By Peter Wuteh Vakunta
Nouchi, also called abidjanese French is a slang spoken by urban youths in Côte d'Ivoire. According to Blaise Ahua (2006), this lingo was created in the 70’s by high school dropouts who needed a secret code to survive in a world that makes no provision for the underprivileged. He further notes that Nouchi became popular thanks to an article written by two well-known Ivorian journalists—Bernard Ahua and Alain Coulibaly—titled “Nouchi: un langage à la mode” [Nouchi, a fashionable language] published in a weekly, Fraternité Matin in 1986.
Here are a few examples of utterances made by Nouchiphones:
1. J’ai un gba avec un mogo= J’ai un rendez-vous avec une fille [I have a date with a girl]
2. Ça c’est ma gnan= voici ma petite amie [Here is my girlfriend.]
3. Ça c’est ma go= voici ma petite amie [Here is my girlfriend]
4. Le gboo a behou= le groupe a fui [The gang has vanished.]
5. Le professeur a mouillé la go= le professeur a couché avec la fille [The teacher had sex with the student.]
Words such as gba, go, mogo, gboo, and behou are Nouchi words. They may constitute comprehension hurdles to listeners not familiar with this emerging lingua franca in Côte d'Ivoire. These examples lend credibility to the assertion that Nouchi speakers tend to borrow words from Ivorian native tongues, especially Dioula, Bété, and Baoulé.
Several factors account for the rapid spread of Nouchi, not least of which is its frequent use by Ivorian musicians, and the urbanization of rural neighborhoods in Côte d'Ivoire. Globalization, the influx of immigrants, and the social miscegenation that results thereof, are some of the major factors that have been used by linguists to shed light on the spread of Nouchi in Côte d'Ivoire. Another factor that has served as a catalyst to the spread of Nouchi is the popularity of Zouglou[ii] music that became trendy in the 1990’s in Côte d'Ivoire. According to Krol (1995), “les thèmes du zouglou évoquent les choses de la vie abidjanaise, la rue, ses misères, celles de la vie estudiantine, la prostitution, le SIDA, dans un langage terre à terre, ludique, parfois très crû, avec ce sens poussé de la dérision qui caractérise le caractère ivoirien”(179)[ Zouglou music broaches themes that shed light on life in Abidjan, its streets, hardship, student life, prostitution, and AIDS, all sung in a language that is familiar, playful, and, at times crude—a language characterized by the vitriolic derision that Ivorians are noted for]. Nowadays, you would find walls and pavements in the city of Abidjan covered with graffiti written in Nouchi.
Like most francophone Africans, Ivorians tend to appropriate the French language for the purpose of making this European language bear the weight of their imagination, world view and modes of speech. One could argue cautiously that Ivorians are constantly negotiating linguistic spaces in their daily discourses because as N’guessan(1992) observes, his people “ont l’habitude de ‘tordre le cou’ aux mots et aux phrases pour les adapter aux besoins de communication d’une population hétérogène…”(189)[people have developed the habit of wringing the neck of words and sentences in order to make language respond appropriately to the needs of a heterogeneous society…] It should be noted that Nouchi is no longer the preserve of Ivorian youths. The fact of the matter is that this language has become the common parlance of educated Ivorians in the workplace, at universities and colleges, and in other walks of life where people feel the need to switch codes for the purpose of phatic communion. Some linguists(N’Guessan, 1990,1992; Ahua, 1995; Hattinger, 1983) contend that the pidginization of French in Côte d'Ivoire could be attributed to the literary works of a son of the soil— renowned novelist, Ahmadou Kourouma, who did everything he could to “Malinkelize”[iii] the French language in his fictional writing. In an interview he granted Moncef Badday on the stylistic choices he made in the writing of his award-winning novel, Les soleils des indépendances (1970), Kourouma had this to say:
J’adapte la langue au rythme narratif africain…. Ce livre s’adressse à l’Africain. Je l’ai pensé en malinké et écrit en français prenant une liberté que j’estime naturelle avec la langue classique….Qu’ai-je donc fait? Simplement donné libre cours à mon tempérament en distordant une langue classique trop rigide pour que ma pensée s’y meuve. J’ai donc traduit le malinké en français en cassant le français pour trouver et restituer le rythme africain (38).
