Ubuntu Slip of the Tongue

i-6ee772a82b9d9fb169128feb7646e2ea-edgy-ring.jpgUbuntu 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 naďve 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.

To wit,

  • 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.)


  1. #1 Joseph j7uy5
    April 21, 2007

    I think what they meant to say is: ‘Ubuntu is an African word that refers to the ancient concept of humanity toward others.’

    But you are right. But to put their statement in cultural perspective: 1) there are probably a lot of computer nerds don’t know much about the humanities, or at least about linguistics, and 2) while it is true that most words are ancient, it also is true that most words in computer science are not. (Well, OK, COBOL is ancient, but “distro” is modern.) So let’s acknowledge that Linux developers have a different perspective on language.

  2. #2 Flaky
    April 21, 2007

    “African people are not inhabitants of the past.” Of course not, but the sentence was about words, not people. I don’t get your point.

    “Most words in all languages everywhere are ancient.”
    True, but some words are not. Saying that ‘ubuntu’ in an ancient word, at least to me, carries the meaning that it specifically was not a recent addition to the language(s) that contain it.

    Although, saying that ‘ubuntu’ is an African word may be a bit silly, if it occurs in several African languages it’s probably more reasonable to say that it’s an African word than to single out any specific language or list all of them.

    Saying that the sentence is politically incorrect is stretching an already far-strung concept a bit too much.

  3. #3 Janne
    April 21, 2007

    Um, what is the difference above? I see no problem with either the definition of ubuntu nor with horn. Both are words of very old origin, and occur in more than one language in the specified area.

    I do have a minor quibble with your definition of Ubuntu, the Linux distribution, though. It’s not created specifically for “empower the Third World by freeing it from dependence on Western software companies.”

  4. #4 Martin R
    April 21, 2007

    Joe, humanity toward others is far from an ancient concept. The past is a nasty, brutal place where children are sacrificed to blood-thirsty gods and thralls cower in unheated outbuildings.

    Flaky, few words in any language are recent additions such as “distro”. What prompted my entry was a feeling that the copywriter conflated ancientness, Africanness and humanity toward others in an image of some paradisical traditional past that might still be alive south of Sahara.

    Anyway, I’m impressed with the software package. More about it here tomorrow.

  5. #5 Claus
    April 21, 2007

    Sounds like looking for a problem where there isn’t one to me too.

  6. #6 Martin R
    April 21, 2007

    Janne, the problem is that “horn” occurs only in Germanic languages, not for instance in Latin or Slavic ones. And though ancient, it is still very much in common use and has acquired a number of recent secondary meanings, such as “trumpet” and “car alarm”.

    As for the Third-World-empowerment angle, I was told that by the BBC’s tech podcast, and the imagery on the project’s web site certainly suggest it to be true. It’s an idea I like lot.

  7. #7 Matt Platte
    April 21, 2007

    My inability to detect this problem — even when it is pointed out — is probably related to my computer nerdiness being much stronger than my humanities nerditude.

  8. #8 Martin R
    April 21, 2007

    Matt, I envy you. My humanities nerditude is only just barely paying my rent, and my computer nerditude is insufficient to allow me to solve a lot of my Linux problems. (-;

  9. #9 Ken Hirsch
    April 21, 2007

    I think people are puzzled at your reaction because it’s like a biologist reacting to “Crocodiles are an ancient kind of chordates” by saying “What! You think crocodiles are all extinct?? And besides, not all chordates are reptiles!”

    While the statement may not be as precise as one would like, it’s not inaccurate and it doesn’t imply what you claim it does. “Horn” is an ancient European word. That doesn’t imply that all mortals are Aristotle.

  10. #10 Lou Yater
    April 21, 2007

    So no one can say “Ancient Greek” “Ancient Egyptian” “Ancient Hebrew” or “Ancient Chinese” either. That would be implying that all of these countries live in the past. *shakes head*

  11. #11 devnet
    April 21, 2007

    Unfortunately, I think you’ll probably get a ton of negative comments on this. Anytime you try and buck the #1 distro you get flamed bigtime. On many of my early posts where I talked a bit on the bad experiences I had with Ubuntu, I was flamed and reflamed and flamed after being reflamed 🙂 I hope this doesn’t happen here as you’re pointing out something in your line of expertise and are obviously very qualified to do so.

