Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2004
  7.1. Entlehnung und Übersetzung am Kreuzweg von Sprache und kulturellem Kontakt
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: George Echu (Université de Yaoundé I, Cameroun)

Loans from European Languages in African Languages: Intercultural Relationships and Necessity

Edmond Biloa (University of Yaounde I, Cameroon)



Ever since Europeans came to Africa, the cultures of the two continents have been in permanent contact. This contact is evidenced, among other things, through loans from European languages in African languages. More precisely, over the course of history, African languages have heavily borrowed from European languages. A descriptive and analytic explanation of this fact is attempted by looking at the sociolinguistic situation of Cameroon (Africa), the consequences of and multilingualism, the intralinguistic study of loans, the thematic distribution of loans, and their linguistic explanation.

Sociolinguistic Situation of Cameroon

Cameroon is generally looked at as the microcosm of Africa. From a variety of perspectives, it is Africa in miniature. Historically, it is a zone of confluence and convergence of the civilizations that have impacted on Africa. Linguistically, three of the four linguistic phyla attested in Africa are represented therein. To say the least, it is a linguistic melting pot or patchwork. Apart from the local languages, there are two languages of European importation: French and English. On top of that, two hybrid languages are spoken in Cameroon: Pidgin English and Camfranglais.

The Languages of Cameroon

According to the 1983 preliminary inventory of the Atlas linguistique du Cameroun (the Linguistic Atlas of Cameroon), 237 languages are spoken in Cameroon. In 1993, after more investigations, it was found that there were instead 248 languages. Research, lately conducted by Bitjaa Kody (2003), shows that 285 languages are attested in Cameroon, of which:

- 3 languages, according to him, have no native speakers: French, English, Pidgin English. This statement is questionable, as Onguéné Essono (1999) has shown that in big cities like Yaounde and Douala, French is sometimes the native language of some children. Moreover, Pidgin English appears to be the native language of some children in the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon (the South-West and the North-West).

- 20 languages are dead or their native speakers passed away between 1983 and 2003: Bikya, Bishuo, Bung, Busuv, Dama, Dek, Dull, La'bi, Lwo, Mbonga, Mano, Mumuye, Nagumi, Ndai, Ngong, Oblo, Pam, To, Yeni, Zumaya.

- 262 living languages

Bitjaa's publication (2003), Annuaire des langues du Cameroun, is an up- date of the data provided in Michel Dieu, Patrick Renaud, et al (1983), in Roland Breton and Bikia Fohtung (1991) and in Barbara F. Grimes (1996), on the basis of recent investigations conducted by a team of sociolinguists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) between 1998 and 2002.

All African languages belong to the following four phyla:

a. The Afro-Asiatic phylum, which comprises the languages of Cameroon, of Niger, of Sudan and of Chad;
b. The Nilo-Saharan phylum, which includes the languages of Ethiopia and Ancient Egypt, Arab, Berber;
c. The Niger-Kordofanian phylum, which covers the languages of the biggest part of black Africa;
d. The khoisan phylum, which contains the languages of Southern Africa.

Of these four linguistic phyla, three are represented in Cameroon, the Khoisan phylum excepted. Thus, the Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Kordofanian phyla are attested in Cameroon. Following Boum Ndongo-Semengue and Sadembouo (1999: 67-95), let us talk about these phyla in detail (see also Biloa, 2003).

The Afro-Asiatic phylum

It is also called the Mito-Semitic phylum. It has two families concretised by 58 languages. These two families are the following:

The Semitic family, solely represented by Arab Choa language.

