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Review of  A Grammar of Cameroonian Pidgin

Reviewer: David Douglas Robertson
Book Title: A Grammar of Cameroonian Pidgin
Book Author: Nkemngong Nkengasong
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Pidgin, Cameroon
Issue Number: 27.3554

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Nkemngong Nkengasong here sketches the structure of Cameroonian Pidgin (CP)/Kamtok, an English-lexified pidgincreole of West Africa. The Preface and Introduction specify the author's nonlinguist, but well-educated native-speaker, status, and contextualize this study. Chapters focus on sociolinguistic context (1); sounds and morphology (2); major and minor syntactic classes (3 and 4); and clause/sentence types (5). An Appendix of proverbs and a glossary each occupy a sixth of the book, followed by a brief Bibliography and an Index.


“The approach used in this book may not satisfy the taste of a professional linguist,” Nkengasong admonishes, but his goals of helping foreigners communicate in multiethnic Cameroon and laying groundwork for further serious documentation are admirably realized (p.4). He shares more than enough information to enable both accomplishments. The book's large amount of data, especially the hundreds of full sentences in the Pidgin Proverbs and Sayings appendix, ensure that the determined reader can proceed beyond the standard-English oriented contrastive presentation and answer most questions that a linguist's analysis would address. Where relevant, I will give examples of points that a sharp-eyed linguist can clarify in Nkengasong's sketch.

Chapter 1, “The Socio-Cultural Context of Cameroonian Pidgin”, shows why CP emerged and flourished: Cameroon is a major linguistic hotspot of diversity, and centuries of global trade connections have only reinforced the usefulness of an English-based interethnic medium. While generally reflecting a newer supra-tribal cultural identity, CP takes a number of specific forms depending on its usage context, for example the youth-language Camfranglais and the hip-hop register Mboko Tok (p.9). Nkengasong sees a strong future for CP, significantly arguing “it is the only non-European language to cross the national and the regional borders” (p. 19).

Chapter 2, “The Writing System, Sounds and Word Formation”, surveys the heterogeneity of written CP, which despite the structural consistency of (spoken) CP, is rare and thus unstandardized (p.20). The helpful account of the sound system is dependent on standard-English orthography, so details like vowel qualities and tones (low, high, and neutral), and pronunciation of <ng> in various positions, could be clarified (pp.27-32). Apostrophe almost always signals nothing more than a morpheme boundary, occurring near-exclusively in the (inanimate) third-person object 'am, but evidently it can also indicate a glottal-stop phoneme that is not overtly discussed, when it occurs e.g. in bo'o 'acquaintance; friend' (p.149). Morphology gets excellent attention, such that important features like reduplication and bound elements can be understood in some detail.

Chapter 3, “Major Word Classes”, discusses (optionally pluralizable) countable vs. uncountable nouns, and lexical gender (pp.42-48). Verbs, including a number of copulas, are described with much of their rich tense, mood and aspect (TMA) inflection (pp.48-69), though a chart summarizing relative positions of these many elements would help. Single, double and triple negation are usefully noted (pp.69-70). Attributive and predicative adjectives and specifiers receive general notice (pp.70-74), with narrower points such as whether comparatives can be used attributively unresolved. Intensification turns out to be a major function of full-word reduplication (pp.74-75) related to adverbs (pp.76-77). Quantifiers are only mentioned (pp.75-76).

Chapter 4, “Minor Word Classes”, of course addresses all other categories. Pronouns that signal the three persons and two numbers are categorized as personal, reflexive and possessive, though example data strongly suggest the first of these are specifically subjects, distinct from an object-pronoun paradigm subsuming indirect objects. Similarly there is an unmentioned animacy distinction in pronominal paradigms, for example among third-person objects: animate yi (p.118, sentence 52) and inanimate 'am (p.87). There exist prepositions including the generic fo and an uncommented-on null (e.g. A go go Ø Yawinde... 'I will go to Yaounde...', p. 90) as well as, interacting with possessives, apparent circumpositions (pp.85-89). Coordinating conjunctions include an 'and', a connector either of NPs or of clauses; the most generic subordinator is se (omitted when the main verb is se 'say'?), while others express temporal sequence, cause, and conditionality. The system of optional articles splits between definiteness and indefinite-specificity. There is a proximate/distal demonstrative system. The interesting morph na is described as a copula “which makes the declarative statements and the interrogatives in Pidgin more precise” (p.96), but its typically clause-initial placement, its licit cooccurrence with copula bi, and its optionality in WH-questions all suggest it may rather be a topicalization marker (e.g. If no bi na yu, na ya broda 'If it is not you, it is your brother', ibid.). This will be a fascinating subject for further research. A few interjections and discourse markers are noted (pp.99-100), but of course the strong culture-dependence of such items begs for expanded discussion, as do ideophones (pp.100-102).

