Ubuntu Linux is a free Open Source operating system with office software, intended to empower the Third World by freeing it from dependence on Western software companies. It shares its name with a humanist ideology promoted by people such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The software is also popular in the West, where most of the development takes place and where most of the installations running it are likely located. The project’s Swedish homepage prominently features a fine piece of inadvertent colonial condescension. It’s actually quite heartwarmingly naïve in its complete lack of political correctness.
Ubuntu är ett uråldrigt afrikanskt ord som betyder “medmänsklighet mot andra”.
“Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity towards others’.”
Dear Reader, can you spot anything wrong with this? Working in the humanities, I have been trained to react violently against this sort of thing. Compare the following phrase, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Horn” is an ancient European word denoting a hollow, stiff, pointed projection of the skin of various animals.
- African people are not inhabitants of the past. Most words in all languages everywhere are ancient.
- Africa is not linguistically homogeneous. The word ubuntu belongs to the Bantu/Niger-Kongo B family, not to the Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo A or Khoi-San family, nor to some non-African language spoken in Africa, nor to a Creole.
So what that phrase on the web site says is basically “We feel friendly towards the people of Africa, but we know jack shit about the place and we think it’s really backward”.
(Official Ubuntu sites kept by native English-speakers also call the word “African”, but not “ancient”. Unlike “European languages”, “African languages” is a real linguistic entity. But I believe the Ubuntu project’s copywriter was most likely not aware of this distinction.)