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The Status of Pidgin English in the Cameroonian Tower of Babel

 

 By Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Ph.D.

An overview of the linguistic landscape of Cameroon which calls for the recognition of Cameroonian Pidgin English as an official language

Introduction

The choice of an official language in a linguistically pluralistic society often poses thorny problems, not least of which is that concerning perceived threats to the linguistic rights of minority language communities. This article discusses the importance of Cameroonian Pidgin English (CPE) in relation to the two imperial languages inherited from colonial masters—English and  French. I will contend that for the purpose of socio-political integration and national unity in Cameroon, it is incumbent upon policy-makers and language planners to choose Pidgin English as one of the official languages in the country. Cameroon Pidgin English is a national lingua franca spoken by the rich and poor, men and women, educated and uneducated, young and old. Being one of the most widely spoken languages in the country, having met the communicative needs of Cameroonians for more than 500 years, and being a language that carries the identity and ecology of Cameroon, Pidgin English has the potential to be promoted to the status of an official language and made to serve as a compromise medium for socio-political integration in an ethnically pluralistic nation such as Cameroon. 

Background

Cameroon is a linguistically heterogeneous country. In addition to the two official languages—English and French, Cameroonians speak over two hundred indigenous languages.

 While this heterogeneity could be seen as a rich resource in principle, in practice it tends to function as a stumbling-block to cross-lingual and intercultural discourses. As Ayafor (2005: 124) points out, ‘ethnic diversity… threatens national unity in terms of territorial integrity more than anything else in the country.’ A similar point is made by Echu (2005: 1), who observes that ‘the policy of official language bilingualism, originally aimed at guaranteeing political integration and unity of the Cameroonian State, now seems to constitute a source of conflict and political disintegration.’  The problem with Cameroon’s brand of bilingualism is that it does not grant official status to any of its several indigenous languages. As a result of this oversight, Cameroonians are divided into splinter groups with disparate linguistic loyalties that often breed internal strife, undermine effective inter-ethnic relationships and threaten the very survival of the nation-state. Anchimbe (2006: 96) notes that in ‘promoting its bilingual language education policy, the government has largely disregarded the multilingual makeup of the country. Indigenous languages play only a secondary role…’ This is a stark contradiction of the wording of the country’s revised constitution of 1996 (Sec.1.1.3) which stipulates: ‘The official languages of the country shall be English and French, both having the same status. The state shall guarantee the promotion of bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to promote and protect national languages.’

The fundamental flaw detectable in this constitutional stipulation on official bilingualism in Cameroon is that it fails to provide a clear working definition of the notion of bilingualism. It is not clear what level of linguistic proficiency must be attained by Cameroonian citizens in order to qualify for officially sanctioned bilingualism. Worse still, the constitution simply glosses over the dichotomy that exists between individual and state bilingualism. In a linguistically pluralistic nation such as Cameroon, bilingualism could mean fluency in English and French; English and a national language; French and a national language; Pidgin English and a national language; or a national language and another national language. Besides, proficiency in any of these languages could vary from zero to near-perfection. It is in this perspective that Rosendal (2008: 25) makes the following pertinent observation:The extent of bilingualism in French and English in Cameroon is hard to estimate. Bilingual proficiency varies from zero to near perfect at the universities, depending on how semi-bilingualism, functional bilingualism and passive bilingualism are defined.’ In short, there is a mismatch between bilingualism as concept and practice in a country that harbors over two hundred indigenous languages.

