Monday, April 18, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Liberia

We started out last week by learning a bit about the languages of Georgia, a country located in the Caucasus Mountains that divides Europe from Asia. This week, we're heading southwest to learn about the linguistic diversity of Liberia, a fascinating country located in West Africa.

The Official Language

A beautiful lake in northwestern Liberia. 
The sole official language of Liberia is English, which is also the country's most important lingua franca. Unlike many other English-speaking countries in Africa that were colonized by Britain, Liberia developed from settlements created by a group called the American Colonization Society in the early 1800s. Most of the society's early members were slaveholders whose main goal was to "repatriate" free African Americans back to Africa in order to avoid slave revolts in the South. Throughout the 1800s, thousands of free African Americans were sent across the Atlantic to colonize Liberia, so English became the country's dominant language.

Today, most Liberians speak Liberian English, a term which actually includes several different varieties of English. These include Standard Liberian English, Caribbean English, an English-based creole called Merico, and the closely related Kru Pidgin English and Kreyol, two English-based pidgins that are grammatically different from Merico.

Other Languages

While all of these varieties of English dominate Liberia's linguistic landscape, it is also home to over 30 indigenous languages used by the native groups who lived in Liberia long before the arrival of colonists from the United States and the Caribbean. All of these languages belong to branches of the Niger-Congo language family.

The most spoken indigenous languages in Liberia are Kpelle, Bassa, Mano, Klao, Loma, Dan, and Kisi, which all have over 100,000 native speakers. Kpelle is spoken by over 700,000 people in Liberia, while Bassa has over 400,000 speakers.

There are many more languages used by smaller indigenous groups in the country. These include Kru languages such as Grebo, Krumen, Kuwaa, and Krahn, as well as Mande languages like Bandi, Maninka, and Manya. Finally, we'll mention Gola, which is its very own branch of the Niger-Congo family, and is spoken by nearly 100,000 Liberians.