Language is an integral element of our identities. It serves as an embodiment of our communities, our heritage, and oftentimes, our history. Our words can be used to express our deepest truths, but the dialect that we speak them in can reveal hidden stories that we may have been completely unaware of.
While many of our languages have existed for as long as we can remember, there are numerous oral traditions which are only a few hundred years old. Pidgins and creoles are vernacular languages which develop as a result of contact between groups which possess mutually unintelligible languages, meaning that their languages are so distinctly different that they cannot understand each other. Pidgins are forms of communication which utilize a reduced vocabulary made up of words from each of the converging languages, often lacking grammatical complexities to ensure that both speakers can understand the conversation. Over time, pidgins can become the dominant language of a community, in which case they will develop into a creole. Unlike pidgins, creoles develop over generations of first language speakers so that they become more complex and distinctly identifiable as a new language.
Within the African diaspora, “creole” is often used to identify individuals, cultures or languages that are of mixed European and African ancestry. Colonial powers fiercely used these definitions to further disenfranchise non-Europeans by characterizing their vernaculars as a corruption of their European parent languages. Creoles most often occurred as a result of contact between European settlers and local Indigenous Peoples, whether it was for the purposes of trade, religious indoctrination, or enslavement. While there are many different hypotheses as to how these vernaculars form, the main feature of creolization presents an intermingling of different lingual structures, grammars, and vocabularies from multiple languages. While they are significant in allowing us to better understand the evolution of language, creoles can reveal even more about the rich cultures and histories of Black peoples. Let us take a glimpse into the origins of various creoles that have developed across Africa and the African diaspora.
A creole spoken across the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola, Kikongo-Kituba is based on the Kimanyanga language with influences from other Bantu languages. It is known by a wide variety of names including Kikongo ya Kibula-matari, Kikongo ya KIleta, Kikongo ya Leta, Kikongo ya bula-matari, Kituba, and Mono kutuba. Kikongo-Kituba emerged as a result of population movements caused by labour migrations, predominantly the late-19th century construction of a railway connecting the capital city Kinshasa to the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the resistance of local groups to the enforced labour demands, colonial forces brought labourers from all over Central Africa to work on the construction. Coming from different communities, the labourers adopted Kimanyanga as an intertribal method of communication and modified it with their own languages. Kikongo-Kituba spread across Central Africa as colonial militaries, merchants and missionaries began to use the creole while colonizing areas outside of Kinshasa. Over time, Kikongo-Kituba became the vernacular used at the colonial posts and trade centres across what would later become towns that would adopt the creole as their dominant language.
Ebonics, also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), developed in the United States of America by early African American communities. Considered a semi-creole, Ebonics is a less intensely modified vernacular based on colonial English that is not very different from the dialect spoken by white Americans. With origins often tied to slavery in the United States, Ebonics most likely emerged on southern plantations prior to the American Civil War as a pidgin used by enslaved Africans to communicate with their English masters. Due to the separation of Black and white communities from the early days of slavery to the Jim Crow era of segregation, an African Americans culture featuring traditions, music, cooking and language developed to be distinctly different from those of white communities. Despite being phonetically similar, the linguistic differences embodied in Ebonics are reinforced and often demonized as being “uneducated” and entrenched in criminality or poverty through harmful stereotypes held by many white Americans. Ebonics is unique for its intonation, pronunciation and stress patterns; speakers omit the pronunciation of final consonant clusters, such as not pronouncing the “t” sound in “past.” While it lacks any words of West African origin, it is believed that the sentence structure of Ebonics presents an African influence on English words.
Also known by the names Aukan or Okanisi, Nengee was developed by the Ndyuka communities of Suriname and French Guiana. Nengee is a mix of English and various West and Central African languages, with an influence of Dutch, Portuguese and local Indigenous languages. Currently living within the Marowijne river basin of the Amazon rainforest, the Ndyuka are descendants of Maroons, groups of rebel Africans who escaped from their plantations on the Surinamese coast in the 18th century and united to develop independent communities in remote areas. Nengee’s parent languages creolized into one due to the presence of Indigenous communities in Suriname, initial arrival of English colonizers prior to slavery, the use of Portuguese by plantation owners on the Surinamese coast, and the interaction of enslaved West and Central Africans with these languages. Nengee began to develop predominantly when the Maroon settlements of the Ndyuka were becoming permanent and has since developed among separate communities into three distinct dialects: Ndyuku, Aluku, and Paramaccan. Similar to other creoles across the Caribbean, Nengee is most likely based on African models of grammar; for example, Nengee possesses first and second person plurals which are identical to those within some West African languages.
A popular creole among all social classes within South Africa, Afrikaans is a cross-border language also spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Also known as “Cape Dutch”, Afrikaans developed early on as a method of communication between Dutch settlers and various indentured and enslaved local populations. The three dialects are Cape Afrikaans (Kaapse Afrikaans), which is more influenced by the languages of enslaved Malays; Orange River Afrikaans (Oranjerivierafrikaans), a dialect with an emphasis on local Khoi languages; and East Cape Afrikaans (Oos-Kaapse Afrikaans), developed with local Xhosa communities. As English has become more prevalent across South Africa, it has been increasingly integrated into the Afrikaans language. Despite being one of the official languages of South Africa, Afrikaans remains a controversial language due to its use as a tool of racial discrimination within schools during the apartheid regime. Serving as a “language of the oppressor,” many Black South Africans born before the rise of democracy in 1994 refuse to speak it, claiming that it is a reminder of the brutality of apartheid.
Kolokwa / Liberian Kreyol
Spoken widely across Liberia, Kolokwa is an English-based creole that is influenced by various West African languages, Ebonics and French. Kolokwa began as a West African pidgin of English spoken on the Liberian coast by traders, but it became more developed with the arrival of African Americans in West Africa. With a rising population of freed Blacks in the early 19th century United States, the American Colonization Society was developed by white Americans to make plans for a settlement that would allow them to send free Blacks back to Africa. Supported by abolitionists and slave societies seeking to dispel freed slaves, African Americans were shipped from the United States to the West African coast to found the settlement that would later become the country of Liberia. Referred to as Americo-Liberians, the settlers adopted the pidgin English as their dominant language and modified it with their own creole, Ebonics. Kolokwa later adopted elements of French and the many West African languages that are widely spoken across Liberia. Kolokwa has since been utilized more often across the nation due to the need to communicate across tribal languages following a mass displacement caused by the civil war in Liberia.
Due to the collective and intermingled enslavement of African peoples from all across the continent, it is difficult to fully comprehend which of the many African languages are present within creoles developed across the diaspora. While the roots of African influence on our languages may remain a mystery, such an influence in and of itself serves as a reminder of the enduring tenacity of our heritage. The resilience and souls of Black communities survives within our continued use of creoles in our daily interactions with friends, family, and colonial society at large. Despite centuries of colonization and displacement, our ability to use language to decolonize demonstrates that we continue to speak in ways that are influenced by our ancestors.