[I adapt my language to the African narrative style….This book is addressed to the African reader. I thought in Malinke and wrote in French, taking some liberty I consider natural with the classical language …. So what did I do? I simply let go my temperament by distorting a classical language otherwise too rigid to enable my thought to flow freely. I, therefore, translated Malinke into French, breaking the French to find and restore the African rhythm].
This excerpt sheds ample light on the genesis of the linguistic acrobatics that one finds in Ivorian Nouchi. Like Kourouma, Nouchiphones constantly tweak French in an attempt to adapt it to Ivorian speech patterns. Nouchi has become the common code among musicians, prostitutes, feymen[iv], and the rank and file in Côte d'Ivoire. Linguists with an interest in linguistic innovation and neologisms are currently working hard to codify this nascent language, so that it could be put on the same pedestal as other languages spoken in Côte d'Ivoire. Like its Cameroonian cousin, Camfranglais, Nouchi is perceived by self-styled Ivorian language purists as a threat to standard French. Interestingly, the truth is that Nouchi has come to say. It is gaining traction, the more so because some politicians have recognized it as the language of the people and use it quite often for political expediency. For instance, former president Konan Bédié used it during one of his official addresses to the nation. In the same vein, during one of the Francophone Summits, the topic of Nouchi and its evolution was extensively debated.
Rightly or wrongly, Côte d'Ivoire enjoys a certain degree of notoriety on account of its brand of French. What distinguishes Ivorian Francophones from other Francophones in Africa is what N’Guessan 1990) refer to as their “français populaire parlé par le locuteur moyen, peu ou pas lettré” (52) [colloquial French spoken by the man in the street, more or less semi-literate.] Several epithets have been coined to describe the sort of French spoken in Côte d'Ivoire — Petit français[pidgin French] , français de Treichville(Treichville French, in reference to one of the popular and densely populated neighborhoods in Abidjan), français de Moussa [Moussa’s French, in honor of a character in a magazine column), français populaire d’Abidjan(FPA)[Abidjan colloquial French] and français Nouchi[ Nouchi French]. All these labels refer to variants of the same code—non-standard French spoken in Côte d'Ivoire. Today, this urban slang has become so popular that the Ivorian weekly Ivoire Dimanche has devoted two columns to write-ups in the lingo, namely La Chronique de Moussa and the comic strips column titled Dago (N’Guessan and Bertin Gnamba, 1990). These two columns have given Nouchi legitimacy by providing a written code for Nouchiphones. Thanks to Ivoire Dimanche, Nouchi now has its own distinct vocabulary and syntax.
A few examples would enable readers to grasp the peculiarity of the vocabulary and syntactic structure of Nouchi: La go a momo mon pia, which could be rendered in standard French as: La fille m’a subtilisé mon argent [the girl has stolen my money]. This sentence is an example of français Nouchi spoken by layabouts in neighborhoods in Abidjan. It is a mixture of French and indigenous languages. Vernacular language words like “go” (girl); mono” (steal); “pia” (money) are employed by Nouchi speakers to translate their worldview and imagination into a European language—French. The switching of codes in the sentence above could render comprehension arduous for monolingual readers of Nouchi. The juxtaposition of words such as “go”, “mono”and “pia” with standard French words may complicate matters even further for a speaker who speaks only one of the many local languages in Côte d'Ivoire. N’Guessan and Gnamba (1990) point out that the sentence above could be rendered as Fille-là a prend mon l’argent [That girl has take my money (my emphasis)]. This sentence smacks of non-conformity with grammatical rules. Like her linguistic sibling, Camfrancais[v], Nouchi speakers borrow from African native languages spoken in Côte d'Ivoire —Dioula, Baoulé, and Gouroussi, and Bété, to name but a few. Carole de Feral (2006) observes: “Le camfranglais , ainsi nommé par les linguistes aussi bien que par les locuteurs depuis le milieu des années 1980, est né du contact du français et d’autres langues en présence au Cameroun, notamment le pidgin-english, l’anglais, l’ewondo et le duala”(2). [Camfranglais, so called by linguists and speakers since the mid-1980s, is the product of languages in contact with French, and other languages spoken in Cameroon, namely Pidgin English, English, Ewondo, and Duala.] Camfranglais and Nouchi are the end products of efforts on the part of Africans to appropriate the French language. As a hybrid language, the syntax of Nouchi contains bits if not chunks of elements derived from the various languages from which nouchiphones borrow. Nouchi lexicon is hybrid. Some Nouchi words are loans from European languages, especially, French, English, German, and Spanish. Others are interjections (ideophones and onomatopoeic expressions) culled from Ivorian indigenous languages. The following examples would shed some light:
English words in Nouchi
- Il est die=He is completely drunk
- Je suis enjayé d’elle= I am in love with her
- Elle est trop small= She is too young.