  12. #12 Martin R
    April 21, 2007

    I quite like Ubuntu. And as for flames, bring em on, and then do please start defending me and starting fights in the comments section. All traffic is good traffic when you’re paid-per-view. (-;

  13. #13 Bakaohki
    April 21, 2007

    Marketing and linguistics just don’t mix, period. See marketing slogans, television ads, catchy phrases – this is a nice observation, something similar you would see in discourse analysis and feminist critique but in real world just noone cares; people want things easy to grasp, both phisically and mentally.

  14. #14 Davis
    April 21, 2007

    While the statement may not be as precise as one would like, it’s not inaccurate and it doesn’t imply what you claim it does. “Horn” is an ancient European word.

    Considering the vast array of European languages (not all even in the same linguistic family), this is only slightly more descriptive than saying it’s a human word. And while applying the word “ancient” to a word currently in use may be technically correct, it’s poor communication — when most people hear that it’s ancient, they won’t interpret it as a present-day word.

    So the only interpretation of the descriptors which is correct also happens to be completely useless and unilluminating.

  15. #15 Robert
    April 21, 2007

    Martin, I must say, you do have a point, albeit a rather trivial one. The conflation of ideas in Ubuntu’s web utterings might indeed be there, but it would take a linguistic microscope to spot and a semantic razor to get to your findings. Is there nothing else to write about? It really does seem somewhat trifling. Being a man of precise wording as you are –or, rather, as your article and further comments suggest– you may want to have another look at one of your sentences:
    “…and then do please start defending me and starting fights in the comments section.” Hardly correct English, I’d say. I’m quite confident, most of us know what you mean. Just as I’m equally confident that most of us know what Ubuntu means….

    Happy hunting!

  16. #16 observer
    April 21, 2007

    “Sounds like looking for a problem where there isn’t one to me too.”

    That’s another thing that those working in the humanities are trained to do.

  17. #17 Davis
    April 21, 2007

    …it would take a linguistic microscope to spot and a semantic razor to get to your findings.

    Not entirely — I only have a smattering of linguistics in my background, but that was enough to recognize that this was a silly statement, or at least an incredibly linguistically naive one.

  18. #18 windy
    April 21, 2007

    Unlike “European languages”, “African languages” is a real linguistic entity.

    What do you mean by “linguistic entity”?

  19. #19 Martin R
    April 22, 2007

    A taxon, a clade, a group united by common ancestry.

  20. #20 windy
    April 22, 2007

    Including or excluding Afro-Asiatic? 🙂

  21. #21 Martin R
    April 22, 2007

    Beats me. I know jack shit about the place.

  22. #22 windy
    April 22, 2007

    Aha! 🙂

    Well, I know jack shit about linguistics, but I do believe that there is no reason to assume that African languages are monophyletic.

  23. #23 newhack
    April 22, 2007

    When the author writes that Ubuntu is…
    “intended to empower the Third World by freeing it from dependence on Western software companies”
    he tends to demonstrate a certain lack of knowledge of what he is talking about.

    According to http://www.distrowatch.com, Ubuntu is the no. 1 Linux distribution all over the world.
    The latest Ubuntu, Feisty Fawn, was downloaded mainly from the US (about 65%) and from Europe (about 25%).

    A bit of homework might be required, here.

  24. #24 Kristjan Wager
    April 23, 2007

    newhack, there is no contradiction in what Martin wrote about Ubuntu’s intend, and the download facts. So, in what sense does it display a lack of knowledge?

    I haven’t found any place where the intend of Ubuntu is stated, but their page on their philosophy includes:
    Our work is driven by a philosophy on software freedom that aims to spread and bring the benefits of software to all parts of the world.
    That would seem to support what Martin says.

  25. #25 Lars
    April 27, 2007

    Martin, ofcourse are right. Africa is still today seen as a remote place where time has stood still and where people are running around and doing ancient things. Africans are perceived as talking ancient languages, singing ancient songs and fighting ancient tribal wars.
    Such stereotypes are so common in our western world that we hardly notice them anymore. I think Martin is doing a good thing when he brings this to attention.

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