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Language and Communication

Of the varieties of English spoken in Liberia, the most prestigious is standard Liberian English, used in formal political speeches, in the print and broadcast media, and at all levels of the education system. It is like the standard English used elsewhere in anglophone Africa except that its sound system and some of its vocabulary have been influenced by American rather than British patterns. Standard Liberian English is spoken by the elite and subelite of both Americo Liberian and indigenous origin and with varying degrees of competence by others.

Although standard Liberian English is frequently and fluently used by well educated AmericoLiberians, it is thought to be the home (or informal) language of only a few of them. The home language of most of the elite of this ethnic group is a tongue that linguist Ian Hancock calls vernacular Liberian English. Local terms for it are not favored by people who speak it, and some Americo Liberians attempt to suppress its use at home because it is often regarded as "bad English." It has been suggested that this vernacular is a descendant of a form of black English developed in the American south in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Brought to Liberia by the settlers, some of whom spoke standard American English, this variety of black English has been affected by standard Liberian English and by the African languages and pidgins spoken by the peoples with whom the settlers and their descendants came into contact.

Local variants of the vernacular are spoken by indigenous Liberians who have had sustained relations with Americo Liberians. These variants are marked by the influence, especially on the vocabulary, of the African mother tongues of their speakers. In some cases, e.g., that of the vernacular called Kepama, indigenous townspeople may speak the vernacular more readily than their mother tongue, reserving the use of the latter for special situations.

Other varieties making use of English are "Congo," soldier English, Liberian pidgin, and Kru pidgin. "Congo" is spoken by the remnants of the descendants of recaptured slaves, most of whom were absorbed into the Americo Liberian ethnic category. According to Hancock, theirs is a conservative version of the Americo Liberian vernacular, which some Americo Liberians claim not to be able to understand. That claim may simply reflect an Americo Liberian sense of superiority to the Congoes rather than a linguistic barrier. Both Liberian pidgin and Kru pidgin are English pidgins in the sense that much, if not most, of their limited lexicon is based on English, even if the sound systems differ from those of standard varieties of English. Grammar and syntax, however, appear to be simplified forms based on those of one or more African languages. Liberian pidgin differs from the Englishbased pidgins of anglophone countries farther east and from the Krio of adjacent Sierra Leone to the west. Kru pidgin, however, seems to be related to Krio and inay have been brought to the Kru coast in southeastern Liberia by Kru who had lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Soldier English seems to combine indigenous variants of vernacular Liberian English and Liberian pidgin and has been used by the military and the police. It is not clear, however, that it has been used as a language of command.

Many of the indigenous peoples of Liberia use the languages of neighboring tribes with varying degrees of competence, either because one of these tongues is a local lingua franca or simply because the inhabitants concerned live in the same or immediately adjacent coin in unities. Learning a second language may be easier if it is in the same linguistic family or branch as the learner's first language; for example, there seems to be a good deal of bilingualism among speakers of the Kruan languages. In northern and western Liberia, however, where all three subfamilies are rep resented, bilingualism occurs across their boundaries. The Belle, a very small group, use Loina as a trade language, and many of them use Loma within the community. In the Bopolu area, where many groups came together in the nineteenth century under the hegemony of the Mandingo or the Gola, many individuals can speak two or more languages of a set that includes not only Gola and Mandingo but also Kpelle, Gbandi, and perhaps others. In the coastal region and its immediate hinterland northwest of Monrovia, the Gola, the Vai, and the Dey may speak each other's languages with varying degrees of fluency. In particular, the Dey, a diminishing group, may use Gola or Vai as a home language.

The greatest interest in the development of orthographies for African languages has been shown by missionaries of various churches, mainly the Lutherans, who would have liked to render all or part of the Bible and other religious materials into the local tongues. Alphabets have been developed for several Liberian languages, and a script exists for Kpelle. But no indigenous language reaches more than about one fifth of the population. Further, it is not certain that an alphabet intended for an entire ethnolinguistic group would be adequate for all of its dialects.

Indigenous development of a script has occurred in one well known case, that of the Vai syllabary. Sometime in the first third of the nineteenth century, Dualu Bukele, assisted by several friends, created a script adapted to the writing of the Vai language. In the latter half of the twentieth century, after minor changes, the script used about 240 separate characters, most of which stood for specific consonant vowel combinations. The script, still in use in 1984, has been employed for a variety of purposes but perhaps most often for record keeping of one sort or another. In some instances people have learned the language in order to make use of the script. Some Vai, many of whom are Muslims, are literate in three different languages and scripts: Vai, Arabic, and English. The script has been kept alive largely as a matter of pride. It is not taught routinely to Vai children but is transmitted by knowledgeable elders to youngsters who express a desire to learn it.

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