 

Ramifications for Choosing Pidgin English as an Official Language

Selecting an official language in an ethnically heterogeneous entity such as Cameroon has political, economic, and social implications. Tadadjeu (1985: 180) has identified two conditions that affect the conceptualization of language policy for the purpose of achieving integrative national identity. First, he suggests that Cameroonian indigenous languages, including Pidgin English, should remain vehicles for the expression of a Cameroonian national identity. Second, he contends that Cameroonian bilingualism has reached a point where it should now evolve into a trilingual status which allows Cameroonians to gain proficiency in English, French and one national language other than their mother tongue. These proposals are endorsed by Fonlon (1969: 206), who puts it thus: I must confess that the expression Cameroon bilingualism is a misnomer. It would be correct to speak of Cameroon trilingualism because even before the Cameroon child comes to school to learn English and French, he should have already learnt his own native tongue.’ It should be noted, however, that given the multi-lingual make-up of Cameroon, a trilingual policy may still fall short of the expectations of some Cameroonians, who may advocate a quadrilingual educational policy where the Cameroonian child would be required to learn his/her mother tongue, a national language other than their own and the two official languages.

In the preceding paragraphs we have explored the question of official bilingualism in Cameroon with particular emphasis on its importance in the forging of an authentic national identity.  It is self-evident that the prevailing status quo where official bilingualism is confined to proficiency in the two languages handed down to Cameroonians by French and British colonialists defies logic and has proven to be counter-productive. Among its many shortcomings is the fact that Cameroon’s current bilingual policy has contributed to the unacceptable marginalization of linguistic minorities, notably the Pidgin English-speaking communities in the country. Pidgin English is a neutral language that is not endogenous to any of the ethnic groups in Cameroon. The call in this paper is directed at Cameroonian policy-makers to grant Pidgin English the status of an official language.

 

A Case for the Promotion of Pidgin English to Official Status

For the sake of socio-political cohesion and pacific inter-ethnic cohabitation in Cameroon, this paper advocates the choice of a ‘neutral’ language that would be tolerated and spoken throughout the country at all levels. Pidgin fulfills this function. Pidgin is a lingua franca that tears down ethnic boundaries. It builds communicative bridges between the hundreds of tribal groupings that exist in Cameroon, and is regarded by Cameroonians ‘as a major lingua franca… spoken by 50% of the population’ (Kouega 2008: 11). Pidgin is a medium of communication for people who have no first language in common. It functions as a vehicular language, the language of trade and the medium through which people who speak different languages are able to communicate and socialize. All inter-ethnic animosities tend to dissipate when Cameroonians communicate through the medium of Pidgin English. Most importantly, Pidgin English grammar is simple and easy to learn given the fact that its grammar is akin to that of most indigenous languages spoken in Cameroon as seen in the following examples involving the use of verbs. You will notice that Pidgin English verbs do not change to agree with the subject as illustrated in the following examples culled from Todd (1991:11):

A di go. (I’m going.)

Yu di go. (You’re going.)

I di go. (He/she/it is going.)

Wi di go. (We are going.)

Wuna di go. (You plural are going.)

Dehm di go. (They are going.)

Echu (2003: 2) has identified five different varieties of Pidgin English, also known as Kamtok (from Cameroon Talk), namely, Grafi Pidgin English (the variety spoken in the grassfields in  the Northwest Region and often referred as ‘Grafi Tok’);  Francophone Pidgin English (the variety spoken in cities such as Douala, Bafoussam, Nkongsamba and Yaoundé); Limbe Pidgin English (the variety spoken in the Southwest coastal area around the seaport);  Bororo Pidgin English (the variety spoken by Bororo cattle traders) and liturgical Pidgin English (the variety used by the Catholic Church). Ethnologue (2002) estimates the number of Pidginophones[i] in Cameroon to be about two million. It should be noted that Pidgin English has become a mother tongue in many urban communities in Cameroon. It is spoken throughout the national territory for out-group communication purposes between people from different tribes and ethnic groups. It has become a language of the media.Cameroon now has radio broadcast programs in Pidgin English in Douala (FM 105), Buea (Mount Cameroon Radio), Yaoundé (Radio Siantou) and Bamenda (Northwest Regional Radio Station). Pidgin English is a language of advertisement and musical production. Popular musicians such as Lapiro de Mbanga, Prince Nico Mbarga, John Minang, Longue Longue and Francis Ndom have adopted Pidgin as a language of show business and political militancy as illustrated in the excerpt from one of Lapiro’s tracks below:

           We no wan kick-oh

           We no wan go for ngata

           We de daso for ndengwe

           A beg mimba we-oh, yes tara.