Here are the subgroups and the groups of the 5 branches of the Chadic family:

a. the West branch, of which Hausa is the sole representative;
b. the West central branch, which contains five subgroups:
  • the Gbwata subgroup, of which the languages are Jimjïmen, Gude, Ziziliveken, Sharwa, Tsuvan, Njanyi, Gbwata;
  • the Daba subgroup represented by the Buwal, Gavar, Besleri, Daba, Mbondam languages;
  • the Wandala subgroup illustrated by the Wandala, Gelvax-dexa, Parakwa, Xedi, Guvoko, Mabas languages;
  • the Mafa subgroup, which covers the Matal, Pelasla, Mbuko, Wuzlam, Muyang, Mada, Melekwo, Zelgwa, Merey, Dugwor, North-Giziga, South-Giziga, North-Mofu, Baldamu, Cuvok, Mefele, Mafa languages.
c. the East central branch is made up of the following 5 groups:
  • the Yedina group, represented by the Yedina language;
  • the Mandage group, which includes the Mpade, Malgbe, Maslam, Afada, Mser, Langwan languages;
  • the Mida'a group, which counts the Jira and Majera languages;
  • the Munjuk group, whose sole language is Munjuk;
  • the Kada group, illustrated by the Kada language.
d. the South branch, attested by the Masana group, which comprises the Masana, Zumaya, Museyna, Zime languages;
e. the East branch, of which Kwang is the group and Kera the language.

The Nilo-Saharan phylum

In Cameroon, two languages that belong to two different families represent this phylum. These two languages are:

a. Kanuri of the Saharan family
b. Sara-ngambay of the Chari-Nil family.

The Niger-Kordofanian phylum

The Niger-Kordofanian phylum is the most represented phylum in Cameroon. It is attested by three families, which comprise 188 languages.

a. the West Atlantic family:
It has one language, which is Fulfulde;
b. the Adamawa Ubangi family, which contains 40 languages distributed into two subfamilies:
c. The Benue-Congo family: 146 languages that are divided in 4 subfamilies make up this family.

Hybrid languages

Pidgin English

Apart from the aforementioned local languages, two hybrid languages are spoken in Cameroon: Pidgin English and Camfranglais.

The origins of Pidgin English are Indo-European, and therefore, it does not fit in one of the phyla discussed above. It is not genetically related to one of the Cameroonian local languages. It was born out of the efforts of illiterate Africans along the Coast of West Africa to speak English. In Cameroon, it is mainly spoken in the English-speaking provinces of the country, notably the Southwest and the Northwest, as well as in the Western and Littoral provinces. It is a language of wider communication in those places. And since most of its speakers are believed to have native languages of their own, the question could conceivably be asked, whether there are native speakers of Pidgin English. The team of researchers and teachers who wrote Atlas Linguistique du Cameroun nevertheless considered Pidgin English as one of the Cameroonian languages, since the variety spoken in Cameroon is different, in many ways, from the Pidgin English that is spoken in neighbouring countries like Nigeria.


The contact in Cameroon between the local languages, Pidgin English and the two official languages, English and French, has given birth, among hawkers, blue collar workers, unemployed Cameroonians, pupils and students, to a hybrid slang, called Camfranglais, which is lexically constituted of words from the local Cameroonian languages, Pidgin English, French, English. Various studies by Zé Amvela (1982), Tiayon Lekoubou (1985), Chia (1990), Mendo Zé (1990), Labatut Mbah Onana and Marie Mbah Onana (1999), Essono (1997), Efoua Zengue (1999), Fosso (1999), Biloa (1999, 2003), Echu (2001) and Kouega (2003) have shown that the structure of this slang either scrupulously respects the grammatical rules of the French language or distorts them.

The official languages of Cameroon: English and French

Zé Amvela (1989) distinguishes four periods in the introduction, the implementation and the evolution of foreign languages in Cameroon: i. From the abolition of slavery to the end of the First World War; ii. From 1919 to 1960: British Cameroon and French Cameroon; iii. From 1960 to 1972: Independence and Reunification; and iv. From 1972 to the present: Unification and the Republic of Cameroon.

I. From the abolition of slavery to the end of the First World War

When slave trade was abolished, English missionaries and businessmen signed several treaties with the local dignitaries between 1840 and 1852 (see Imbert (1952), who is cited by Zé Amvela (1989)). Thus, English became the first foreign language to be more or less spoken by the local people of this territory. This was favoured by the fact that the Baptist Mission opened schools in which both English and local languages were taught.

In July 1884, the German explorer Nightingale signed a treaty with local chiefs. By so doing, Cameroon became a German protectorate. Germans thus occupied the territory from 1884 to 1918 and called it "Kamerun". During the period of German occupation, the German language was used in the administration as well as in education, whereas in the so-called missionary schools, local languages were still taught. When Germany lost World War I and was forced to leave "Kamerun", the influence of the German language diminished.

