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Lingala is a Bantu language spoken throughout the northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a large part of the Republic of the Congo, as well as to some degree in Angola and the Central African Republic. It has over 10 million speakers.
The History of Lingala
In the 19th century, before the creation of the Congo Free State, the Bangala, (literally: ‘river people’), were a group of similar Bantu peoples living and trading along the bend of the Congo River that reached from Irebu at the mouth of the Ubangi River to the Mongala River. They spoke similar languages, such as Losengo, but their trade language was Bangi, which was the most prestigious language between Stanley Pool (Kinshasa) and Irebu. As a result, people upstream of the Bangala mistook Bangi for the language of the Bangala and called it Lingala (language of the Bangala), and European missionaries followed suit.
In the last two decades of the 19th century, after the forces of Leopold II of Belgium conquered the region and started exploiting it commercially, Bangi came into wider use. The colonial administration, in need of a common language for the region, started to use the language for administrative purposes. It had already simplified, compared to local Bantu languages, in its sentence structure, word structure and sounds, and speakers borrowed words and constructs liberally from other languages. However, the fact that speakers had very similar native languages prevented Lingala from becoming as radically restructured as Kituba, which developed among speakers of both Bantu and West African languages.
Around 1900, CICM missionaries started a project to “purify” the language in order to make it “pure Bantu” again. Meeuwis (1998:7) writes:
Missionaries, such as the Protestant W. Stapleton and later, and more influentially, E. De Boeck himself, judged that the grammar and lexicon of this language were too poor for it to function properly as a medium of education, evangelization, and other types of vertical communication with the Africans in the northwestern and central-western parts of the colony. They set out to ‘correct’ and ‘expand’ the language by drawing on lexical and grammatical elements from surrounding vernacular languages.
The importance of Lingala as a vernacular has since grown with the size and importance of its main center of use, Kinshasa; with its use as the lingua franca of the armed forces, and with the popularity of soukous music.
European missionaries called the language Bangala, after the Bangala people, or Lingala. The latter was intended to mean ‘(language) of the Bangala’ or ‘of the River’ (that is, ‘Riverine Language’. However, this was an error, as the proper Bangi form would have been Kingala. The name Lingala first appears in writing in a publication by the CICM missionary Egide De Boeck (1903).
Characteristics and usage
Lingala has many borrowings from French, even in its basic vocabulary. The language also contains some Portuguese influence, such as its words for butter (mántéka), table (mésa), shoes (sapátu), and some English and Dutch influences; for instance, the word for milk (míliki), book (búku), or motor-car (mótuka). In practice, the extent of borrowing varies widely with speakers, and with the occasion.
The Lingala language can be divided in several dialects or variations. The major variations are considered to be Standard Lingala, Spoken Lingala, Kinshasa Lingala and Brazzaville Lingala.
Standard Lingala (called lingala littéraire or lingala classique in French) is mostly used in educational and news broadcastings on radio or television, in religious services in the Roman Catholic Church and is the language taught as a subject at all educational levels. Standard Lingala is historically associated with the work of the Catholic Church and missionaries. It has a seven-vowel system /a/ /e/ /ɛ/ /i/ /o/ /ɔ/ /u/ with an obligatory tense-lax vowel harmony. It also has a full range of morphological noun prefixes with mandatory grammatical agreement system with subject–verb, or noun–modifier for each of class. Standard Lingala is largely used in formal functions.
Spoken Lingala (called lingala parlé in French) is the variation mostly used in the day-to-day lives of Lingalaphones. It has a full morphological noun prefix system, but the agreement system is more lax than the standard variation, i.e. noun-modifier agreement is reduced to two classes. Regarding phonology, there is also a seven-vowel system but the vowel harmony is not mandatory. This variation of Lingala is historically associated with the Protestant missionaries’ work. Spoken Lingala is largely used in informal functions, and the majority of Lingala songs use spoken Lingala over other variations. Modern spoken Lingala is increasingly influenced by French; French verbs, for example, may be “lingalized” adding Lingala inflection prefixes and suffixes: “acomprenaki te” or “acomprendraki te” (he did not understand, using the French word comprendre) instead of classic Lingala “asímbaki ntína te” [literally: s/he grasped/held the root/cause not].Download the Lingala Dictionary