The spacetime unit in which such forms of sociolinguistic complexity occurred, however, was not affected, and it is only with the rapid and pervasive spread of ‘virtual’ spacetime that we are forced to address modes of social interaction developing in an unbounded, elastic and dynamic spacetime not contained by the qualities we used to ascribe to the ‘local’ in research.

In what follows, I shall try to document the analytical complexities we have to face as soon as we engage with such new forms of spacetime. My ambitions are modest: I merely intend to identify a number of inevitable ‘phenomenal’ features – what kinds of phenomena are we encountering? – and point in the direction of a particular analytical vocabulary that might be helpful in exercises of this kind. I shall do so by drawing on insights into the emerging internet-and-mobile culture in Tanzania, and I have the advantage of a longitudinal perspective, having been involved in research there for over three decades now (see Blommaert 2014). So let me first introduce some of the historical frame in which we need to set the discussion.

The ups and downs of language hierarchies in Tanzania

Tanzania offers us fertile terrain for investigating the changes in what is ‘local’ due to globalization and its online infrastructure, for these forces appear to have comprehensively reshuffled the institutional sociolinguistic order, creating, so to speak, a ‘language policy from below’ defying the official one, and replacing a relatively stable sociolinguistic hierarchy by a more fragmented one. While I do not expect this development to be unique to Tanzania, the case has the advantage of being clear. Tanzania, we know, was often highlighted in the sociolinguistic literature of the 1960s and 1970s as a relatively rare instance of  successful ‘demotic’ language planning. While most other recently decolonized countries had opted for a continuation of the colonial sociolinguistic order, with the language of the former colonial power (concretely: French, English, Portuguese) as national or official language, the socialist rulers of Tanzania radically opted for Swahili as the language expressing the postcolonial identity of the country and its citizens, turning it into an exception to what was later defined as the postcolonial rule of ‘linguistic imperialism’ (Phillipson 1992; see Blommaert 2014 for details on the postcolonial history of Swahili).

Swahili (in a range of varieties) was already relatively widespread in the country at the time of independence, and its adoption as national language, to be used in almost every official domain, made it into a language the hegemonic position of which as ‘the language of everyone’ remained uncontested for decades. There was one crack in that hegemony though. English was not entirely eliminated; it was kept as the language of instruction of post-primary education. The reasons for this language-political anomaly are complex, and officially the argument was that Swahili needed, first, to be ‘developed’ to cope with the demands of scientific thought and progress. Concretely, this meant vocabulary development – a Sisyphean  process not helped by a byzantine structure of official ratification. Pending the completion of that task, English remained the language of the – very small – national intelligentsia, as access to standard forms of English was almost entirely dependent on access (through demanding state exams) to secondary and tertiary education. And in that way, it retained covert prestige – a lot of prestige.

This, incidentally, is one of the ways in which we can define Tanzania as a ‘margin’: its endogenous symbolic resources were for a long time valuated and hierarchically positioned with regard to an exogenous benchmark: the symbolic resources of its former colonizing power. Its status as a sociopolitical system, likewise, was measured quite consistently against that of metropolitan sociopolitical systems. So while there are a range of ‘objective’ criteria for establishing ‘margins’ as opposed to ‘centers’ in the world system – GDP and poverty indexes, to name just those – ‘subjective’ ones also count. For decades, there was a strong self-defining tendency in the country as being ‘marginal’; and this imagination was shared by politicians who saw Swahili as ‘not yet ready’ to fulfill the functions of English, as well as by local rappers who nicknamed their country ‘Bongo’ and their hiphop scene ‘Bongo Flava’ – the flavor of total marginalization.

