Section 1

A Comparative Survey of Mambila Dialects

Bruce Connell

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology

University of Oxford

(Research project funded by the ESRC, # R 000 23 5283)

1. Description of project

The broad aim of the project is to contribute to knowledge of African languages, the relationships among them, and the historical implications of these relationships. Specifically, a proposed linguistic grouping, 'Mambiloid' is being examined, to assess both the relationships among the languages of the group and their claimed affiliation to Bantoid. In achieving these aims, a substantial database of this at present little known group of languages is being developed. The database will in part comprise a comparative audio linguistic atlas of the Mambila region of the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland, as well as including other information on the languages, and will be available on CD-ROM. It is intended that this database will provide an invaluable resource for other researchers working on African languages as well as general linguists and, in addition, will provide an important tool for teachers of historical and comparative linguistics and those concerned with language development and education in the Mambila region.

The project consists of two phases. The first is the data collection and development of the database, and the second the analysis of the data to determine: (a) the relationships among these languages; (b) their overall connection to other languages of the region; and (c) the implications of these relationships for language evolution in sub-Saharan Africa. More generally, as language is one of the few keys we have to the history of this region, the results of the analyses will lead to greater knowledge of African social history, as well as our understanding of linguistic evolution.

The fieldwork involves of a number of trips to the Mambila region, found on both sides of the Nigeria - Cameroon border, for data collection. The research tools are, first, a wordlist of approximately 1000 words, which includes both basic vocabulary (e.g. a Swadesh-type list), and terms for specific culture items, e.g. foodstuffs, artifacts, flora and fauna; these are included for their potential for providing historical insight. In addition to the wordlist is a set of sentences designed to elicit the basic grammatical structures of the languages being documented.

2. The linguistic and geographical setting of the Mambiloid languages.

The languages said to constitute the Mambiloid group (Blench, 1993) straddle the Nigeria-Cameroon border (Map One). Geographically, the region is diverse, divided between the mountainous Mambila Plateau in Nigeria and the Tikar Plain and Adamawa Plateau in Cameroon. The escarpments forming this division, roughly speaking, follow the frontier (see Map Two). For the most part the Mambila languages are located in the mountainous region, with some dialects being spoken on both the Tikar Plain and the Adamawa Plateau.


Map One: Central West Africa showing the Mambila region.

A linguistic family tree, adapted from Blench, presents one view of the internal and external affiliations of the languages of the Mambiloid group. This more or less follows accepted thinking with respect to the upper nodes of the tree (e.g. Williamson 1971, Greenberg 1974), while the branching within Mambiloid represents a new proposal. It is tentative, presented by Blench as a working hypothesis, and is certain to come under substantial revision. Alternative views, either general or with respect to specific aspects of this tree, have been presented in Endressen (1991) Boyd (1994) and Piron (1995). The debate is particularly interesting given the proposed relationship to Bantu and that these languages are in the region of the assumed Bantu homeland.

Figure One: Blench's (1993) proposal for grouping the Mambiloid languages.

One of the striking aspects of the group is the diversity found within Mambila, the largest language (with approximately 110,000 speakers) of the Mambiloid group. It is arguably the most internally diverse of the Mambiloid languages and could perhaps more accurately be described as a language cluster, as several of the dialects are not mutually intelligible. Research in progress suggests that the accepted view, established by Perrin & Hill (1969), of a basic dialect division between plateau and plains varieties of Mambila is not accurate.

Relative to Mambila, the other languages are small and comparatively uniform across dialects. Vute's 10 dialects (Guarisma, 1978) are widely scattered but have about 30,000 speakers; Wawa, sometimes considered a dialect of Vute, has some internal variation (three or four dialects), but totaling no more than 3,000 speakers and apparently with only minor variation in lexicon and phonology. Kwanja has at least three dialects, though one of these, Njanga, is clearly moribund. Risnes (1989) reports four, including Twendi, but Blench has tentatively placed Twendi as being closer to Mambila. Current research suggests this to be more appropriate. Twendi has approximately 35 speakers still actively using the language, with the youngest being in his mid-forties. The language is not being transmitted to the younger generations. There is uncertainty as to the number of speakers Kwanja has, with estimates ranging between 6,000 and 20,000. 1 Dialect variation exists lexically, phonologically, and perhaps most interestingly in morphology.

Mbongno and Mvano are said (by Mbongno speakers) to be mutually intelligible. Population figures are not available. Somyev is spoken by 15 - 20 people in the village of Kila Yang in Nigeria and perhaps half a dozen people in the village of Hore Taram Torbi in Cameroon. It was once the language of the former blacksmith caste and consequently it is sometimes referred to as 'Kila', the Fulfulde term for 'blacksmith'. The youngest known speaker is in his mid-forties, though people somewhat younger claim to understand it. Tep is spoken by between 1,000 and 2,000 people in the western part of the Mambila Plateau in Nigeria. Little information is available for Fam and Ndoola (aka Ndoro) which are spoken off the Plateau, to the north and west. Nizaa (aka Nyemnyem or Suga) is spoken in the northern part of the Mambiloid area in Cameroon.

In addition to these, Yamba (aka Kaka in Nigeria), a Grassfields language is also relatively widespread in the southern part of the region. Yamba speakers typically do not learn Mambila or any other local language (and vice versa), though virtually everyone except the very young has some command of Fulfulde, which has become the lingua franca of the region. In Nigeria, English or Pidgin is also used while in Cameroon French is also used by the educated. Tikar borders Mambila and Kwanja on the Tikar Plain, to the south of the Mambiloid speaking area.

