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  • Writer's pictureIlaria Mariani

Colonialism in Africa and Languages: The Creation of Pidgins

Mignolo states, “Managing and controlling knowledge means managing and controlling subjects” (1) which is true in many situations. Just think of dictatorships and their control of knowledge. Mignolo notices that along with the colonies and their new society came forms of culture, like universities or museums. However, this kind of knowledge was European imposed. The institution of the university was taken from Europe and transplanted to the other part of the world. Together with knowledge, the contact between the European population and the non-European one was of course also linguistics. In this article, I want to show how colonialism has spread through knowledge, and therefore also linguistics.

Lingua Franca and Pidginization

Some native languages of Africa were colonized, together with their speakers, until they disappeared in favor of English or French. In the case of Africa, the starting point of this linguistic contact was creating a pidgin language. “This new language variety developed out of contacts between nonstandard colonial varieties of a European language and several non-European” (2).

Pidgin languages originated from the contact between the colonists and the colonized. The Pidgin phenomenon can be considered the first language imposition: whites gave orders using a pidgin language, the so-called lingua franca. This language variety was shared by whites and workers and was imposed since it was created only because of Europeans. The lingua franca guaranteed a higher status to the workers who would have spoken it, becoming, time after time, much simpler.

This phenomenon is called pidginization, “which is the process that a language goes through when it is not learned effectively in normal language-learning contexts. It is a reduction in the form the language takes and reduction in the uses to which it is put” (3). This language became a shared language among the colonizer and the colonized who told stories about their daily life to other enslaved people. The matter of African bilingualism is something very delicate that will come after, and it is still a topic of debate (4). However, what is interesting to notice in the imposition of a lingua franca is that colonization happened economically and linguistically.

Linguistics as Mirror for Colonization

If it were not for the Europeans, there would not have been pidgin-colonial languages like Kituba, Lingala, and Sango (3). In West African countries like Nigeria, half of the population still speaks the so-called 'Pidgin English,’ which inherits many traits of different European languages (Portuguese, French, English, German), fusing it with the linguistic substratum. This pidgin originates from the contact between West African populations and the British during the trades and developed until our days.

Particularly noteworthy from a postcolonialist perspective is “the perception and attitudes of people towards West African Pidgin English […]” (5). English pidgin was called “broken English, nigger French, bastard Portuguese, Iskula (colic language), and Kombuistaaltje (cookhouse lingo) by the early generations because it was viewed as an impurity of the original European languages” (5). In other words, Europeans' had low esteem of this language which was considered scarce prestige. This point of view is once again an indication of linguistic imperialism. Linguistic imperialism not only imposes a dominant language but also recognizes only a variety of that language - European English - as correct. “A dominant language is projected as the language of God […] the language of reason, logic, and human rights” (4). To a further extent it is a sociolinguistic mirror that portrays how Europeans were looking at the colonized populations.

Between Linguistic Enrichment and Linguistic Imperialism

Suppose we can see colonialism as enriching from a linguistic perspective because it gave birth to languages still used, i.e., in a military context (6). However, we must remember that it is also an imposed phenomenon brought by Europeans. This linguistic enrichment was imposed (linguistic imperialism) and it also made many other indigenous languages disappear.

Beside putting in place a lingua franca, whites did not fail to show their low opinion about African languages, stating how incomprehensible it was many times. This affirmation falls again under the umbrella term of linguistic imperialism, a phenomenon at the basis of linguistic colonialism. Linguistic imperialism occurs when a dominant culture gets in touch with a ruled one. “Linguistic imperialism interlocks with a structure of imperialism in culture, education, the media, communication, the economy, politics, and military activities” (4).

This is the case of the French and English in Africa, and the Spanish in Latin America. Bilingualism, still present nowadays, especially in contexts where local languages meet French, English or Portuguese, is a more controversial phenomenon. Knowing the language of the master was for sure an advantage. First, because many people did not know it, and most importantly, it would have meant sharing the language with the master. If you wanted to prosper in the colonial order, you had to use the master's language (6). However, colonial languages (such as French or English) were not widespread until the arrival of missionaries, especially in the French colonies (3).

Language, Knowledge and Power

The spreading of the European languages in Africa is very controversial. On one side, language means control. Language is a potent weapon, and it is the vehicle of knowledge. Therefore many colonies have seen their languages eliminated by the dominant power. One thinks of the case of British islands, where we see the imposition of the Prayer Book and the consequent rebellion of 1549. The English state sought to suppress non-English language speakers with the Book of Common Prayer (6). If language is a repressive weapon, it is also a privilege. On this matter, some whites in Africa thought that "the missionaries, by teaching them a civilized language and bringing them into contact with the literature and civilization of the world, have placed them in a position of great advantage" (3). In other words, enslaved Africans would have achieved a better position. They would have become more human in the colonizers’ eyes if they learned the European language. This point is fascinating because it points out two different colonial realities: the first is the African reality, which was mainly exploited and wasn't Europeanized. Second, black people were often considered non-humans by the colonizers.

Languages are a mirror of reality. What happens in the present can be seen and studied in the future with linguistics and its branches. Thus, a linguistic approach can work well in the study of colonialism. It can also contribute to giving justice to the many languages that have been forever erased by colonizers’ languages. The linguistic choice is very often determined by privilege, and that is something that can - and should - be studied to raise awareness. Studying the past helps to understand the future and not repeat absurd mistakes.

Written by Ilaria Mariani.

Cover photo by Joshua Hoehne.


(1) Mignolo, W.D. & Walsh C. (2018) On decolonialty, concepts, analytics, praxis, London: Duke University Press.

(2) Mufwene, S.S. (2015) “Pidgin and Creole Languages”, in Wright, J.D. (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 133-145, accessible here.

(3) Samarin, W.J. (1989) “Language in the Colonization of Central Africa, 1880-1900”, Can. J. Afr. Stud./ Rev. Can. Études Afr., 23, pp. 232–249, accessible here.

(4) Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism, accessible here.

(5) Elega, A. (2016) “Investigating the use and perception of West African Pidgin English among West African university students in Northern Cyprus”, Globe J. Lang. Cult. Commun, 4, pp. 23–38, accessible here.

(6) Prah, K.K. (2009) “The Burden of English in Africa: From Colonialism to Neo-Colonialism”, 5th International Conference on the theme: Mapping Africa in the English-Speaking World, University of Botswana, accessible here.


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