Monday, May 11, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Côte d'Ivoire

One month ago, we took a look at the languages of Ghana, an English-speaking country in West Africa. Today we're going to explore the linguistic diversity of its neighbor to the west, Côte d'Ivoire, which you may know by the name "Ivory Coast".

The Official Language

If you're at all familiar with the French language, then one look at the name Côte d'Ivoire should give you a hint that French is an important language in the country. In fact, French is its sole official language and an essential lingua franca due to the country's long history as a French colony.

Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, French and Portuguese merchants renamed parts of Africa's west coast based on the important exports from each area. One of these areas was rich in ivory, so it was called Côte d'Ivoire by the French and Costa do Marfim by the Portuguese. 

A pair of pygmy hippos, an endangered species
that can be found in Côte d'Ivoire.
Since the name was so easily translated, English speakers began to call it "Ivory Coast", but after the country gained its independence from the French, it decided that it didn't want other governments to use the English version. For decades, the government has officially requested that the country be referred to by its official name, Côte d'Ivoire, but of course it's difficult to convince all of the English speakers in the world who know the country as "Ivory Coast" to switch to a French name that's more difficult to pronounce.

That said, most international groups do try to use the French name since the government refuses to recognize translations of the country's name in official dealings. If you've ever watched the Parade of Nations at the beginning of the Olympics then you might have noticed that the country's athletes generally march between those of Costa Rica and Croatia, despite the fact that your TV screen says "Ivory Coast" at the bottom.

In any case, it does seem like an odd linguistic issue to be so picky about! Pretty much every other country in the world accepts the fact that their name will be translated - it's not like you hear Germany complaining that everyone should call it Deutschland

Other Languages

Getting back to our original focus, Côte d'Ivoire is quite linguistically diverse. According to Ethnologue, it is home to over 70 indigenous languages, most of which belong to the Niger-Congo language family. Some of the most spoken indigenous languages in Côte d'Ivoire are Baoulé, Anyin, Jula, and Dan.

Baoulé boasts over 2 million native speakers in Côte d'Ivoire, while the closely related Anyin language has around 600,000 speakers. Jula, spoken by 1.5 million people in Côte d'Ivoire, is an important trade language in West Africa, and is also spoken in the countries of Burkina Faso and Mali. Both Jula and the Dan language, spoken by around 1.3 million people, are Mande languages, a branch of the Niger-Congo language family widely used throughout the region.