           We no wan problem para

           We no wan go for Ndengui

           We di fain daso garri

            For helep we own famili-oh![ii]

Lapiro sings mostly in Pidgin English because this language enables him to reach out to the downtrodden in Cameroon. The importance of Pidgin English as an integrative communicative medium in Cameroon has been underscored in several substantive research studies (Mbangwana, 1983, 1987; Menang, 1979; Ngefac, 2008; Ngome, 1986; Sala, 2009; Schneider, 1966; Todd 1969; Schröder 2003. Mbangwana (1983:87) underscores the importance of Pidgin English as a potent communicative tool as follows:

Pidgin English is very crucial as a communication bridge, for it links an anglophone to a francophone. It also links an anglophone to another anglophone, an educated Cameroonian to another educated one, a non-educated Cameroonian to another non-educated one, and more importantly an educated Cameroonian to a non-educated one.

This integrative function of Pidgin English has been highlighted in works by a number of linguists (e.g. Baetens, 1982; Ayafor, 2004; Neba et al., 2006; Sala, 2009). These researchers perceive Pidgin English as a viable local language for standardization and eventual elevation to the status of an official language, given that it is spoken by Cameroonians across different ethnic divides, geographic settings and educational levels. According to Ngefac (2012: 166), ‘Given the neutrality of the language, selecting it for standardization and adopting it for official transactions will not easily lead to regional and ethnic conflicts, as is likely to be the case if a tribal language were chosen.’  A handful of Cameroonian linguists have even argued in a favor of adopting Pidgin English as an official language of instruction throughout the national territory. Ngefac (2012: 167) puts the case for this as follows:

Being one of the most widely spoken languages in Cameroon, having served the communicative needs of Cameroonians for more than 500 years, being a language that carries the identity and ecology of Cameroon and being a language that significantly unites Cameroonians as it transcends most social boundaries, one should normally expect a language with such potentials to be one of the languages of education.  

The potential drawback associated with the adoption of Pidgin English as an official language stems from the fact that there is a sizeable number of so-called linguistic purists in Cameroon who have no tolerance for the indigenization process that the English language has undergone in Cameroon. Bobda (2004: 19), for example, abhors the proliferation of English-based pidgins and creoles, perceiving them as impediments to ‘the development of British-based standard forms of English’ in Cameroon. Such attitudes are also reflected in the fact that the campus of the University of Buea is littered with signboards openly banning the use of the language (Ngefac 2012).

Regrettably, malcontents such as Bobda (2004) are oblivious of the fact that English is no longer just a language of the Metropolis; it is a global language that has acquired regional specificities. Pidgin English is now widely regarded as an African language that has undergone the process of indigenization (Kwachu, 1986; Mufwene, 2001; Schneider, 2007). Like all other global Englishes, Cameroonian Pidgin English harbors local realities and dynamics—namely worldview and cultural sensibilities. Through the process of reterritorialization, English in the Cameroonian context has acquired new norms and usages peculiar to the local context. This reterritorialized English language is marked by context-specific patterns that give Pidgin English a peculiar local color and flavor. These in turn make Pidgin an ideal language for promoting cross-ethnic communication and thus for fostering a truly pan-ethnic national identity.

