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Translating the World: Out of Africa

André Racicot
(Language Update, Volume 10, Number 1, 2013, page 24)

Africa was nicknamed the “cradle of humanity,” because many historians believe that the human race originated in Africa. The African continent is subdivided into countries and regions. But take care, because pitfalls abound.

Southern Africa and South Africa

The fact that the expressions Southern Africa and South Africa are so similar often causes confusion. The former designates a region, and the latter, a country. Language professionals looking for a precise definition of Southern Africa in regular dictionaries will be once again disappointed and will have to rely on the Internet. Of course, the definition varies markedly from one site to the next. However, roughly speaking, the region is composed of the following countries: South Africa, Angola, Comoros, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique and Namibia.

Undefined regions of Africa

In addition to Southern Africa, usage has lent credibility to two expressions that cannot be found in standard dictionaries—even though they are frequently used.

Let’s take Equatorial Africa, for example. Neither Oxford Dictionaries Online nor Merriam-Webster Online lists this expression. We have to rely on the adjective equatorial, which means “in relation to the equator” (we could have guessed) or “located on the equator.” My conclusion: Equatorial Africa is made up of the countries that the equator passes through, namely Gabon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. But what about Equatorial Guinea? Isn’t its name explicit enough? It definitely is, but the country is located slightly north of the equator. Confusing, isn’t it?

And why wouldn’t Equatorial Africa include all the countries near the equator? Then it would include not only Equatorial Guinea, but also other countries, such as the island country of Sao Tome and Principe.

Wouldn’t it be practical for the two main online dictionaries, Oxford and Merriam-Webster, to decide finally to define this term? Especially since the out-of-date expression French Equatorial Africa can be found in both.

The situation with sub-Saharan Africa is just as confusing. To find a solution, dictionaries must again be consulted. The 1986 version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines sub-Saharan as “situated or originating in the regions bordering on the Sahara desert,” a fairly precise definition that refers to countries overlapping or bordering the desert. However, could it also include countries not bordering the desert but in regions bordering the desert? Luckily, later editions of the OED addressed the issue. The current definition is “from or forming part of the African regions south of the Sahara desert.” The term no longer refers to countries close to the Sahara, but to all those south of the desert.

As for the Merriam-Webster, its definition states “of, relating to, or being part of Africa south of the Sahara.” Oddly, however, the term sub-Saharan does not appear in a 1988 edition of Webster’s dictionary, even though it had already been in the OED for some time.

Language professionals tempted to check on the Web could have Indiana Jones–esque misadventures in store for them. For instance, Wikipedia says that Somalia, Djibouti, Comoros and Mauritania are geographically part of sub-Saharan Africa, but also form part of the Arab world. I warned you this would be tricky.

North Africa

It will be obvious to everyone, I hope, that the expression North Africa leaves something to be desired. The northern part of Africa is much larger than the region, also called the Maghreb—although neither of the two main online dictionaries will tell you that. What is the Maghreb? It’s a region made up of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. At one time, Libya and Mauritania were also included, so the region more closely matched the definition that could be given of North Africa. Minus Egypt and the Western Sahara. Where does it end?

Luckily, there is also the “greater Maghreb,” which includes Libya, Mauritania and the Western Sahara.

I already mentioned the sliding scale used to determine the cardinal points of geographic subdivisions (for example, how should East Africa be defined?). It’s clearly easier to establish the borders of regions whose names include an adjective or a noun defined in a major dictionary. Sub-Saharan Africa is a great example, because dictionaries were able to help.

Name changes

Decolonization led to a number of changes in place names, such as Leopoldville, which became Kinshasa, and Tananarive, now called Antananarivo. Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, also changed its name, to Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not to be confused with its neighbour, Congo, a former French colony. Furthermore, no one misses the name Southern Rhodesia, which was changed to Zimbabwe. The area formed by Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland broke apart into Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.