Congo has been cited as having as many as 250 languages spoken within its borders. In fact, the exact number is difficult to specify; it depends on whether or not a particular tongue is defined as a distinct language or merely as a dialect of a neighboring one.
French, an inheritance from the Belgian colonial era, remains the primary language of government, of the formal economy, and of most educational instruction. Four indigenous languages have also been recognized as having official status since the colonial era, namely Kikongo, Tshiluba, Lingala, and Kiswahili. All have been used at various times in official documents, in religious works, in school instruction, and in various published works. Some of these languages have also been used in radio and television broadcasts.
Early missionaries attempted the standardization of orthography and grammar for these and other languages. Lomongo, for example, has seen wide use in much of the Congo River basin, in large part because of its use and promotion by missionary evangelists and educators. Sango, a trade language used along the northern border with the Central African Republic, was similarly promoted, although on a smaller scale and with less success as a result of competition with Lingala.
Of the four most widely used indigenous languages, two are identified with Zaire's two largest ethnic groups, namely, Tshiluba with the Luba-Kasai of south-central Zaire and Kikongo with the Kongo of southwestern Zaire. Tshiluba orthography has been relatively standardized. Kikongo, however, has long existed in several dialects, one of which evolved into a trade language called Fiote used in contact with Europeans. Its use by early Belgian colonial authorities led to its being called "state Kikongo." It is also known as Kituba or Monokutuba and has long been spoken across the border in Congo; radio broadcasts in the language are made in both countries.
Kiswahili penetrated Zaire from the east, imported by Arab slavers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It spread over time throughout eastern Zaire and quickly established itself in the ethnically mixed population of the copper-belt towns. Once established, it endured; even the influx of large numbers of Tshilubaspeaking migrants to the copper towns failed to displace Kiswahili.
Since independence, the most prominent of the four principal indigenous languages has been Lingala. It first developed out of a trade language based on the Bangi tongue that was used on the lower Congo River between the Ubangi and Kasai tributaries in the late nineteenth century. Early European recruitment of soldiers from upriver regions necessitated selection of a language of command and of communication. Lingala was considered suitable, and its adoption by the military resulted in its spread wherever soldiers or veterans went. In addition, Lingala established itself early as the language of the capital. As with Kiswahili in the copperbelt towns, even the influx of large numbers of same mother-tongue immigrants, in this case of Kikongo-speakers (particularly in the post-World War II period), failed to displace Lingala.
The postindependence expansion of Lingala can be attributed to several additional factors. One is the enormous popularity of Zairian popular music, whose lyrics are mostly in Lingala. Lingala songs can be heard playing from radios in even the most remote villages throughout Zaire. Zairian music has reached an extremely wide area throughout sub-Saharan Africa and has established itself as one of the continent's most prestigious musical traditions.
Another reason for Lingala's extensive penetration is its use by truck drivers and traders along most of the roads, railroads, and waterways in the country. On major routes, even through the heart of Kiswahili-speaking northeastern Zaire, travelers may use Lingala to order food and lodgings in small African restaurants and inns.
In some cities, Lingala's expansion has been quantified. Kisangani, for example, which is in Haut-Zaire, sitting astride the eastwest dividing line between Lingala- and Kiswahili-speaking areas and long harboring both Lingala- and Kiswahili-speaking communities, has seen two communities shift from Kiswahili-speaking majority to Lingala-speaking majority since independence. More significant is the fact that Lingala in Lingala-speaking areas has become, as has Kiswahili in Kiswahili-speaking areas, the first language of the children of urban interethnic marriages. This development has occurred despite the fact that neither language was ever the first language of any historical, prenineteenth-century Zairian community.
A map showing the distribution of major languages is only marginally useful, however, as a guide to which languages are spoken where. Even where one ethnic group predominates, multilingualism may be common. An individual Zairian may speak French in the workplace, a regional trade language such as Lingala in marketplace conversation, and the mother tongue of his or her ethnic group in the home or with other members of the ethnic group.
Choice of language may be a vehicle for establishing a particular relationship or even for making a political statement. A police officer or other low-level government official may begin a request for a favor (say a ride on a commercial truck) in French, switching quickly to the more comfortable Kiswahili or Lingala once the "official" tone implied by the use of French has been set. And on a larger scale, President Mobutu's deliberate use of Lingala in his public addresses, even speaking to Kiswahili-speaking crowds in Bukavu and elsewhere, gave political expression to his reported rejection of Kiswahili as an acceptable Zaire-wide trade language because of its association with Arab slavers. Lingala was, in fact, the only African language Mobutu used in public.
The vast majority of languages spoken in Zaire are Bantu derivatives. Only in the north have other language groups been represented. Adamawa-Eastern languages are spoken in the entire northern portion of Zaire, interspersed in the east along the Uele River with Central Sudanic languages. In the far northeast (from Lake Albert north), the few Eastern Sudanic languages spoken in Zaire are heard, interspersed with Central Sudanic, Adamawa-Eastern, and an occasional Bantu language.
Crude estimates of the number of speakers of these language divisions have cited 80 percent of the population as speakers of Bantu languages. The remaining 20 percent may be divided, in declining numbers of speakers, among people speaking Adamawa-Eastern, Central Sudanic, and Eastern Sudanic languages.
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