Chapter 5, “Sentence Structures and Types”, introduces simple sentences, whose structure is basically Subj Neg TMA Adv V Obj; that is, at least a few adverbs routinely occur between inflectional clitics such as the 'habitual' di and the verb root: Buzi no di wosh bet i di eva clin 'Busy doesn't take a bath but it is always clean' (p.118). The identical constituent order characterizes subordinate clauses. Compound and complex sentences, and serial-verb constructions, are introduced; the latter certainly warrant more than the allotted two pages (105-106) of explanation to speakers of Standard English, to whom they and their uses (e.g. in adjectival comparison, cf. p.73-74) will be puzzling. The “serial pronoun construction” section (pp.106-107) is really just a restatement of the fact that there is an overt subject in almost all clauses. Subtypes of declarative main clauses are illustrated (pp.107-108); polar interrogatives and, optionally, WH-questions are syntactically identical to these, therefore presumably distinguished by intonation (p.109-111). Second-person imperatives lack overt subjects while other persons place a hortative mek before their subjects (pp.111-112). Exclamatory sentences (pp.112-113) and “greetings and reaction utterances” (pp.113-115), such as ashia! and subject-pronoun doubling constructions, are additional topics wanting cultural contextualization.

As already hinted at, the Appendix of “Pidgin Proverbs and Sayings” is what in the final analysis makes this a deeply useful reference work, equating roughly to the section of sample texts in traditional grammar descriptions. The material here is plainly genuine, uncensored (e.g. Moto no mo 'Excreta is not good', p.133), and consequently illustrative of many features of actual usage not addressed in the main chapters. I would like to point out a sampling of the extra knowledge to be gleaned from the Appendix. Numerous further examples of serial-verb constructions appear, such as Tek bon nak dog 'Use a bone to hit a dog' (p.140). A quasi-passive strategy involves expletive third-person pronominal subjects, as in Dem no di fos monki fo chop banana 'A monkey is never forced to eat bananas' (p.119). The “copula” or topicalizer na mentioned above often has, in practice, a specifying force glossed as 'only', as Lezi man yi kutlas di shap na fo planti 'A lazy man's cutlass is sharp only on plantain stems' (p.127).

The “Glossary of Pidgin Words and Expressions” adds great value also, in being the one section of the book where the lexical tone of every syllable is indicated. The author's decision to focus strongly on lexemes deriving from African languages, such as abanda 'a modernized traditional and romantic dance involving strict application of rules' (p.146), is a great service to standard-English speaking readers. The part-of-speech abbreviations are sometimes opaque, as with “np” for the previously mentioned na, and some might stand reevaluation, such as “adv” for abeg ʹpleaseʹ.

Included in the “Bibliography” is an excellent selection of further sources for the reader whose curiosity about CP is piqued by Nkengasong's exposition. These range from sociolinguistic examinations to biblical materials, a breadth that suggests the likelihood of a motivated learner obtaining a reasonably fluent grasp of this language. The “Index” comprehensively locates all topics featured in the author's analysis and discussion of CP.

In summary, this volume is a fine and stimulating introduction to a West African contact language. Filled with extensive usage examples, it is sure to reward readers both lay and linguistic in orientation. Any future edition can easily build on what is already contained between its covers, expanding into a detailed, authoritative reference for much future study.
David Douglas Robertson, PhD, is a consulting linguist who repatriates old documentation of Salish and other Native American languages of the Pacific Northwest, including Chinuk Wawa / Chinook Jargon. He is based in Spokane, WA, USA.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1443885991
ISBN-13: 9781443885997
Pages: 175
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