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The Lingala Language

Lingala is a Bantu language spoken throughout the north-west part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) and a large part of the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), as well as to some degree in Angola and the Central African Republic. It has over 10 million speakers.

History

Lingala originated from Bobangi, a language that was spoken along the Congo River between Lisala and Kinshasa. Bobangi functioned as a regional trade language before the creation of the Congo Free State. In the last two decades of the 19th century, after King Leopold II of Belgium stimulated the exploration and occupation of the area, Bobangi came into wider use. The language was learned and influenced by intermediaries and interpreters of the Westerners and brought to the area from other parts of central and east Africa (e.g., (Zanzibar, Comoros and the Tanganyikan inland). The colonial administration, in need of a common language for the region, started to use the language for missionary and administrative purposes, calling it Bangala to set it apart from the old Bobangi. Around the turn of the century, CICM missionaries started a project to 'purify' the language in order to make it 'pure Bantu' again.

In the process of this 'purification', the term Bangala was replaced with Lingala, borrowing a prefix from one of the surrounding languages.

Lingala's vocabulary has borrowed much French. There is also some Portuguese influence, such as in the words for butter (m ánt éka), table (m ésa), shoes (sap átu), and some English or Dutch influences; for instance, the word for milk (miliki) or book (b úku).

Variations

The Lingala language can be divided in several dialects or variations. The major variations are considered to be Standard Lingala, Spoken Lingala, Kinshasa Lingala and Brazzaville Lingala.

Standard Lingala (called lingala littéraire or lingala classique in French) is mostly used in educational and news broadcastings on radio or television, in religious services in the Catholic Church and is the language taught as a subject at all educational levels. Standard Lingala is historically associated with the work of the Catholic Church and missionaries.

Spoken Lingala (called lingala parlé in French) is the variation mostly used in the day-to-day lives of Lingalaphones. It has a full morphological noun prefix system, but the agreement system is more lax than the standard variation, i.e. noun-modifier agreement is reduced to two classes. Regarding phonology, there is also a seven-vowel system but the vowel harmony is not mandatory. This variation of Lingala is historically associated with the Protestant missionaries' work. Spoken Lingala is largely used in informal functions, and the majority of Lingala songs use Spoken Lingala over other variations.

Kinshasa Lingala and Brazzaville Lingala are the dialects from the capitals of both Congos. They are both heavily influenced by other Bantu languages as well as French (the official language of both countries). They both have lots of borrowed words from those languages, as well as a simplified phonology and grammar.

Noun class system

Like all Bantu languages, Lingala has a noun class system in which nouns are classified according to the prefixes they bear and according to the prefixes they trigger in sentences.

Individual classes pair up with each other to form singular/plural pairs, sometimes called 'genders'. There are seven genders in total. The singular classes 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 take their plural forms from classes 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, respectively. Additionally, many household items found in class 9 take a class 2 prefix (ba) in the plural: lutu > balutu 'spoon', mesa > bamesa 'table', sani > basani 'plate'. Words in class 11 usually take a class 10 plural. Most words from class 14 (abstract nouns) do not have a plural counterpart.

Class 9 and 10 have a nasal prefix, which assimilates to the following consonant. Thus, the prefix shows up as 'n' on words that start with t or d, e.g. ntaba 'sheep', but as 'm' on words that start with b or p (e.g. mbisi 'fish').

Writing system

Lingala is more a spoken language than a written language, and has several different writing systems. Most of those are ad hoc. Due to the low literacy of Lingala speakers in Lingala (in the Congo-Brazzaville literacy rate in Lingala as a first language is between 10% to 30%), its popular orthography is very flexible and varies from one Congo to the other.

Links of Interest

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