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Language and Culture

Vernaculars, Pidgins, Creoles And Lingua Francas
in Worldview Perspective

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In Africa, linguistic diversity is amazing, not to say bewildering and may discourage newcomers, especially those from monolingual societies.  Languages may be classified by type.  Commonly these are:  vernacular, pidgin, creole, standard, and classical.  Many countries have all these types.

In the world there is only about a 50% correlation of language to ethnicity.  The term "vernacular" refers to the form of speech, or language, of a certain people or "tribe," an ethnic language.  Such a language thus shares in the ethnic history and identity of the people who speaks the language.

There are many languages that are spoken by numerous ethnic groups, and there are some ethnic groups that have more than one language within the same ethnicity.  Even if a language is now the mother tongue of several ethnic groups, we can probably trace its linguistic genetics to an earlier time in history.  English is a good example, having spread over the world from its German home as a set of dialects of some West Germanic tribes.

Even geographically limited languages may become the mother tongue of different ethnicities.  Such is the case with Afrikaans in South Africa, another Germanic tongue spread by trade and settlement.  Originally developing through natural linguistic and historical changes from the Dutch of European settlers, it is now he mother tongue of several very distinct ethnic groups in southern Africa.

Examples of South African languages that qualify as vernaculars are Zulu and !Kung.  Zulu is also a lingua franca (See below).

Whereas most vernaculars have a history and heritage like a nation or people, in a family of languages, a pidgin is spoken among speakers of different languages who need a common language to communicate.  But then so is a world or regional language.

A pidgin develops where there is a predominance of non-native speakers using that language among themselves, who speak the language in a manner determined by their mother tongues, limiting intelligibility with native speakers of the "interlanguage."

An example is New Guinea Pidgin (also called Neo-Melanesian, developed from English) in New Guinea and surrounding south Pacific islands.  Another is Krio (derived from English) spoken in Sierra Leone.  Native speakers of English have to learn these languages as foreign languages.

There are several pidgins of Swahili in East Africa.  Speakers of standard Swahili can sometimes understand the pidgin speakers, but pidgin speakers (who call their language Swahili also) often cannot understand the standard speaker.

When a form of pidgin becomes the home language of a second generation, it is called a creole.  It takes on the social character of an ethnic language, and may become a vernacular.  This often occurs in urban settings, so a creole may have a literature and be consciously "developed" by its speakers into a full culture-bearing medium.

It would usually be classified by comparative linguists according to the structural features.  Thus a French creole in West Africa might be classed as an Atlantic, not an Indo-European, language.  In Nigeria, it appears that "Pidgin" is actually a creole, that is, new generations have learned it at home as a first language.

In investigations in Nigeria in 1991, I determined that Nigerian Pidgin is a viable social language and my tentative coinbclusion was that it was the language of an urban community speaking it as a mother tongue.  Nigerian Pidgin is definitely developing as a full-faceted language.  There are radio broadcasts and newspapers in the language.

Lingua Franca
The term lingua franca classifies a speech form by its function.  Such a language is similar to a pidgin, in that it is used as an interlanguage, often without any predominant native-speaker community to serve as a "standard" referent.  However, it is often a variety of a vernacular language, whose standard referent is a native-speaker community in another locale.

This is the case with "English" in Kenya.  It has some "nonstandard" features, which can clearly be accounted for by features or usages in the local languages, but it remains clearly only a variant of the standard language stream.  Swahili also fits this description.  Nonnative speakers outnumber native speakers by about 400 to 1.

Yet the preferred reference form of Swahili is the language as spoken by a native Swahili community, supported by a large literature.  There are many classified variations of Swahili spoken in several settings, geographic and social.  Forms of Swahili serve as interlanguages in vairous public setitngs.  There is a continuum of Swahili forms from basic pidgins or market forms to Standard Swahili, which is similar to mother-tongue varieties of Swahili.

Other lingua francas used in Africa are Lingala, varieties of Bobo and varieties of Fulani in various countries.  Various Arabic languages also serve as lingua francas in certain regions.

Choosing a Work Language
Most peoples of the world live in multi-lingual situations.  They use different languages for different purposes with various groups of people during a normal day.  A foreigner often finds this situation confusing and a discouraging burden.  How do you determine what language to learn for the most effective contribution in your area of expertise?

What community will you need to work with?  What language is associated with that ethnic group or that social group?  If you need to learn two languages, what factors determine which should be learned first?

These are the questions to pose when evaluating how to approach a multi-lingual situation.  Access in the community is the priority.  What form of speech is needed to manage general affairs and business or government requirements?  What language is associated with interpersonal relationships?

Language and Worldview
Practical language questions are in reality worldview questions.  What language is used within the local community?  In finding the answer to that question, you will determine the ethnic, social or geographical community to which you wish to relate.  The language you find used by insiders will likely be the form of speech you need to learn in order to fit in, earn an acceptance in the community and have some impact at a deep level.

How significant in the worldview is your expected level of participation? Will you be advocating only superficial technological innovations.   Perhaps a national or interlangauge will be appropriate.  Perhaps a pidgin that is commonly used in that sphere of society.  Or will you be addressing social and moral commitments?  This addresses more personal deep-level commitments, dealing with the mother-tongue worldview.

Core Worldview Realities
The more significant the contribution you intend to make, and the deeper that matter is in the psyche of the people, the more important it will be for you to be communicating directly in that worldview language.  Will you be addressing health matters that have a certain worldview assumption?  Such as the cause of AIDS?  Then you should be communicating as directly as possible at the deep worldview level of assumption and decision-making.

If you are advocating changes and decisions based on a germ-theory (which I suppose you would be if you are following the common assumptions of the scientific materialist view of illness), then you must be communicating in the deep worldview and language, because causes of illness are seen more as mystical and spiritual.

The worldview level implied in the heart language is important for religious workers, also.  Most syncretism can be traced to imposition of forms, practices, terminology and abstract belief systems that ignored the basic spiritual commitments in the cultural worldview.  So focusing on forms and required procedure or vocabulary or structural organization insures you will wind up with syncretism.

The local language is essential to address this level of reality effectively.  Whether a national, vernacular, pidgin or creole.  The self-identified heart language is the vehicle for worldview-level concepts, commitments and decisions.

Also related:
[TXT] Accent, Dialect and Language
[TXT] Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
[TXT] Ethnicity, Ancestors and Society:  Self-Identification in the US
[TXT] Worldview in Language:  Identity and Relationship
[TXT] Worldview in Language:  Language and Thought


This article includes information originally presented as a paper to an international workshop for Entry Orientation Coordinators in Richmond, Virginia, October 1992
That original portion also published in ENONet Notes, a Newsletter of the Entry Orientation Network, Nairobi, Kenya, February 1993
New article written for Thoughts and Resources 10 December 2007
Last edited 14 July 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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