After a lengthy flight from Hawai'i, the LINGUIST List crew is excited to touch down in Yaoundé, Cameroon. We can’t wait to get out and stretch our legs.
From here, we’ll be exploring Sub-Saharan Africa, home to the world’s largest language family, the world’s largest phonemic inventory, and (probably!) the world’s first human languages. We’re looking forward to meeting local linguists, visiting linguistic institutions, and learning how to say “more palm wine, please!” in a variety of languages.
We start our whirlwind tour by exploring Cameroon. With a staggering 281 living languages from 4 language families:
Cameroon is a hotspot of linguistic diversity. In fact, among African countries, it’s second only to its neighbor Nigeria (with an estimated 516 living languages) in number of languages. While Cameroon’s official languages are English and French, only a fraction of the population are actually fluent French speakers, and even fewer are English speakers. Other widely spoken lingua francae include Fulfulde and Cameroon Pidgin English, and most people speak one or more local languages.
At the University of Buea, we notice some interesting signage concerning Pidgin, and many of us are now itching to do some field research on linguistic prestige and language policy.
We take some time to see the sights in Yaoundé, where in any given marketplace, we overhear animated conversations in dozens of languages. The sociolinguists among us are entranced by the rapid-fire code-switching and had to be dragged away before they started to formulate grant proposals to study it.
We move on and stop by the ANACLAC (National Association of Cameroonian Language Committees) headquarters. ANACLAC is an NGO that promotes education and literacy in Cameroonian languages and focuses especially on creating teaching materials in children’s mother tongues. With hundreds of languages to work with, ANACLAC’s member organizations have a challenging mission, but an important one.
From Yaoundé, we head northwest to the Lower Fungom region, one of the world’s most densely-packed areas of language diversity. Seven languages (or small language clusters) are spoken in thirteen villages in a 10 km by 10 km area. It is astonishing to be able to walk two kilometers and find ourselves in a town with a completely different language; we are even more astonished by, and frankly a little jealous of, the hyperpolyglots of Lower Fungom. Many inhabitants know a large number of their neighboring languages, as well as Pidgin English. We even meet a man who claims to speak seventeen languages, which isn’t unheard of in Cameroon!
After saying our goodbyes in Lower Fungom, we head down to the the University of Buea, site of the most recent World Congress of African Linguistics and home to a thriving linguistics department. Having browsed the linguistics section of the library, we decide to take a hard-earned break from our madcap journey. After watching the sun set over Mount Cameroon, we down a few local beers, eat some tasty fried fish, and dance the night away (like most college towns, Buea has great nightclubs). Finally, exhausted but delighted, we can make our way back to our (t)rusty airplane.
Our sub-Saharan adventure takes us now to South Africa. Bursting with energy and curiosity, we fly into “the Jacaranda City,” a nickname Pretoria earned from the thousands of trees that color the city purple.
We waste no time in visiting National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, a zoo in Pretoria with more than 700 different animal species. We are eager to see the odd-looking Okapi, the well-dressed Black-footed Penguin, and of course, the famous big cats of Africa (but from a safe distance!)
From the zoo we drop in to visit Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), an organization established to protect multilingualism and languages rights by an Act of parliament in 1995. In their Pretoria office, we hear about PanSALB’s field trips for the End Poverty Campaign, as well as the success of the recent Provincial Language Indaba, held in partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
After visiting PanSALB, we head north to the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are the caves and plains where archaeologists unearthed some of the oldest hominin fossils ever found, some dating back as far as 3.5 million years ago.
As we explore, we ponder whether this really was the cradle of humanity, and if, perhaps, human language took its first steps here as well. We are broken from our reverie by the setting sun, and we remember that Africa has so many more sites for us to explore. We rush back to the airport to ready ourselves for tomorrow’s excursion.
On the final leg of our journey through Sub-Saharan Africa, we travel to Ghana, one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations, renowned for its beaches and its friendly people. After flying into the capital city of Accra, we are tempted to sprawl out on the beach all day.
Of course, we are interested in greater adventures than avoiding sunburn, so we head to the Makola Market for supplies. Amidst the cacophony, we find almost every item under the sun and barter for some Kenkey, a Ghanaian dish made from fermented corn meal.
Outside the market, we notice some performers playing strange, hourglass drums, which reverberate with a timber almost like human speech. We watch with fascination as the performers squeeze the base just right to mimic the local, tone-based languages on these famous West African “talking drums.”
By the time we pull ourselves away, the brouhaha of Accra has made us long for some peace and quiet, so we leave the bustling capital and head to the city of Cape Coast. There we visit the Cape Coast Castle, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Built for the trade of timber and gold, this fort later became a last stop in the slave trade before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and it is a truly somber site indeed. We reflect momentarily on the hundreds of languages spoken by the people who passed through here and the impact their voices had on their destinations in the Americas.
From this beautiful coastal city we head inland and make pitstop in a town you almost can’t find on a map: Adamorobe. Here we notice something unique. Aside from being surrounding by conversations in the Akan language, we observe signed communication--between the deaf and hearing alike. Moreover, this language differs from Ghanaian Sign Language, but is actually the last remnants of the local Adamorobe Sign Language.
This village has a long history of deafness, resulting in its own sign language shared among the deaf and hearing communities. The locals are eager to tell us different versions of the origin stories for this high rate of deafness: some recount that the town is presided over by a deaf god, who punishes transgressors with deaf children; others describe a war long past, in which Adamorobe men drank a special elixir that made them fierce in battle, but that resulted in their deafness.
Whatever the origin of the deaf community in Adamorobe, the terminus is clear: as medicine becomes more widely available and as recommendations against the marriage of two deaf partners decrease the number of deaf offspring, Adamorobe Sign Language is disappearing. Although we long to stay and learn more about this fascinating village and their language, we have one last stop for the day.
Far inland, surrounded by evergreen rainforests and hardwood trees, we enter Kakum National Park, the site of Africa's only canopy walkway. As we walk the path, the ground slopes and drops away beneath us, and soon we are suspended 100 feet above the ground with a rare, bird’s eye view of the rainforest.
We could spend all day admiring the colorful flora and fauna of the Kakum canopy walkway, but it’s time to pack up for the next leg of our journey. Although there is still so much more of Sub-Saharan Africa left to explore, we are excited to see where our adventure takes us next!
My late father used to tell me, when I was a teenager, that I should follow my passion and not my instinct. What he meant was that I should pursue what fascinated me most and not what I thought to be my natural career. That became true when I went for my senior secondary school. I thought I was talented in music, as I played the organ in Church and had composed local music for the school brass band. But my interest in music faded as soon as I went to University.
It was about one and a half years ago that I finally I arrived where I had always wanted to be and do what I had always wanted - teach students, support small language communities and conduct research on African languages on my doorstep. The University of Cape Town and my new colleagues welcomed my efforts to establish the Centre for African Language Diversity – CALDi as well as The African Language Archive – TALA and I was recently appointed the Mellon Research Chair: African Language Diversity this initiative. The main aim of CALDi is to train young African scholars in descriptive linguistics and open up space for research into African languages at UCT with the hopes of countering the dominance of African linguistics outside the continent. It has been a great challenge for which my whole career has been a form of preparation.