Spanish words in Nouchi
- Il est calé a piso=He is at home
- Ça tapait les salto partout partout= There was an uproar everywhere
- C’est como?= What’s new?
German words in Nouchi
- Ton gars est kaput= Your friend is terribly drunk
- Nein, il ment! = No, he is joking!
Dioula words in Nouchi
- Ton mogo est là = Your friend is here
- Y’a pas tama sur moi= I am broke
- C’est le koro du coin= He is the boss in our ghetto
Baoulé words in Nouchi
- Il se blo trop= He is a trickster
- Y’a likefi=there’s nothing to fear
- Ton gars tape ahoko= Your friend masturbates
Bété words in Nouchi
- Les ju sont barrés= Bus controllers are around
- Le mogo veut me kpa=The man wants to catch me
Some interjections in Nouchi
- Il a damé sur moi-ho! = He dumped me, unfortunately!
- Tu es zago, hein! =You are dressed to kill, right!
As these examples illustrate, Nouchi speakers tend to borrow words from many languages. This implies that the emerging language is constantly being enriched through the process of integration of new lexical items into its lexicon. The outcome is that the syntax of Nouchi gets more complex as it is affected by the syntactic structures of languages from which Nouchiphones borrow.
Contrary to expectation, Nouchi has a syntactic structure: subject+ verb + object. However, some peculiarities are noticeable in Nouchi syntax. The first of these anomalies is the omission of the impersonal pronoun “il” [it] as seen in the following examples culled from an article written by Blaise Mouchi Ahua (2008):
- Faut damer! =let it go!
- Fait bei là-bas! = Fuck off! /get lost!
- Y’a foi dans la capi=there’s nothing to fear in the capital city.
The second anomaly is the omission of the first element of negation in the declarative sentence structure as these examples illustrate:
- J’ai pas vu ça koba= I didn’t understand it that way.
- On va pas te fa= you are going to be killed.
Above all, ellipses are common in the discourse of Nouchi speakers. Common elliptical constructions in the speech of speakers include:
- C’est un gars sans…= He is without a dime
- Go-là est devant… = This girl is a go-getter
- Faut créer…= You’ve got to look for a solution
Generally, Nouchi speakers have recourse to elliptical constructions for the purpose of creating an effect on the listener. One other syntactic phenomenon worthy of mention is the absence of the passive voice in the discourse of Nouchiphones. They tend to speak in simple active voice sentences.
- Ils ont train la go= The young woman has been raped.
- On maga son bedu= His wallet has been stolen.
- Les pos m’ont kpa= I have been arrested by the cops.
The predilection for the active voice is attributable to the fact that Nouchi speakers tend to borrow from African languages, many of which do not have the passive voice but only use the indefinite construction.
In sum, it is noteworthy that although anchored on the linguistic substratum of hexagonal French, Nouchi has its own syntactic structure as the foregoing examples illustrate. The question that begs to be asked at this juncture is whether the Ivorian linguistic phenomenon has been replicated elsewhere on the linguistic landscape in Africa. The answer is in the affirmative. . Cape Verdean creole[vi] is a hybrid language as well. Krio[vii], a lingua franca spoken in the West African nation of Sierra Leone is a creole too. Fanagalo[viii] and Tsotsitaal[ix] are South African urban slangs. Moreover, Nouchi has a sister language in the Republic of Cameroon christened Camfranglais. Jean-Paul Kouega (2003)defines Camfranglais as a “composite language consciously developed by secondary school pupils who have in common a number of linguistic codes, namely French, English and a few widespread indigenous languages”(Kouega, 23). Cameroonian youths use this urban slang as a communicative code to exclude other members of the community from their discourses. They resort to Camfranglais to exchange ideas such as dating, sports, physical looks, drugs, and more in a manner that the message would remain obscure to non-initiates.