II. From 1919 to 1960: British Cameroon and French Cameroon

After the Versailles treaty of July I, 1919, the League of Nations granted France and Great Britain the trusteeship of Cameroon, which became at the same time a French mandate and a British mandate. 4/5ths of the territory was under French influence and France called this territory "Cameroun"; one-fifth of the territory was a British protectorate and Great Britain called it "the Cameroons". The British and French mandate ended in 1940, but the two European powers continued to administer their respective colonies thanks to an agreement with the League of Nations after World War II. In the territory under French domination, French was the language of the administration and education; in the territory of the English protectorate, English enjoyed a similar status. The two Cameroons lived side by side as separate States until 1960.

III. From 1960 to 1972: Independence and Reunification

On the first of January 1960, East Cameroon, the territory administered by France and in which French was spoken, became independent. In October 1961, the two Cameroons were united and adopted one flag and one anthem. The Federal Republic of Cameroon was thus born, the unique State in Africa in which two foreign languages were spoken: English and French. In fact, the federal constitution of 1961 assigned to these two languages the same status: English was the language of the administration and of education in West Cameroon, while French fulfilled the same function in East Cameroon.

In 1963, the federal government decided to promote bilingualism by opening a bilingual federal secondary school in Man O War Bay, a school later transferred to Buea. This school, in which pupils from the two linguistic communities were admitted, is the sine qua non proof that the two cultures can coexist. Following the Man O War Bay experience, other bilingual secondary schools will be opened in Cameroon.

IV. From 1972 to the present: Unification and the Republic of Cameroon

The Referendum of May 20, 1972, which was called the "Pacific Revolution", united East Cameroon and West Cameroon and gave birth to the United Republic of Cameroon. The constitution of the United Republic of Cameroon confirmed French and English in their roles/statuses as official languages and chose to promote bilingualism.

On 4 February 1984, by law N 84-1, the United Republic of Cameroon became the Republic of Cameroon, a unitary state in which French and English remained the official languages of the country. The Republic of Cameroon was divided into ten provinces, eight of them being French-speaking (Francophone) and two being English-speaking (Anglophone). Thus, 80% of Cameroon's population has French as its first official language, whereas English is the first official language of 20% of the population. However, in spite of the fact that English and French are the languages of State institutions and are used in administration and in education, they are spoken only by a minority of the population, while the majority utilizes the local languages for linguistic communication.

From the linguistic picture painted above, it can be inferred that Cameroon is a multicultural and multilingual State. This state of affairs has consequences, which will be examined in the following lines.

Consequences of Multiculturalism and Multilingualism

The presence of many cultures and languages makes Cameroon a cultural and linguistic melting pot. However, the many languages existing within the territory do not enjoy the same social status. It is known that there are 9 languages of wider communication in Cameroon, although only 5 are spoken by a significant number of speakers. The major languages are the following:

a. Fulfulde in the three northern provinces (Adamawa, North, Far North);
b. Beti-fang in the Centre, South and East provinces;
c. Pidgin English in the North-West, South-West and Littoral provinces;
d. Basaa in the areas where Bakoko and Tunen are spoken and in the Littoral, Centre and South provinces;
e. Duala in the Littoral and Southwest provinces: More and more, Duala is being replaced by Pidgin English.

Minor Languages of Wider Communication

a. Mungaka used to be a language of wider communication in the North-west province, but it is losing ground to the benefit of Pidgin English;
b. Wandala is competing with Fulfulde in the Mandara Mountains;
c. Kanuri, which is mostly spoken in Nigeria, has speakers in the Mora region;
d. Arab Choa is a language of wider communication in urban centres in the North of the Logone and Chari division;
e. Hausa, which is a language of wider communication in Nigeria, is also spoken in Cameroon in a few villages along the border.

A few other languages are becoming languages of wider communication: Fefe in the Mungo division and Ghomala in the Noun division.

