African French

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This article addresses French language spoken in Africa. For immigrants to France from Africa, please see African immigration to France.
Francophone Africa. The countries coloured dark blue had a population of 363 million in 2013.[1] In 2050 their population is forecast to reach between 785 million[2] and 814 million.[1]
French-language graffiti on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, in March 2012. The graffiti says: "LONG LIVE TUNISIA (Vive la Tunisie), free and democratic".

African French (French: français africain) is the generic name of the varieties of French spoken by an estimated 120 million (2010) people in Africa spread across 24 francophone countries.[3] This includes those who speak French as a first or second language in these 31 francophone African countries (dark blue on the map), but it does not include French speakers living in non-francophone African countries. Africa is thus the continent with the most French speakers in the world.[3] French arrived in Africa as a colonial language. These African French speakers are now an important part of the Francophonie.

French is mostly a second language in Africa, but in some areas it has become a first language, such as in the region of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire[4] or Libreville, Gabon. In some countries it is a first language among some classes of the population, such as in Tunisia and Morocco where French is a first language among the upper classes (many people in the upper classes are simultaneous bilinguals in Arabic/French), but only a second language among the general population.

In each of the francophone African countries French is spoken with local specificities in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary.

Varieties[edit]

There are many different varieties of African French, but they can be broadly grouped into three categories:

All the African French varieties differ from standard French both in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, but the formal African French used in education, media, and legal documents is based on standard French vocabulary.

In the colonial period, a vernacular form of creole French known as, Petit nègre, was also present in West Africa. The term has since, however, become a pejorative term for poorly spoken African French.

Pronunciation[edit]

Differences in pronunciation between varieties of African French can be quite important (e.g. pronunciation of French in Morocco is quite different from the pronunciation of French in Senegal). Despite these significant regional variations, there exist some trends among African French speakers such as the pronunciation of the letter R, which tends to be pronounced like a trilled R instead of a guttural R, but some speakers can also pronounce it as a guttural (a voiced uvular fricative like غ in the Arabic word مغرب Maghrib). Pronunciation of [d], [t], [l] and [n], as well as other sounds may be also different. Standard French intonation can be also either maintained or not.

In most cases, however, it is not possible to make generalizations about the pronunciation of French in Africa, each local pronunciation of French being influenced by the African languages spoken locally.

Vocabulary[edit]

In terms of vocabulary, there exists three phenomena in African French. First, the presence of words which do not exist in standard French. These words were either coined locally or borrowed from local African languages. As a consequence, each regional variety of African French has its own local words that are not the same as in other varieties of African French, although this local vocabulary only constitutes a small part of the overall vocabulary which for the most part is identical to standard French. When talking to people from other regions or countries, African French speakers often switch to a more standard form of French avoiding this local vocabulary. However, there also exist some African French words that are found across many African countries (see for example chicotter in the Abidjan French vocabulary section below).

A second phenomenon is the use of some words with a meaning different from standard French. For example, the word présentement (which means "at the moment" in standard French) is used a lot in sub-Saharan Africa (but not in the Maghreb) with the meaning of "as a matter of fact", "as it were" and not "at the moment".

A third phenomenon is hypercorrection, which is found especially among the educated and upper classes of sub-Saharan Africa. Educated people there tend to speak a very formal sort of French which may sound a bit old-fashioned and conservative to European and North American French speakers. This is somewhat similar to the way English is spoken by people of the upper class in India.

The local African French vocabulary not found in standard French ranges from slang frowned upon by educated people, to colloquial usage, to words that have entered the formal usage (such as chicotter). The French spoken in Abidjan, the largest city of Côte d'Ivoire, offers a good example of these contrasting registers.

Abidjan French vocabulary[edit]

Motorway in the centre of Abidjan
French language signs outside a drugstore (pharmacy) in Port-Bouët, Abidjan, in 2009.

According to some estimates, French is spoken by 75 to 99 percent of Abidjan's population,[5] either alone or alongside indigenous African languages. There are three sorts of French spoken in Abidjan. A formal French is spoken by the educated classes. Most of the population, however, speaks a colloquial form of French known as français de Treichville (after a working-class district of Abidjan) or français de Moussa (after a character in chronicles published by the magazine Ivoire Dimanche which are written in this colloquial Abidjan French). Finally, an Abidjan French slang called nouchi is spoken by people in gangs and also by young people copying them. New words usually appear in nouchi and then make their way into colloquial Abidjan French after some time.[6] As of 2012, a crowdsourced dictionary of Nouchi is being written using mobile phones.[7]

Here are some examples of words used in the African French variety spoken in Abidjan (the spelling used here conforms to French orthography, except ô which should be read as -aw in the English word "law"):[8]

  • une go is a slang word meaning a girl or a girlfriend. It is a loanword either from the Mandinka language or from English ("girl").
  • un maquis is a colloquial word meaning a street-side eatery, a working-class restaurant serving African food. This word exists in standard French too but its meaning is "maquis shrubland", and by extension "guerrilla", see Maquis (World War II). It is not known exactly how this word came to mean street-side restaurant in Côte d'Ivoire.
  • un bra-môgô is a slang word meaning a bloke or a dude. It is a loanword from the Mandinka language.
  • chicotter is a word meaning to whip, to beat, or to chastise (children). It is a loanword from Brazilian Portuguese where it meant "to whip (the black slaves)". It has now entered the formal language of the educated classes.
  • le pia is a slang word meaning money. It comes perhaps from the standard French word pièce ("coin") or pierre ("stone"), or perhaps piastre (dollar, buck).