Tanzania was long an example of what sociolinguists preferred as ‘local’: a state even officially devoted to self-reliance, non-alignment and autonomy, with an unchallenged government and a population often imagined as Swahili-speaking monoglot. Within such an imagined enclosed and self-contained unit, sociolinguistic reflections followed simple tracks, usually revolving around ‘Swahili versus English’ in education – a topic that dominated the literature on Tanzania for decades. Below the surface of that imagined ‘locality’, however, several very different processes were at work. First, there was a great deal of variation within Swahili that was left unexplored even if it pointed towards existing and new inequalities within the imagined demotic sociolinguistic system. Second, there was the uneasy fact that most Tanzanians were not monolingual but at least bilingual, combining (varieties of) Swahili with (varieties of) ethnic languages. The latter were very rarely drawn into the equation in Tanzania. Third, even if English was an active resource in just small segments of Tanzanian society, it carried tremendous language-ideological weight as the language indexing everything that was foreign, smart, desirable and exclusive (and capitalist) – it was, in other words, the undisputed sociolinguistic marker of elite-status. Prestigious products (usually equivalent to overseas products) would be advertised in English, and prestigious people would be identifiable by the variety of English and the level of fluency in using it. The persistent refusal of the Tanzanian government to replace English by Swahili throughout the entire education system – and the persistent pointing, in motivating this anomaly, towards the superiority of English as a language of learning, undoubtedly contributed to this prestige.

The clear sociolinguistic patterns many sociolinguists believed to observe in Tanzania, thus, obscured a far more nuanced and fractured system in which the near-absence of English in Tanzania did not prevent a status hierarchy very similar to that in postcolonial countries where the former metropolitan language had been preserved as the language of the public sphere. Thus, in spite of massive amounts of lip service to it, Tanzania never really was the demotic sociolinguistic nation it was often perceived to be. Neither was it the enclosed and self-contained ‘local’ system many preferred to behold. While the dynamics of language variation within Swahili, and between Swahili and ethnic languages, were by and large (territorially) domestic forces, the prestige of English rested (like elsewhere) precisely on the translocal, international imageries it invoked.

At this point, we begin to see the contours of the problem I intend to more fully develop below. Yes, Tanzania was seen as a ‘local’ sociolinguistic arena, and most of the sociolinguistic literature would address it as such. But colonization had made that ‘local’ character very porous and elastic indeed, since an important part of how Tanzanians related to Swahili was determined by translocal linguistic ideologies firmly rooted in colonial (and postcolonial) realities. Such language-ideological imageries easily entered the country, even if until the early 1990s the communications and mass-media landscape in Tanzania was very poorly developed. Tanzania, one could say, was a switchboard between various subnational and supranational scale-levels (Blommaert 2010: 182-194), but in the pre-internet era the connections between such scale-levels were narrow and accessible for a privileged minority only. This would of course change when the internet entered the country. And when I did the fieldwork from which I draw the observations below, in 2012, I was working in a very different society.

Script vernacularization: Intanet Bomba

One of the most conspicuously different features of Dar es Salaam urban life these days is the generalized use of mobile phones. Like in other places in Africa, mobile phones solve a perennial problem: offering a means of long-distance communication cheaply and effectively, without requiring the massive investments required for landline networks. In the developing world, mobile phones represent a genuine revolution and are seen by influential policymakers as crucial tools for future economic, social and political development. In the words of a World Bank-related researcher,

Mobile telephones are revolutionizing the formative processes of economic development. These relatively cheap handheld personal communicators are empowering the most basic development agents, turning former functionaries reliant on erratic and remote external inputs into key decision makers with direct access to the facts they need. (Lambert 2009: 48)

New providers, consequently, are almost all located in the developing world (Lambert 2009: 49), and the range of services they offer do not lack sophistication: m-banking can be found in several developing countries while it is still rare in Europe; job advertisements and access to social and administrative services are also offered via mobile phones in several countries, as well as cheap chat services.[1] Another World Bank-connected researcher, Elisabeth Littlefield (2009: 50) thus reports:

The biggest success in customer adoption to date has been the M-PESA network in Kenya, which has reached more than 6.5 million customers in just over two years. It has become the preferred method for moving money for 50 percent of Kenyans.

