LINGUIST List 25.1034

Mon Mar 03 2014

Welcome to Sub-Saharan Africa!

Editor for this issue: Sarah Fox <>

Date: 03-Mar-2014
From: LINGUIST List <>
Subject: Welcome to Sub-Saharan Africa!
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Region 3 | Sub-Saharan Africa | Fund Drive 2014

After a lengthy flight, 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 (Afroasiatic, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Indo-European), 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.

Stay tuned for the featured linguists for this region and as always, remember to donate to support your favorite linguistic subfield!

Page Updated: 03-Mar-2014