When speaking in a formal context, or when meeting French speakers from outside Côte d'Ivoire, Abidjan speakers would replace these local words with the French standard words une fille, un restaurant or une cantine, un copain, battre, and l'argent respectively. Note that some local words are used across several African countries. For example chicotter is attested not only in Côte d'Ivoire but also in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Central African Republic, Benin, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[6]

As already mentioned, these local words range from slang to formal usage, and their use therefore varies depending on the context. In Abidjan, this is how the sentence "The girl stole my money." is constructed depending on the register:[6]

  • formal Abidjan French of the educated people: La fille m'a subtilisé mon argent.
  • colloquial Abidjan French (français de Moussa): Fille-là a prend mon l'argent. (in standard French, the grammatically correct sentence should be "La fille a pris mon argent.")
  • Abidjan French slang (nouchi): La go a momo mon pia. (momo is an Abidjan slang word meaning "to steal")

Kinshasa French vocabulary[edit]

Boulevard du 30 Juin in the commercial heart of Kinshasa
Journalists' demonstration in Kinshasa in October 2009. The French banner says: "The DRC must not be turned into a graveyard for journalists."

With more than 8 million inhabitants, Kinshasa is the second largest francophone city in the world after Paris. It is the capital of the most populous francophone country in the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 24 million people (40% of the total population) can speak French (essentially as a second language).[3] Contrary to Abidjan where French is the first language of a large part of the population, in Kinshasa French is only a second language, and its status of lingua franca is shared with Lingala. People of different African mother tongues living in Kinshasa usually speak Lingala to communicate with each other in the street, but French is the language of businesses, administrations, schools, newspapers and televisions. French is also the predominant written language.

Due to its widespread presence in Kinshasa, French has become a local language with its own pronunciation and some local words borrowed for the most part from Lingala. Depending on their social status, some people may mix French and Lingala, or code switch between the two depending on the context. Here are examples of words particular to Kinshasa French. As in Abidjan, there exist various registers and the most educated people may frown upon the use of slangish/lingala terms.

  • cadavéré means broken, worn out, exhausted, or dead. It is the local pronunciation of the standard French word cadavre whose meaning in standard French is "corpse". The word cadavéré has now spread to other African countries due to the popularity of Congolese music in Africa.
  • makasi means strong, resistant. It is a loanword from Lingala.
  • anti-nuit are sunglasses worn by partiers at night. It is a word coined locally and whose literal meaning in standard French is "anti-night". It is one of the many Kinshasa slang words related to nightlife and partying. A reveler is known locally as un ambianceur, from standard French ambiance which means atmosphere.
  • casser le bic, literally "to break the Bic", means to stop going to school.
  • merci mingi means "thank you very much". It comes from standard French merci ("thank you") and Lingala mingi ("a lot").
  • un zibolateur is a bottle opener. It comes from the Lingala verb kozibola which means "to open something that is blocked up or bottled", to which was added the standard French ending -ateur.
  • un tétanos is a rickety old taxi. In standard French tétanos means "tetanus".
  • moyen tê vraiment means "absolutely impossible". It comes from moyen tê ("there's no way"), itself made up of standard French moyen ("way") and Lingala ("not", "no"), to which was added standard French vraiment ("really").

African member states of La Francophonie[edit]

10,000-Central African CFA franc (€15; US$20) banknote, used in 6 countries of central Africa.
French is the language of instruction in most of Francophone Africa. Here: School in Burkina Faso.

Membership of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie does not require or imply that the French language is a primary language, or even a widely understood language, in a particular country. The names of countries that were never ruled by a Francophone colonial power (France or Belgium) are italicised. Algeria, a former part of metropolitan France and the second largest francophone country in Africa, has so far refused to join the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie due to political tensions with France.

African countries with the largest numbers of French speakers[edit]

Algiers Metro subway ticket, in Standard Arabic and in French.

According to the 2007 report by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie,[3] the African countries with more than 5 million French speakers are:

African countries with the largest percentages of French speakers[edit]

According to the 2007 report by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie,[3] the African countries where more than 50% of the population can speak French are:

  • Algeria (not a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie): 57%[9]

See also[edit]


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Population Reference Bureau. "2013 World Population Data Sheet" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-12. 
  2. ^ United Nations. "World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision" (XLS). Retrieved 2013-09-12. 
  3. ^ a b c d e (French) La Francophonie dans le monde 2006-2007 published by the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. Nathan, Paris, 2007
  4. ^ (French) Le français à Abidjan : Pour une approche syntaxique du non-standard by Katja Ploog, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2002
  5. ^ (French) Marita Jabet, Lund University. "La situation multilinguistique d’Abidjan" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  6. ^ a b c (French) Bertin Mel Gnamba and Jérémie Kouadio N'Guessan. "Variétés lexicales du français en Côte d'Ivoire." (PDF). p. 65. Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  7. ^ "Languages: Crowd-Sourced Online Nouchi Dictionary". Rising Voices. 2012-07-30. Retrieved 2012-09-02. 
  8. ^ (French) Suzanne Lafage (2002). "Le lexique français de Côte d'Ivoire". Archived from the original on 4 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  9. ^ a b (French) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of France. "Le français dans le monde". Archived from the original on 10 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-10. 
  10. ^ (French) INSEE, Government of France. "Les résultats statistiques du RP 2002". Retrieved 2007-06-10. 

External links[edit]