The so-called major languages, French and English, are the two official languages of Cameroon. They are the languages of the State that is of the Official Gazette and of administrative documents; business; public and private education; the print media; audiovisual media (National radio and television); administration; and international communication.

It is well known that, despite the official equality between French and English, the French language is more widely used than English. Thus, for example, 90% of the print media is francophone, while Cameroon Radio and Television programmes are broadcast in the ratio of 65% in French and 35% in English.

While French (in its many forms) is a language of wider communication in urban centres in Cameroon, English tends to be overshadowed in this wider communication function by Pidgin English and is used mostly by intellectuals and in formal situations.

Loans in Contact Situations

When many languages are in contact, as in Cameroon, they influence each other to the extent that there is unavoidably a bi-directional transfer of adstrates from dominant languages, and vice versa.

Essentially, a superstrate is a language that overshadows another language in its area of influence. It may happen that the superstrate language will disappear in the long run and yet leave behind traces of its existence.

All the same, the substrate language, that is the socially and institutionally dominated language, may die out as well in the long run. In Cameroon, it appears that French and English are superstrates.

Bitjaa Kody (1999) shows that English is a historical superstrate. Before colonization, in the eighteenth century, Englishmen who fought for the abolition of slavery established commercial ties with inhabitants of the coastal region of the present Southwest province. In schools opened by the first English missionaries who lived in Bimbia and in the Wouri Bay, teaching was done in local languages. Commercial exchanges between the natives and the newcomers introduced new products, which local languages had to designate one way or another. These languages will therefore utilize all word formation processes or neology processes, in order to create new concepts that designate the realities born out of contact between Africa and Europe. Apart from the invention of new words, the attribution of new meanings to existing words, derivation, compounding, adopting loanwords is a process that is overused in order to accommodate the new realities. In many languages of Cameroon, the existence of many words of English origin is attested. Even though the morphology of these words is slightly different from the morphology of the English words, their origin is obvious. In Tuki, an A60 Bantu language of Cameroon spoken in the Mbam and Kim division (cf. Biloa, 1992, 1995), English loans are frequently encountered:

This data shows that English has had considerable influence on the local languages of Cameroon. This influence has greatly decreased due undoubtedly to the presence of French.

Tuki has equally borrowed from French, as the following paradigm shows:

In the following section, we will undertake an intralinguistic study of loans from European languages in African languages.

Intralinguistic Study of Loans

When foreign words are inserted into a language, the latter must look for ways of accommodating them, of integrating them phonetically and phonologically, morphosyntactically and semantically.

Phonetic and Phonological Integration of Loanwords

It is usually postulated in lexicography that loanwords be totally integrated into the borrowing language. This phonetic and phonological integration constitutes one of the criteria by which naturalized words are differentiated from simple citations. The phonic form of naturalized words would respect the system of the target language, whereas simple citations would phonetically preserve the features of the lending language. When Taber (1964) studied French loans in Sango (a language of the Central African Republic, Africa), one of the main criteria for selecting these loans was their degree of integration into the phonological system of this national and official language (for details, see Queffelec, 1998: 245-256).

A close look at English and French loanwords in the above-cited Tuki language spoken in Cameroon (Africa) reveals that they are phonetically and phonologically integrated into the system of the language. For lack of space and time, it is impossible to pay tribute to the whole range of phonological rules accounting for the integration of English and French words into the Tuki language. However, it suffices here to mention a few rules:

Morphosyntactic Integration

English and French words are well integrated into the syntax of Tuki, to the extent that they scrupulously respect the agreement rules of the language.

In Tuki, as in many Bantu languages, each noun belongs to a noun class. When a given noun is used in a sentence, the class prefix of the noun shows up on the verb as part of subject verb agreement. A noun like [matarasa], which is a loanword from English mattress, is no exception to the rule:

Matarasa ma- mu na tsumba

mattress class prefix is in room

"the mattress is in the bedroom"

The above Tuki sentence shows that the loan from English is well accommodated and syntactically behaves as expected. This is in agreement with what is usually the case. Loans generally conform to the rules of the borrowing language (Queffelec, 1998: 253).