In the next sentence, however, this optimism is instantly qualified:

However, fewer than 1 in 10 mobile phone banking customers are actually poor, new to banking, and doing anything more than payments and transfers. Most of the new offerings, especially when led by existing banks, have served to provide more convenient bill payments for existing customers and to decongest branches.

The sophisticated m-services are thus largely an affair of the urban middle classes, including the lower middle class, as we shall see shortly.

The March 2012 statistics released by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority reported almost 27 million subscriptions to mobile phone operators.[2] Against a population estimated to around 46 million, this number is impressive, but let us not forget that people sometimes have to take subscriptions from several providers to compensate for inadequate network coverage. Several such operators are active, with the global player Vodacom (locally nicknamed ‘Voda’) being the largest one, the state-run TTCL holding a middle position and the privately owned Benson being the smallest. Competition among the providers is fierce and has led to a steady decrease of the rates for using mobile phones.

Apart from basic services – calls and SMS – the providers all offer mobile Internet services. These Internet services, however, are used by only a small minority of mobile phone subscribers. According to the business newspaper The Citizen in January 2012, about 11% of the Tanzanian population have access to Internet, 45% of whom – around 2 million – use mobile internet.[3] Internet subscriptions – compared to basic mobile phone services – are still very expensive: an average domestic (landline) subscription from TTCL in Dar es Salaam cost 100,000Tsh (around 50 Euro) per month in September 2012.[4]

We begin to understand that such figures point towards an elite, even if the term is used with some degree of elasticity here. We also understand that this elite is concentrated in the large urban areas, if for no other reason because of the fact that Internet requires electricity. And when it comes to electricity, the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority of Tanzania warns us that “[w]ith about 660,000 customers, electricity was available to only about 11% of the population by [the] first quarter of 2007, with more than 80% supplied in the urban areas”.[5] About 9 out of 10 Tanzanians have no access to a regular electricity supply, and that figure corresponds to more than 90% of the territory of the country. Access to the Internet is a rather exclusive feature of urban life in Tanzania, and new online-offline social space nexuses are confined to these areas.

It also strongly plays into that urban life-world – even more: it has become an icon of the culture of urban life. And a key element of this culture is a new register of ‘cool’ Swahili. A new lexicon of terms referring to mobile phone and Internet use has emerged in no time, including terms such as “intanet” itself, “kuperuzi” (‘to surf the internet’, from English ‘peruse’), “vocha” (‘voucher’, i.e. a prepaid card), “bomba” (‘connection’), “hudumu” (‘subscription’), “mtandao” (‘network’), “m-pesa” (mobile ‘banking’), ‘kufuatilia” (‘to follow’ on Facebook or Twitter) as well as globally circulating loan codes such as SMS, PIN and MB all firmly entrenched now in the cool register of mobile connectivity, and new slang terms such as ‘mrembo wa Facebook’ (‘Facebook darling’, a woman attracting significant amounts of male attention on Facebook) are coined incessantly. Providers market their products under labels such as “ezy pesa” (‘easy money’ – a phone banking application) and ‘Epiq Nation’ (an image slogan from the Zanzibar-based Zantel).

Publicity for mobile phone and mobile Internet providers – extraordinarily dense, testifying to the price wars among providers – show happy young people. References are made to happiness and joy throughout, in slogans such as “Ongea kutwa nzima na cheka” (‘talk the whole day and laugh’). We see a young man screaming with joy when opening his “Tigo Internet Mega Boksi” – a box containing applications for mobile Internet (Gmail, Facebook, Chrome, Firefox etc.) from the Tigo provider. And young girls enthusiastically gazing at a smartphone are announced to be “wajanja wa kuperuzi” – ‘expert internet surfers’. Those are happy, successful young people, and they are very much ‘in the world’.

