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Languages of Africa.




By Rev. John Leighton Wilson, American Missionary at the Gaboon river, Western Africa.

[THE following paper from the pen of Mr. Wilson is inserted, partly, on account of its intrinsic importance, and partly from its relation to the foreign missionary enterprise. It communicates a variety of facts respecting the languages of Western Africa, which will be deeply interesting, alike to the Christian and the philologist. The phenomena, adduced by Mr. Wilson, are a striking confirmation of the scientific value of Christian missions. Though an indirect and undesigned effect, it will of itself amply repay all the cost which is incurred. The missionary is, in this way, coöperating most efficiently, and without interference with his great spiritual work, with the learned scholars and philanthropists of Christendom, in extending the boundaries of knowledge and civ. ilization. We will only add, should any apology for the insertion of this piece be needed, that there are subscribers and readers of the Bibliotheca Sacra at all the missionary stations of our principal Foreign Missionary Society, and at some of the stations of other societies.-EDS.]

Too little is as yet known of the numerous and diversified dialects of Africa to determine with certainty the precise number of families which they form. The Mountains of the Moon, which divide this great continent into two nearly equal portions, also form an important dividing line between two great branches of the negro race, who, it is probable, emigrated to Africa at remote periods from each other and from different parts of the old world.

In the northern half of the continent, or that part of it occupied by the black race, the number of languages is very great, the different families of which show very little if any affinity for each other; while in the southern division one great family prevails over the whole even to the Cape of Good Hope. As there is a tendency to the multiplication of dialects in all countries where there are no written standards, the above fact furnishes a presumptive argument, in favor of the opinion, that the northern portion of the continent must have been settled by the negro race at

a much earlier period than the southern; or, that the present inhabitants of this portion of the country overran and rooted out its original occupants at no very remote period. However this may be, the languages spoken on the opposite sides of these mountains, show as conclusively, as any argument drawn from this source can, that these two families of blacks, whatever physical resemblances there may be, must have had different origins.

In the northern half of the continent, the number of dialects is incredibly great. Those spoken along the western coast, i. e. between the river Senegal and the Cameroons in the Bight of Biafra, which is no doubt the western termination of the Mountains of the Moon, may be grouped into five distinct families, the boundaries of which are not inaccurately defined by the established geographical divisions of the country.

The Mandingo, including the Jaloof, the Foulah, the Soosoo and other kindred dialects, may be regarded as forming one of these principal families. Those of the natives who speak these dialects are Mohammedans, and no doubt a less or greater number of Moorish or Arabic words has been incorporated with all of them. These dialects are spoken along the coast from Senegal to Sierra Leone, and in the interior as far as the head waters of the Niger.

From Sierra Leone or Cape Messurado to the mouth of the Niger, in what is called Upper Guinea, a distance coastwise of twelve or fifteen hundred miles, there are four distinct families, showing very little if any affinity for each other. The first extends from Basa to St. Andrews, embracing the Basa, Kru, Grebo and other dialects, all of which belong to one general family called the Mena or Mandoo language. The natives, who speak these dialects, are pagans, and though physically considered, they are one of the finest races in Africa, they are less intellectual than the generality of tribes along the coast.

From Frisco to Dick's Cove, along what is called the Ivory Coast, we have another language, usually called the Kwakwa, which possesses no traceable affinity for any other language along the The inhabitants of this part of the coast are a fine, athletic race and occupy an important part of the coast in a commercial point of view, but like the tribes above and below are pagans of the lowest order.


From Dick's Cove to Badagri we have the Fanti, as called by the natives themselves Fantyipim, which includes the Ashanti, Dahomey, Popo, Accra and other dialects. Among the dialects


Languages South of the Mountains of the Moon.


of this family there is more diversity than among those of either of the preceding. The natives here discover considerable mechanical skill and much more versatility of character than the inhabitants of the Grain Coast.

On the great rivers of the Gulf of Benin, Bonny, Benin and Calibar, we find another distinct family of languages, possessing some striking peculiarities, entirely unknown to any of the dialects either west or south.

How nearly related these different families along the sea coast may be to those of Central and Northern Africa is not known. While there is a constant tendency to a multiplication of the dialects of the same family, the different families themselves have preserved their distinctive features without essential change or modification. The want of written standards accounts for the first of these facts, while the fixed habits of the natives, in opposition to the roving character of most barbarous nations, account for the other.

Crossing the Mountains of the Moon we find one great family of languages extending itself over the whole of the southern division of the continent. The dialects of this family, though they differ essentially as dialects, have too many striking affinities for each other, to allow any doubt of their having a common origin.