Nexus between Ivorian Nouchi and Camfranglais
From the foregoing, it is easy to identify five major points of convergence between Nouchi and Camfranglais: First, both are hybrid codes (by-products of languages in contact) intended to convey a group identity or social identity. Second, these languages are created by the younger generation to serve a practical purpose—survival. Third, both languages constitute a deviation from the sacrosanct diktats of normative grammar imposed by the French Academy. Four, Nouchi and Camfranglais constitute a threat to linguistic purists who nurse a genuine fear of the demise of standard French. Five, Camfranglais and Nouchi are languages of resistance to French cultural imperialism in the postcolony—Africa. This analysis leaves the reader with no doubt that Ivorian Nouchi and Cameroonian Camfranglais are, indeed, siblings born and bred in different climes.
About the Author
Dr. Vakunta is Professor of Modern Languages at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey-California, USA. His just published theoretical book, Indigenization of Language in the African Francophone Novel: A New Literary Canon (2011) by Peter Lang Publishers is available at:
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 All translations are mine except otherwise indicated.
[i] In linguistics, a sociolect is the language spoken by a social group, social class or subculture. In this regard it differs from a dialect, which is the language variant spoken in a certain region, although some sociolects may be high status dialects. A sociolect is different from an idiolect, which is the language variant of an individual.
[ii] Zouglou is a dance oriented style of music from the Côte d'Ivoire with strong influences from Zouk music that first evolved in the 1990s out of the university crisis at the time. It started with students from the University of Abidjan and has since spread everywhere, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Gabon. Popular with the youths, the lyrics are written in local languages and French street slang. It has parallels with rap in the West. It uses humor to depict things going wrong in society.
[iii] Malinke is Kourouma’s mother tongue. Malinkelization is the translation of Malinke words, worldview and imagination into the French language.
[v] Camfranglais is an urban slang created by high school students in Cameroon. See Paul Kouega(2003)
[vi] Cape Verdean Creole, also known as Kabuverdianu, is a creole language origin, spoken on the islands of Cape Verde. It is the native language of virtually all Cape Verdeans. It is used as a second language by the Cape Verdeans in the diaspora. The language has particular importance for creolistics studies since it is the oldest (still-spoken) creole and the most widely spoken Portuguese-based creole on the globe.
[vii] Krio is the lingua franca and the de facto national language spoken throughout the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Krio is spoken by 97% of Sierra Leone's population and unites the different ethnic groups in the country, especially in their trade and social interaction with each other. Krio is the primary language of communication among Sierra Leoneans at home and in the diaspora The language is native to the Sierra Leonean Creole people or Krios, (a community of about 300,000 descendants of freed slaves from the West Indies, United States and Britain), but it is spoken as a second language by millions of other Sierra Leoneans belonging to the country's indigenous tribes.
[viii] Fanagalo or Fanakalo is a pidgin (simplified language) based on the Zulu, English, and Afrikaans languages. It is used as a lingua franca, mainly in the gold, diamond, coal and copper mining industries in South Africa — and to a smaller extent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Although it is used as a second language only, its number of speakers was estimated to be several hundred thousan in 1975.Fanagalo is the only indigenous language-based pidgin language, and is a rare example of a pidgin based on a native language rather than on the language of a colonizing power.
[ix] Tsotsitaal is a variety of mixed languages mainly spoken in the townships of Gauteng province, such as Soweto, but also in other agglomerations all over South Africa. Tsotsi is a Sesotho slang word for a "thug" or "robber." A tsotsitaal is built over the grammar of one or several languages, in which terms from other languages or specific terms created by the community of speakers are added. It is a permanent work of language-mix, language-switch, and terms-coining. Tsotsitaal, the original variety, is based on Afrikaans, in which were originally added Tswana terms, and later terms from Zulu and other South African languages. Tsotsitaal spread first as a criminal language, as it had the power of insuring secrecy in the speech: only criminals at first could understand it. Later, as a prestigious sign of rebellion against the state and its police, and as gangsters were admired by youths who would see in them role models, Tsotsitaal became a youth and street language.