Not unlike what we encounter elsewhere in that world, mobile phone advertisements suggest success derived from global mobility; their appeal rests on the strong suggestion that purchasing this commodity enables one to break out of the local, so to speak. Zantel’s Epiq Nation campaign, thus, showcases Mwisho Wampamba, a Tanzanian actor featuring in a popular South African TV series offered on commercial networks in Tanzania – an incorporation of the mobile, international, young, Tanzanian celebrity (see Figure 1). Large Vodacom and Epiq Nation campaign events feature Chidi Benz and Juma Nature AKA Kibla – Tanzanian Hip-Hop icons who attract audiences all over East Africa – and Epiq Nation sponsors a ‘Bongo Stars Search’ program, comparable to ‘American Idol’ or ‘The X Factor’ and aimed at recruiting future popular culture celebrities and setting new popular culture trends.

figure 3

FIGURE 1: Epiq Nation billboard featuring Mwisho Wampamba, Masaki, Dar es Salaam © Jan Blommaert 2012

The exploitation of Tanzania’s vibrant ‘Bongo Flava’ Hip-Hop scene in mobile phone marketing campaigns was already described by Christina Higgins (2013). Higgins observed that providers deployed the urban Swahili youth slang in their campaigns, a variety of which Bongo Flava artists are the epigones; popular Hip-hop song titles likewise found their way into marketing slogans, and a popular beer brand has “100% TZ FLAVA” printed on its bottles. Note, in passing, how the ‘Bongo’ term that used to carry dark stigma as an index of extreme marginality and poverty has been turned around, semiotically, in expressions such as ‘Bongo Flava’ and ‘Bongo stars’ to suggest, presently, a ‘center in the margin’: even in Bongoland, there can be global stars and cultural commodities.

The point Higgins made there, and which can be confirmed here, is that the connection between popular culture and marketing moves Swahili in a privileged position vis-à-vis the young urban middle-class consumers targeted in campaigns. But it is not just any Swahili: it is the cool slang-ish Swahili characterizing local youth cultures in Tanzanian cities, driven by the new online infrastructures. The medium for such campaigns is thus not a language per se, but a specific register. The amount of code-mixing in publicity for mobile phone providers should already make clear that ‘language’ is not the best unit to describe what goes on. And in view of the argument we are building here, we can see how a fully globalized set of ‘scripts’ has entered the ‘local’ arena – the ‘local’ has effectively ceased to exist, one could say. But the actual way in which these scripts have entered the ‘local’ is through complex vernacularization (a term we shall have to qualify shortly), by mobilizing a ‘local’ sociolinguistic dynamic of register-formation in Swahili, not English, effectively reversing – when seen from the usual distance of language policy research – the existing sociolinguistic hierarchies. The ‘global’ language English, once unchallenged in its symbolic predominance, has now been joined by ‘local’ forms of prestige-bearing ‘cool’ Swahili.

We are witnessing fully developed lifestyle branding targeting a young urban audience of consumers, and this fully developed form of branding follows global templates. Look at how the companies behind Epiq Nation announce their campaign:[6]

“Etisalat Zantel” has partnered with “Mobilera” to offer “Epiq Nation” the new youth lifestyle product which is much more than just great rates for mobile phones and internet services.

“Epiq Nation” will provide the Tanzanian`s youth with unprecedented services where they can have access to exclusive deals, discounts, experiences and competitions. This offer aims at improving the lives of the youth in Tanzania and meets their hunger for new technologies and products.

The discourse is that of advanced consumerist marketing, and the approach is that of sophisticated branding strategies aimed at complementing the product (“great rates for mobile phones and internet services”) with an avalanche of “exclusive deals, discounts, experiences and competitions”, so as to shape entire identities and life projects centred around particular commodities (Blommaert & Varis 2015). We see how mobile phones and Internet products are advertised in ways fully integrated in such global scenarios for branding and marketing.[7] Choosing Zantel’s Epiq Nation products is not just a choice for a particular product in a competitive market – it is a choice for a specific lifestyle, a self-imagined identity constructed through consumption. People who do so are not just ‘wateja’ (‘customers’), they are laughing and smiling, happy, young, affluent ‘wajanja wa uperuzi’ (‘experts surfers’) and, perhaps, ‘warembo wa Facebook’ (‘Facebook darlings’). Obviously, even if we are still engaging with Swahili, not much is left of the sociolinguistic ‘local’ here.

