Monday, March 7, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of the Central African Republic

So far this year, most of the counties we've looked at have been home to relatively few languages. That's why this week we'll be taking a look at the linguistic diversity of the Central African Republic, a country whose location is right in its name, and is home to dozens of languages!

The Official Languages

The Central African Republic has two official languages: French and Sango. The French language was first introduced to the area in the late 1800s when it came under French colonial rule. When the country gained its independence from France in 1960, the French language retained its linguistic importance. It is still used to this day, particularly for writing and in formal situations. While there are only about 9,000 native French speakers in the country, there are over 1.3 million Central Africans who speak it as a second language.

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic,
as viewed from the International Space Station.
Sango, on the other hand, is the native language of approximately 350,000 Central Africans. It is also the country's most important lingua franca, which is clear when you consider the fact that 4.6 million Central Africans speak it as a second language. That's nearly everyone in the entire country!

One of the interesting things about Sango is that it is thought to be a creole that developed from the Ngbandi language, which is primarily spoken in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, some linguists believe that it was never a creole. No matter how it developed, it has been the national language of the Central African Republic since the 1960s, and has shared official status with French since the 1990s.

Other Languages

When you start to look at the other languages used in the Central African Republic, things get crazy. It is home to dozens of indigenous languages used by anywhere between 15 and 200,000 native speakers. The vast majority of these languages belong to the Ubangian language family, which includes Sango. There are also some languages that belong to the Bantu and Bongo-Bagirmi language families. However, many of these languages have not been intensively studied by linguists, so it's not uncommon for there to be disagreements as to how they should be classified.

The most spoken indigenous languages in the Central African Republic are three of the dozen or so Gbaya languages, which are all spoken by over 200,000 people in the western part of the country. The Mandja language, which is closely related to the Gbaya languages, is also used by over 200,000 Central Africans. There are also over 100,000 native speakers of four of the Banda languages, as well as the Bhogoto, Fulfulde, and Yakoma languages.

Other indigenous languages with considerable numbers of speakers are Suma, Nzakara, Mbati, Zande, Kabba, Pana, Ngbaka Ma'bo, Kare, and Gbanu. All nine languages boast over 50,000 native speakers. We could go on and on listing the country's languages all day, but unfortunately there isn't much information on them. If you're interested in seeing the rest, we recommend visiting the Ethnologue entry for the Central African Republic.

We'll end today's post with one final language, Bodo. When this Bantu language was last encountered in the country back in 1996, there were only 15 remaining speakers, so it may be extinct at this point.