Semantic Integration

Semantically, loans tend to preserve in the borrowing language traces of the meaning they had in the source language. Thus, loans from English in Tuki keep a good deal of the polysemy they had in English. A Tuki term like tasa from English tax keeps in this Bantu language the different meanings it has in English:

1. "money, i.e. a percentage of a person's income or of the price of goods taken by the government to help pay for the running of the state"
2. "obligation"
3. " a strain or burden"

Surprising though it may be, the third meaning is attested in Tuki as sentences like the following are commonly heard:

Tasa I- mwenam vatu na nutu

Tax subject marker weights people on body

"taxes put a weight on people's body".

Similarly, the Tuki word kutu combines the various meanings of its English source coat:

1. "an item of outdoor clothing, with sleeves, that covers from the shoulders usually to the knees".
2. "a jacket".

However in this last case there are two meanings that the Tuki word kutu cannot account for:

3. "the hair or wool of an animal".
4. "a covering (e.g. of paint)".

So, it appears that the whole or parts of the meaning(s) of the source language word(s) can be transmitted to the target language naturalized word.

Nevertheless, it so happens that loans in the borrowing language develop connotative values of their own. For example, Tuki kuka from English cook (somebody who does the cooking as an occupation) may carry some pejorative, ironic or insulting overtones.

In sum, the semantic integration of loans may involve semantic restriction, shift or extension over the course of time.

Thematic Distribution of Loanwords

An issue that is closely related to the meaning of loanwords is the attempt to establish the areas in which loanwords always occur. A study undertaken by a team of researchers at the University of Montreal in Canada, working within the framework of GRESLET (Groupe de recherche en sémantique, lexicologie et terminologie = research group in semantics, lexicology and terminology), discovered that new items in the lexicon of African languages were predominant in the following areas (Bitjaa Kody, 2000: 268):

1. food
2. religion
3. clothing
4. housing/household
5. administration, business and professions
A preliminary study of loans in Tuki, patterned after the GRESLET methodology, reveals the following results:

1. Food

2. Religion

3. Clothing

4. House/household

5. Administration, commerce, professions


Why loans?

It has been said above that whenever languages are in contact loanwords are bound to appear. Whatever the social and institutional status of the languages involved in situations of contact, one language is going to borrow words from another and vice versa.

The sociolinguistic context talked about in this paper is the complex situation of Cameroon, where English and French coexist with many local languages. As a result, diglossia is usually the rule of thumb in most communicative cases.

It so happens that the official languages of Cameroon, English and French, are the dominant languages, which people have to learn one way or another, formally or informally, if they want to climb the social ladder or achieve socioeconomic mobility.

For the most part, local languages have no official status and play no important social function, despite public political rhetoric or what the State constitution says about integrating the teaching and learning of local languages into the school curricula. Moreover, apart from being the languages of international communication, English and French in Cameroon are the languages of administration, education, justice, and the media (print and audiovisual, books, advertising). And although local languages are used on the radio, they are not used for TV broadcast, nor are they used in newspapers.

As a result of this situation, English and French are (becoming) the dominant languages spoken by the majority of the Cameroonian population. More explicitly, it is difficult to find one Cameroonian local language that has more speakers than the French language, for instance.

The weight of English and French in the Cameroonian context can be measured by the significant number of loanwords that local African languages borrow from these European languages, as opposed to the scanty number of loanwords in the latter languages from African languages (cf. Dictionnaire universel, 1995; Dictionnaire universel francophone, 1997).

In sum, everything being equal, in contact situations where dominant /majority languages/cultures coexist with dominated/minority languages/ cultures, the latter would tend to borrow heavily from the former. Borrowing is thus justified by the fact that new/dominant cultures introduce into the local/dominated cultures realities that the latter are not linguistically equipped to handle. Borrowing therefore becomes a necessity if local languages want to adequately designate or describe these new realities.

© Edmond Biloa (University of Yaounde I, Cameroon)


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7.1. Entlehnung und Übersetzung am Kreuzweg von Sprache und kulturellem Kontakt

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George Echu (Université de Yaoundé I, Cameroun): Problematique de l'emprunt linguistique dans le contexte du bilinguisme officiel au Cameroun. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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