We have seen that providers target a young urban audience, and that they do so by means of complex campaigns turning commodities into lifestyle choices. Given the price of Internet subscriptions, the audience going for the full package is relatively restricted. And this is where we see that providers ‘open up’, so to speak, and attempt to bring their products to customers in less well-off areas of the cities, to the struggling urban lower middle classes who earn a modest salary but are nonetheless necessarily integrated in the networks of contemporary urban life. A taxi driver, for instance, needs a mobile phone to conduct his business, because taxis operate on an individual lease basis and without a central radio dispatching system. The same goes for small traders and shopkeepers: contacts with customers and providers are all maintained through mobile phone communication. Even more: given the relatively high cost of cross-network calls, these lower middle class people can be seen equipped with more than one handset, each of them connected to one provider network and all of them used to make network-internal calls. More affluent customers, less worried about the prohibitive costs of cross-network communication, typically have a single smartphone.

Mobile phones, subscription packages and prepaid cards are not just sold in hip downtown shops and malls; they are sold almost everywhere in the city. Small groceries, restaurants, post offices, bars, kiosks: one can read everywhere that ‘vocha’ are available, and ‘vocha jumla’ (‘every kind of prepaid card’), followed by a list of brand names – ‘Voda’, Airtel, Tigo, what have you. Mobile phone provision stretches into the poorest corners of the city. Naturally, the cost of full subscription packages with mobile internet access far exceeds the budgets of most people in such areas; what is effectively sold there are the cheapest prepaid cards, enough to make local calls and send some SMSses. But they can be found everywhere alongside other standard household products such as soap, maize flour, cooking oil, onions, fruit or water. Thus, while we can say that the spread, the availability, of mobile phones in Dar es Salaam is ‘democratic’, their distribution or accessibility – the specific ways in which they are being appropriated and used – is not democratic at all and follows clear class lines.

The democratic spread, nonetheless, necessitates an open format of marketing communication. A detailed look at figure 2 below reveals something quite interesting, and in order to grasp its relevance, some explanation needs to be given about advertisement culture in Tanzania. To begin with, advertisement was a relatively rare thing in Ujamaa Tanzania. The reason was quite simply that consumer commodities were rare in the days of Kujitegemea. One would see professional beer advertisements, some Pepsi publicity boards and some for other international products – more about that in a moment – but often, products were advertised by paintings on facades and fences, handcrafted by local professional sign-writers. Commercial slogans did not circulate intensively, with perhaps the exception of a slogan for a local ‘pombe’ (indigenous beer) called Chikubu. The slogan was Tumia Chibuku, ni pombe bora – ‘use Chibuku, it’s excellent beer’ – and it was played before and after a popular humorous radio play that aired every night on Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam for years on end. Most people still know the slogan today, and note that the slogan was in Swahili.

Prestige products – a synonym, for decades, of products manufactured abroad in ‘the West’ – were almost invariably accompanied by English publicity items. Thus, in figure 2 we see a small and older sign promoting Nivea cream with an English text, next to another one for Pepsi equally in English. Driving through Dar es Salaam, we still see English widely used whenever elite products are being promoted: hotels and spas, wines, brandies or whiskies, imported beers, some banking facilities, insurance and so forth. But when it comes to that one commodity set emblematic of globalization, things are different. Mobile phone adverts are overwhelmingly in Swahili, and the English Nivea and Pepsi signs in figure 2 are juxtaposed with several mobile phone advertisements, in Swahili.