 

Conclusion

It is the closing contention of this paper that Cameroonian Pidgin English is a language in its own right, distinct from other global pidgins such as the pidgin spoken in Nigeria, Ghana,  Papua New Guinea, Jamaica and Hawaii among others. It has its own system, with a distinctive structure and should not be treated as a bastardized version of British or American English. It is not a dialect of Cameroonian English or any other local language. Pidgin English is more serviceable to Cameroonians than European-based standard forms of English.  It is clear from this discussion that Cameroonian Pidgin English is a carrier of the national identity, culture and worldview of the Cameroonian people. It is more emblematic of the identity and ecology of Cameroon than British English. Most importantly, Cameroonian Pidgin English is a significant carrier of the historical, ecological, and multicultural narratives of the inhabitants of the post-colony. A rejection of Pidgin English by Cameroonians would be tantamount to self-abnegation because this language speaks volumes about the historical and linguistic evolutions that distinguish Cameroonians from other Africans.

The multiplicity of languages spoken in Cameroon with the attendant difficulty of choosing an indigenous official language sheds light on the phenomenon that I have described in the title of this paper as the ‘Cameroonian Tower of Babel’. Fonlon (1969: 9) alludes to this concept when he writes:

"It is in Cameroon that the African confusion of tongues is worse confounded, and it has become absolutely impossible to achieve, through an African language, that oneness of thought and feeling and will that is the heart’s core and the soul of a nation."

Fonlon’s stance underscores the need for Cameroonian language policy-makers to take off their blinkers and raise Pidgin English to the status of an official language. No language indigenous to Cameroon plays a more phatic communicative role than Pidgin English. It is the language of customary law in some parts of the country. Most importantly, Pidgin English is the language of social intercourse and neutralizer of linguistic apartheid tendencies. It is the language of business throughout the national territory. Given the fact that the majority of Cameroonian tradesmen and tradeswomen are illiterate, they often communicate in Pidgin English. The language is used as a medium of communication during social events such as sporting events, notably soccer. In the literary domain, Pidgin English has become a medium for the exteriorization of creative genius. Nowadays, there is a proliferation of literary works written entirely in Pidginized English by Cameroonians and foreigners in Cameroon. A few titles would drive home the point: Some Day Been Dey (Todd, 1979); Man no be God (Lemke, 2001); Sunday Lectionary in Pidgin English (Awa, 1984);  (Tori Shweet for Cameroon Pidgin English (Vakunta, 2015a); Poems from Abakwa in Cameroon Pidgin English (Vakunta,  2015b); Majunga Tok: Poems in Pidgin English (Vakunta,  2008), African Time and Pidgin Verses (Vakunta,  2001); and Stories from Abakwa  (Nyamnjoh,  2007). Pidgin English has become the language of the mass media in Cameroon as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. Most importantly, Pidgin English constitutes a powerful political tool in the lyrics of anti-establishment musicians. Noteworthy examples include the following songs composed in Pidgin by Lapiro de Mbanga: Lefsam so (Live and let live), No make erreur (Make no mistake), Na You (You’re to blame), Nak Pasi (Kick and pass) Mimba wi (Remember us) and Dem se (Hearsay). Unlike the other Cameroonian languages, Pidgin English has many speakers in all the ten regions that constitute the Republic of Cameroon.

Throughout this paper, I have argued that it necessary to elevate Pidgin English to the status of a national language in order to contribute to the task of nation-building. Failure to so would stall the evolution of the nation as a linguistic kaleidoscope. Like other Cameroonian indigenous languages, Pidgin English serves as conduit of the ecology, identity and cultural artefacts of Cameroonians. This paper is intended to be an added voice to the many Cameroonian voices that have lent their support to the linguistic decolonization process that is underway in Cameroon. The future of Cameroon as a nation-state resides not in embracing cultural imperialism, but rather in the willingness of Cameroonians to be at home with linguistic and cultural realities that identify them as a people apart.

 

NOTES

 

[i] Speakers of Pidgin English

[ii]We don’t want to steal

We don’t want to go to jail

 We just need to work

 We beg you to think about us, boss

 We are not looking for trouble

 We don’t want to go to  Kondengui

 We are only looking for a means

To help our family-oh![v]

 

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