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Sango, the National Language of the CAR

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Sango

National Language of the Central African Republic

Sign in "Ta Sango", or True Sango (actually Ngbandi)
Although French is the official language, a legacy of colonial days that has given Central Africa access to the world and is used almost exclusively even by Central Africans themselves for writing, Sango has been designated the national language of the Central African Republic. Mainly a spoken language, it is also used in written religious materials and sometimes appears on signs.

Actually, the writing on the sign at right (SIONDO: ta zo hondo me ma, lit: BAD-PLACE: not person pass place this not, the ta...ma construction akin to French's ne...pas) is written in what is known by linguists as Ngbandi or vernacular Sango and by non-linguists as tribal Sango, "River Sango", or "True Sango". This is a language with mutually intelligible dialects spoken by the Sango, Dendi, and Yakoma tribes concentrated around Mobaye and upriver along the Oubangi river. Maybe a fourth of the people in Kembe where I was stationed spoke Yakoma. Ngbandi is but one of some 69 tribal languages spoken in the CAR. Sango evolved or was pidginized from Ngbandi.

The origins of Sango (summarized in a Wikipedia article) are currently in dispute: the main proponent of evolutionary descent is Charles H. Morrill, The Emergence and Development of Sango", whereas the main proponents of a pidgin/creole are Helma Pasch (Is Sango a Pidgin/Creole or a Koiné?) and William J. Samarin (The Creation and Appropriation of a Pidgin,  A different view of Sango), with Marcel Diki-Kidiri staking out a middle ground that it is a reduced variety of Ngbandi. All agree that whatever its origin, Sango is an impoverished language relative to its base language. Crudely speaking, the focus of foreign linguists has been descriptive (categorizing the past and present language), whereas that of Central African linguists has been more prescriptive (enriching and improving its vocabulary, much as Hebrew was post-independence in Israel).

In contrast to the tribal vernacular Sango, the national language of the CAR is a distinct language known by linguists as vehicular Sango (and by non-linguists simply as Sango). The above sign (written in French and Ngbandi) says SIONDO: ta zo hondo me ma. This would be written (again, without accents, as was the custom when the sign was painted) in Sango something like: SIONI NDO: zo ahon ndo so pepe. Here you can see the strong overlap in vocabulary.

Regrettably, although almost all of my colleagues were Yakoma who spoke Ngbandi natively, I never learned their language while I was in the CAR. Instead, the language I attempted to learn and will describe from here on is the national lingua franca Sango, spoken and understood by almost 5 million people, mainly concentrated in and around the CAR and the border areas of neighboring countries. Sango is the spoken language of commerce and everyday urban life, where many tribes interact, and is a cohesive force which may have helped to mitigate intertribal conflicts common in other sub-Saharan African countries. In shedding its colonial past, the CAR relies heavily on Sango to maintain and celebrate national unity without depending on French. India, in contrast, depends on English, the colonizing language, to unite a country, many of whose inhabitants do not speak Hindi.

Although Sango derives much of its vocabulary, phonology, and word order from Ngbandi, its use of enclitic tones to express mood and tense were lost, and much of its productive verb morphology was lost. One result, obvious to the casual listener, is a somewhat repetitive quality, with frequent use of a few glue words like  (of, in order to), na (in, at),  (the),  (this, that, which), tɛnɛ (to say) / tɛ̈nɛ̈ (thing said), as in Tɛ̈nɛ̈   zo  atɛnɛ na mbï atɛnɛ (What that man said to me was...). My sense was that this was not off-putting to my interlocutors, who in any case preferred to fill in conversation gaps with repetition, banter, and histrionic sound effects of exaggerated surprise, indignation, and condemnation, an additive affectation I readily adopted and learned to enjoy.

One ongoing factor in the Frenchification of Sango is a strong diglossic bias towards French as an outward sign of prestige and education, to the point that my fellow teachers would inject archaic French formalisms allowing them to show off their command of the subjunctive: de sorte que (such that), ne fût-ce que (if only), and liberal use of passé simple long dead in modern spoken French), even when speaking amongst themselves. Letters were signed with florishing signature after a long "Je viens auprès de votre tres haute bienveillance vous demander de bien vouloir agréer à mes souhaits les plus distingués", which means "I come before your very high benevolence to ask you to be willing to accept my most distinguished wishes". When I tried to speak Sango in the CAR, I compensated for my woefully small vocabulary with the injection of numerous French words, uttered apologically, but this was perceived less as ignorance than a sign of education. I noticed a similar affectation by the functionaries sent from Bangui to Kembe as administrators and teachers. They would speak exclusively in French to me, indeed with evident zeal and excess of verb forms long dead in modern spoken French.

Still, there has been push-back. Efforts are underway to "decreolize" Sango and enrich its vocabulary with neologisms based on morphemes reintroduced from Ngbandi, akin to the enrichment of German by Goethe, Schiller, and Luther by deconstructing Latin words into morphemes, translating these constituent parts, then recombining them: (G) unter-sagen (forbid) from (L) inter-dict, both meaning between-say; (G) Mit-leid (pity) from (L) com-passion and (G) sym-pathy, all meaning with-suffering. This type of language engineering requires active promotion and government sponsorship in a functional school system, which the CAR sadly lacks nowadays. Still, it is now taught and used in elementary school as the language of instruction (before switching to French for secondary education). The national radio station broadcasts in Sango (as well as in French) to diffuse educational and entertainment programs to rural areas. And of course it retains its original function as the language of missionaries who are still actively involved in the country today.

Sango is a fairly easy language with a reasonably small vocabulary and straighforward grammar. Complex concepts are constructed from easy ones, often in creative ways. For instance, the words ngû (water) and Nzap (God) are combined with the connective tî (of) to form ngû tî Nzap (rain, lit. water of God). One more creative neologism I heard from an Austrian expatriate was a phrase to describe a food not commonly found in rural CAR: mafüta (oil), ngû (water),  (breast), and bâgara (cow) combine to give (you guessed it!): mafüta tî ngû tî mɛ tî bâgara (butter). This feature makes Sango an entertaining and inventive (if sometimes long-winded) language.

The Sango Language

Sango Literature

  • The New Testament
  • Traditional Stories from Central Africa
    • Spider and Pig
    • Spider, Turtle, and Antilope in the Baobab Tree
    • Spider and the Great Genie of the Forest
    • Spider and Crocodile
    • Spider and the Spirits
    • Spider, Who Does Everything Only Once

Audio/Video


I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic 1988-1990, where I taught mathematics to junior high school students. If you have any questions or comments on Sango, the CAR, or the U.S. Peace Corps, feel free to contact me (Dan Weston) at daniel.d.weston@gmail.com. I miss Central Africa and love to talk about it!

Last modified on 21 July 2012.