The approximate distribution of the Mambiloid languages is given in Map Two. mambiloid_t.gif

Map Two: Approximate distribution of Mambiloid languages

3. Bibliography of linguistic work on Mambiloid languages

The following is a more or less complete list of works related the linguistic study of the Mambiloid languages. Some include no more than a short wordlist or a passing reference to a Mambiloid language, some are general reference works, while others deal directly with a Mambiloid language.

Bendor-Samuel, J. T., & Perrin, M. (1971) A Note on Labialization in Mambila. In Actes du 8me Congres International de Linguistique Africaine I (Ann. Univ. Abidjan Ser. H.) (pp. 119-129).

Bennett, P., & Sterk, J. S. (1977) South Central Niger-Congo: a reclassification. Studies in African Linguistics, No. 8 241 - 273.

Blench, R. (1993) New developments in the classification of Bantu languages and their historical implications. In D. Barreteau, & C. v. Graffenried (Ed.), Datation et Chronologie dans le Bassin du Lac Tchad (pp. 147-160). Paris: ORSTOM.

Blench, R. M. (1993) An outline classification of the Mambiloid languages. Journal of West African Languages, XXIII 1, 105-118.

Blench, R. M., & Zeitlyn, D. (1989/1990) A web of words. SUGIA (Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika), 10/11 171-186.

Boyd, R. (1994) Historical Perspectives on Chamba Daka. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Connell, B. (1995) Dying Languages and the Complexity of the Mambiloid Group. Paper presented to the 25th Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics, Leiden.

Endresen, R. T. (1991) Diachronic aspects of the phonology of Nizaa. JALL, 12 2, 171-194.

Endresen, R. T. (1992) La phonologie de la langue nizaa. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 1 1, 28-52.

Greenberg, J. H. (1974) Bantu and its closest relatives. Studies in African Linguistics, Suppl. 5 115-124.

Grimes, B. F. (1992) Ethnologue (12th ed.). Dallas: S.I.L.

Guarisma, G. (1978) Etudes vouté (langue bantoïde du Cameroun). Paris: SELAF.

Guarisma, G. (1987) Dialectometrie lexicale de quelques parlers bantoïdes non bantoues du Cameroun. In G. Guarisma, & W. J. G. Möhlig (Ed.), La méthode dialectometrique appliqué aux langues africaines (pp. 281-329). Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Hedinger, R. (1989) Northern Bantoid. In J. T. Bendor-Samuel (Ed.), The Niger-Congo Languages (pp. 421-429). Lanham MD: University Press of America.

Jackson, E., & Stanley, C. (1977) Description phonologique du Tikar (parler du Bankim). SIL Yaoundé, Cameroon:

Meek, C. K. (1931) Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria. (Two Vols.) London: Kegan Paul.

Meyer, E. (1939) Mambila-studie. Zeitschrift für Eingeborenen-Sprachen, 30 1-52,117-148, &

Perrin, M. (n.d.) Outline of Mambila phonology statement (Gembu). SIL Yaoundé, Cameroon

Perrin, M. (n.d.) The tone system in Mambila: some further comments. Unpublished manuscript.

Perrin, M. J. (1974) Direct and Indirect Speech in Mambila. Journal of Linguistics, 10 27-37.

Perrin, M. J. (1974) Mambila. In J. Bendor-Samuel (Ed.), Ten Nigerian Tone Systems (pp. 93-108). Jos: Institute of Linguistics.

Perrin, M. J. (1976) Degrees of Verbal Status in Mambila. Paper presented to the 12th West African Languages Congress 14-20 March 1976.

Perrin, M. J. (1978) Who's Who in Mambila Folkstories. In G. E. Grimes (Ed.), Papers on Discourse (pp. 105-118). Dallas: S.I.L.

Perrin, M. J. (1980) Mambila. In M. E. Kropp Dakubu (Ed.), West African Language Data Sheets Vol. 2 (pp. Mam1-Mam5). Leiden: W.A.L.S. & African Studies Centre, Leiden.

Perrin, M. J. (1987) Cours d'initation à l'orthographe de la langue MAMBILA. Yaoundé: S.I.L.

Perrin, M. J. (1987). Rapport sur Recherche en la Langue Mambila. C.R.E.A., Yaoundé.

Perrin, M. J., & Hill, M. V. (1969) Mambila (Parler d'Atta): Description Phonologique. Yaoundé: Universite Federale du Cameroun.

Piron, P. (1995) Classification interne du groupe bantöide. PhD., Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Risnes, O. (1989) Report of the linguistics and sociolinguistic survey among the Kwanja (Konja). In S.I.L. Cameroon, Annual Report 1988-1989 (pp. 31-38). Yaoundé: Société Internationale de Linguistique, Yaoundé.

Starr, A. (1989) Sociolinguistic survey of Wawa, a Mambiloid language of Cameroon. SIL Yaoundé, Cameroon

Thwing, R. (1982) A preliminary analysis of Vute kinship terminology. Ms.

Thwing, R., & Thwing, R. (1979) A phonology of Vute (Babute). SIL, Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Weber, J., & Weber, M. (1987). A Phonology of Kwanja (Súndàní Dialect). Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon.

Weber, M., & Weber, J. (n.d.) A Dictionary of the Kwanja Language. Ms.

Williamson, K. (1971) The Benue-Congo Languages and I5jo5. In T. Sebeok (Ed.), Current Trends in Linguistics (pp. 245-306). The Hague: Mouton.

Zeitlyn, D. (1991) Aspects of Mambila social deixis. Paper presented to the 21st Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics, Leiden.

Zeitlyn, D. (1993) Reconstructing kinship or the pragmatics of kin talk. Man, 28 2, 199-224.

Zeitlyn, D. (1994) Mambila figurines and masquerades: problems of interpretation. African Arts, Autumn 1994 38-47.

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