Many of these dialects, especially those spoken along the seacoast, have incorporated with themselves a less or greater number of foreign words, according as the tribes have had less or more commercial intercourse with foreign nations. Those along the western coast have borrowed largely from the Portuguese-those in the vicinity of the Cape of Good Hope, it is probable, have borrowed from the English and Dutch-those of Mozambique have adopted many words from the Madagascar people as well as the Portuguese, with both of whom the nations have had long and extensive intercourse; while those still higher up the coast have drawn quite as freely from the Arabic. The Sooahelee language, spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of Zanzibar, is very nearly allied to the Mpongwe, which is spoken on the western coast in very nearly the same parallel of latitude. One fifth of the words of these two dialects are either the same or so nearly so that they may easily be traced to the same root.

This great family of languages, if the Mpongwe dialect may be taken as a specimen, is remarkable for its beauty, elegance and perfectly philosophical arrangements, as well as for its almost

indefinite expansibility. In these respects, it not only differs essentially and radically from all the dialects north of the Mountains of the Moon, but they are such as may well challenge a comparison with any known language in the world.

It is impossible to ascertain from what particular stock the different dialects of the same family have sprung, nor is it important to establish this point. We have selected as the subject of comparison, one dialect from three different families, viz. Mandingo, the Grebo and the Mpongwe; as two of these are from the northern part of the continent and the other from the southern, we shall be able not only to see all the points of agreement and disagreement between the languages of those who are supposed to be separate races, but likewise how much divergence there may be in the languages of those who are supposed to have had a common origin.

The Mandingo is spoken chiefly between Senegal and the Gambia; the Grebo at Cape Palmas and in that vicinity. The distance between these two places is six or eight hundred miles. The inhabitants of these two regions have had little or no intercourse with each other and therefore may be regarded as strangers. The Mpongwe is spoken on both sides of the Gaboon, at Cape Lopez and Cape St. Catharine, in what is usually called Lower Guinea. The distance from Cape Palmas to the Gaboon is ten or twelve hundred miles, and that between the latter and Sene-Gambia is eighteen hundred or two thousand.

Our object in the following essay will be to mention all the important points in which these dialects differ from each other, as well as those in which they agree, although the latter are regarded as purely accidental and such as would be as likely to arise by comparing them with the Indian dialects of North or South America or with those of Polynesia as among themselves. The principles of the Mpongwe will be more fully developed than either of the others, not only on account of its great superiority, but because it possesses some very remarkable characteristics for an uncultivated language, and evinces a degree of skill and precision in its grammatical arrangements, that may challenge for itself a comparison with any known language whatever.

General Remarks.

Before entering into a minute analysis of the grammatical principles of these dialects, it will be important to offer a few remarks of a general nature.

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The Grebo and Mpongwe Tribes.

The first thing that would be sure to arrest the attention of one, who has had an opportunity to study the character and habits of the people in connection with their languages, is the remarkable correspondence that will always be found between the character of the different tribes and the dialects which they respectively speak.

The Grebo tribe, physically considered, are one of the finest races in Western Africa. They are stout, well formed, and their muscular system is remarkably well developed. They stand erect, and when not under the influence of excitement, their gait is measured, manly and dignified. When engaged at work or in play, they are quick, energetic and prompt in all their bodily evolutions; they are fond of work, are capable of enduring great hardships, and, compared with most of the tribes of Western Africa, are really courageous and enterprising. But they are destitute of polish, both of mind and of manners. In their intercourse with each other, they are rude, abrupt and unceremonious; when opposed or resisted in what is their right or due, they become obstinate, sullen and inflexible. They have much vivacity of disposition, but very little imagination. Their songs have but little of poetry, and are unmusical and monotonous; besides which they have very little literature in the form of ancestral traditions or fabulous stories. Their dialect partakes very largely of these general outlines. It is harsh, abrupt, energetic, indistinct in enunciation, meagre in point of words, abounds with inarticulate. nasal and guttural sounds, possesses but few inflections and grammatical forms, and is withal exceedingly difficult of acquisition.


The Mpongwe people, on the other hand, are mild in their disposition, flexible in character, courteous in their manners, and very deferential to age and rank. But they are timid, irresolute and exceedingly averse to manual labor. They live by trade, are cunning, shrewd, calculating and somewhat polished in their manners. Their temperament is of the excitable or nervous character and they are altogether the most imaginative race of negroes I have ever known. They have inexhaustible stores of ancestral traditions and fabulous stories, some of which, if embodied in suitable language, would bear comparison with the most celebrated novels and romances that have ever been presented to the world. These general outlines of the character, habits and disposition of the people are no bad counterpart to their language. It is soft, pliant and flexible; clear and distinct in enunciation, pleasant to the ear, almost entirely free from guttural and nasal VOL. IV. No. 16.


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