Figure 4

FIGURE 2: Mikocheni village, Dar es Salaam © Jan Blommaert 2012

Swahili has, thus, invaded a zone of prestige previously exclusively emblematized by English. Even when companies preferentially target the affluent Tanzanian yuppies, the new Swahili registers are used instead of or in conjunction with English (as e.g. in ‘Ezy Pesa’). Monolingual English mobile phone advertisement boards can be found, not by coincidence, in the vicinity of expensive shopping centers attracting a largely expatriate community of customers. Thus, the English Epiq Nation poster featuring Mwisho Wampamba (Figure 1) could be found near Shopper’s Plaza, Masaki, a supermarket tailored to the demands of the international business and diplomatic community in Masaki, and incorporating a ‘Subway’ sandwich shop on its premises.

The Mikocheni kiosk in Figure 2, thus, displays two generations of prestige products: an older one (Nivea cream) in English, dating to the times where ‘international’ was still generically a synonym for ‘outside of Tanzania’ and therefore ‘in English’; and a new one (mobile phone services) in which global commodities have been converted into local status-hierarchical emblems – they have been ‘reterritorialized’ to adopt Higgins’ (2013) terminology – and also distributed along a more fractured scale of prestige, in which some items are reserved for an affluent elite and thus marketed in English, while other prestige-bearing items are more widely offered and marketed through new ‘cool’ Swahili registers. The use of mobile phones is a global status emblem cleverly and skillfully ‘translated’, so to speak, into a new local stratification of symbols and values. The cool Swahili register that accompanies and enacts it is the key to this practice, it defines and establishes its characteristics as part and parcel of cultural innovation locally, and it is no doubt also the key to the success of mobile phones in Dar es Salaam.

What is left of the ‘local’?

Such forms of localization, as we now know, are defining features of cultural globalization. They enact the ‘vernacular globalization’ that Appadurai (1996) already announced. But we begin to see the tremendous complexity captured by the terms ‘vernacularization’ and ‘localization’ when we recap and summarize the case of Tanzania as a sociolinguistic ‘local’. Several facts, we have seen, prejudge and complicate simple distinctions between what is ‘global’ and ‘local’ (or ‘exogenous’ versus ‘endogenous’ in sociolinguistic terminology), what we call ‘localization’, and how we can see Tanzania (and perhaps any spacetime unit in our types of research) as a ‘local’ arena. Let me go through some of these facts.

  1. Tanzania, even in its ‘self-reliant’ heyday, was of course never truly ‘local’, as its colonial history bore down on postcolonial language hierarchies: English and Swahili were placed on a prestige scale in which the global predominance of (colonial and postcolonial) English was the benchmark.
  2. The recent insertion of that country in a global system of online and mobile communication was an effect of the post-1985 liberalization policies which, more than before, opened the doors of the country to outside influences and agency.
  3. More in particular, there was a reshuffling of the sociolinguistic hierarchy, in which English did not lose much of its prestige, but was now complemented by new, prestige-bearing ‘cool’ registers of Swahili. The latter, remarkably, developed around global commodities: the internet and mobile communication itself, and a revived marketing and popular culture industry, based on global publicity templates, scaffolding it. An endogenous language, if you wish, came to index the prestige of exogenous commodities, and English is no longer the sole emblem of ‘non-local’ objects and values.
  4. Such registers do not remain confined, of course, to marketing discourses, but emerge in very close synergy with existing popular culture agents. Interestingly, the emblematic expression of marginality, ‘Bongo’, became an index of this new ‘global’ dynamics and its prestige. From pointing downwards, it became a pointer upwards, to a much-desired and aspired-to range of prestige commodities, lifestyles and imagined identities.
  5. All of the foregoing, we can say, is ‘vernacular globalization’. This process, however, comes with two important qualifications. One: it is heavily restricted to the urban centers of the country due to the unequal distribution of the online-offline infrastructures. In spite of its almost by definition translocal character, the vernacular globalization, thus, is an urban phenomenon.
  6. Second, this urban phenomenon is also not pan-urban but socioculturally niched, a feature of the restratification and specialization of the consumer market in urban Tanzania. We have seen that elite products such as imported luxury items, expensive hotels and resorts are still marketed through English (in ways hardly different from marketing in, say, Europe). The more widely accessible layer of prestige goods underneath this elite range – internet and mobile phone items – is the space within which we see the new Swahili registers emerge and flourish.

