Politics of language

Comprehensibility is not the greatest goal in communication; status is. Complicating the issue further, Cameroon is an officially bilingual country: French and English. French is the dominant language with only 2 of the 10 provinces speaking English. Bilingualism in Cameroon is much like bilingualism in Canada—it exists mostly on paper. The French areas speak French while the English areas speak (mostly pidgin) English and even the culture of the two areas differs.

Big Bekondo is in the English-speaking part of the country so I was surprised by how often I’d be greeted in the village with a French “bon soir.” When I asked Lisa if people spoke French here she said no. People like to use that greeting on white people because it connotes status; it makes them look educated.

Next in rank is English; that is, “grammar” English; proper English as taught in school. Even this strikes my ear as quaint at best, poor at worst. They never use contractions, the stress patterns are different, (besides the accent) pronunciation is sometimes unusual, and they often use words I’d consider not quite archaic but Dickensian at least, or they greatly extend or severely narrow the sense of ordinary words.

This is prestige language. A prayer of invocation at church may be delivered in flowery grammar English. The MC at a big event may entertain in grammar English. I don’t know how much the villagers understand of this, but I suppose even if they don’t get what’s being said, they can reassure themselves that they’re at a high class event because English is spoken.

Next comes pidgin English. It’s not quite English, but it’s not entirely NOT English either. Concentrate hard and you’ll get the gist of the conversation though some of it will sound like a foreign language. Pretty much everyone speaks pidgin so this is the language used in church. This is also the language of the youth’s favourite African style songs. (The older folk prefer to sing hymns, either in English, or translated into Douala—language of the namesake people around the major port city.) The New Testament is translated into pidgin English but everything from the Good News to the King James Version is used in church instead of it.

Finally, the lowly Oroko. Or at least, that’s apparently how its native speakers feel. So if everyone can at least mostly understand the Bible in an existing translation, why are the Scotts and Friesens wasting their time translating it into a dying language? Because Oroko is still the language of the heart. Even if poorly spoken by some, it is still the language in which words have most meaning, in which people feel most deeply.

If you’re effectively monolingual as I am, this may be hard to understand, but if you know some of another language, maybe you can follow. As a kid you can’t help but find it amusing to learn some swear words in French class. You can try to justify their use to adults because you’re “learning French.” The thing is, though, they’re just a joke. You say them, but they have no power; there’s no sense of sacrilege, or of being offensive. A language learned cognitively rather than intuitively does not penetrate your subconscious in the same way as a mother tongue.

Why do we need a Bible translation in Oroko? Because every church meeting starts in pidgin but switches to Oroko the moment an argument starts. Because people live their public life in pidgin or English but farm talk, family talk and gut superstition talk is done in Oroko. Until God speaks Oroko, He will always be a white man’s God.


lasselanta said…
Njomi ngalele for this post...

Popular Posts