Lingala, a resounding language

Lingala, a Bantu language also known as mangala, was originally used by the people living on the banks of the Congo river and by smugglers, mainly between Mankanza and Mobeka and in the triangle marked by the Congo and Oubangi rivers.

In this area, among many others, lived groups such as the Banunu-Bobangi, Lomongo, Mangala, Libinza, Lokonda, Lingombe, Motembo, Limbuza, Lokele. This wide range of native speakers is a reason for the presence of many synonyms in this language. Contacts between the northern and southern peoples began in the 19th century and enriched the language with new phonetic and lexical peculiarities, including those originated from the first Europeans who settled in the region.

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Lingala became both richer and poorer. In any case, it affirmed its identity (Isidore Ndaywel, Histoire du Zaire, 1997). Even though it is spoken in such a huge area, Lingala shows a few differences if compared to its origin, from a lexical, syntactic and phonetic point of view. Obviously, some words used in an area are not necessarily also used in other zones. Missionary Renè Van Everbroeck, Cicm, in his Lingala-French/French-Lingala dictionary, published in 1985 in Kinshasa, wrote: “Lingala is a living language, constantly evolving. This does not mean that a dictionary will be updated at any time, but it must be adapted. Some words are used frequently, others only in special occasions and others by an inner circle. We risk losing these words, if they are not recorded in a dictionary. They will certainly be useful to those who devote themselves to literature. It is especially the school that must safeguard the richness of a language. That’s why we tried to create a dictionary as complete as was possible, in order to keep the richness of the tongue safe and sound”.

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As any language, Lingala has two levels: the literary and the spoken one. Originally a ‘lingua franca’, little by little Lingala became a mother tongue for many population groups and today it is spoken in Congo-Kinshasa (DRC), Congo-Brazzaville and to a lesser extent even in the Central African Republic.

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More than 40 million speakers use it as a first or second language. In DR Congo it became a regional language, frequently used in the media and the army, in official speeches but also in popular songs: many artists born or bred in Kinshasa sing in this language and their songs are spread throughout the entire Africa, such as Papa Wemba, Kofi Olomide or JB Mpiana. Being very popular in Central Africa, Congolese pop music has spread Lingala words on the coasts of the continent, from Kenya to Cameroon. In addition to French, it is one of the four national languages of the DR Congo, together with kikongo, swahili and tchiluba. It gradually replaced kikongo in Kinshasa as a ‘lingua franca’.

Exogenous languages

Another important phenomenon is the appropriation of exogenous languages. This is the case of French in Ivory Coast, where French has been completely transformed to meet local conditions. This appropriation is found particularly in areas that do not have a unifying language while the number of local languages is considerable.

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The disappearance of languages is nothing new. It is a natural phenomenon. After all, when a language is no more of use to a community, it will dwindle and disappear. On the other side of the spectrum, we see that some African languages are growing: Swahili, Mandingo, Peul, Wolof and Hausa. We also see the birth of new ways of using languages. Throughout Africa, people borrow grammar and vocabulary from many languages to form new idioms capable of a wider range of communication. Nabilah F. Yelwa


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