Those who wish to use an older sociolinguistic-indexical order – that, for instance, characterizing the first decades after independence – to understand contemporary Tanzanian sociolinguistic processes are certain to leave the field confused and possibly even wrong-footed. For what has happened is a pretty comprehensive reshuffling of the sociolinguistic stratigraphy, largely due to – precisely – the facts of internet-driven globalization. A distinct sociolinguistic universe has emerged: a highly fragmented and layered urban one in which distinctions between registers index sensitive social distinctions in positions and forms of access within a consumer market. Whatever we now call ‘local’ in research in that spacetime arena needs to be qualified along those diacritics, I’m afraid. And whenever we locate Tanzania in the ‘margins’ of the world system, we should equally prepare ourselves for lengthy qualifications of what we exactly mean. For obvious reasons, the use of terms such as ‘glocalization’, while not unhelpful as a starting hypothesis, won’t help us to get away with it any longer, as soon as the job of analysis needs to be done.

In a recent book, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2016) argues that the ‘local’, in conditions of contemporary internet-driven globalization, is a diffuse, unstable and scalar phenomenon, dislodging, in effect, the established ethnographic imagination of the ‘local’ as a site of autonomous and self-contained researchables. Eriksen points to a real problem and a real responsibility here. We all have been trained in  traditions in which our ‘real’ objects – bits of language – were set in a ‘context’. The latter was relatively unimportant, just a quickly sketched spacetime frame, and not enough care has gone in theorizing and methodologizing it. We pay the price for this oversight now, when online and offline nexuses preclude any simple determination of ‘local’ and ‘nonlocal’ elements as features of context – both are inevitably not just part of the same ‘context’, but determine, as such, the bits of language we examine. Let me underscore this for clarity’s sake: separating ‘text’ from ‘context’ excludes a fundamental feature of communication nowadays, that context is text, and more broadly, that society is language. Detaching both amounts to trying to extract the egg from the omelet. And it is (to use contemporary slang) “so twentieth century”.



This chapter is largely based on materials analyzed in Blommaert (2014, chapter 7), and collected during fieldwork in Dar es Salaam, September 2012. I am deeply grateful to Koen and Els Adam-Vandemoortele, their son Maarten and their local collaborators for hosting me with exceptional generosity and comfort during that trip. I am also grateful to Sjaak Kroon, Jos Swanenberg and Marilyn Martin-Jones for providing me with clear pointers for how to reorganize an argument of which I sensed the general direction but not the specific one.


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Velghe , F. (2012), ‘“I wanna go in the phone”. Illiteracy, informal learning processes, “voice” and mobile phone appropriation in a South African township’. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 40.


[1] For the latter, see the excellent study of Fie Velghe (2012) on the use of a mobile chat application in townships around Cape Town.

[2] Data accessed through, 12 September 2012.

[3] See the report on

[4] I am grateful to Els Vandemoortele for granting me this glimpse of her household budget.

[5] Data accessed through on 12 September 2012.

[6] From, accessed 12 September 2012.

[7] The fully globalized nature of marketing templates in Tanzania can also be judged from the extraordinarily frequent use of the greatest myth of global consumerist marketing: the suggestion that certain things are ‘free of charge’. The Swahili word ‘bure’ (‘gratis’, ‘free of charge’) occurs in every second advertisement, suggesting that a certain amount of prepaid airtime, SMSses or download Megabites is ‘free’ when you purchase certain package formulas. Things are usually not ‘free’ when you have to pay for them, of course.



Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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