Bantering with the Bantu

Jeff Good, PhD, chair of the Department of Linguistics and author of "The Linguistic Typology of Templates," discusses unique social dynamics of language in Northwest Cameroon, as well as how technology is helping create a clearer picture of who speaks what, where and why.

Kenema Kailahun Road 

By ELIN HAWKINSON

Published January 2018

A language map of the Lower Fungom region. 

Bantu languages may dominate Sub-Saharan Africa today, but that wasn’t always the case. Among other things, Jeff Good’s research explores the socio-linguistic effects of Bantu expansion over the past few thousand years. Since 2004, he’s zeroed in on a unique cluster of languages in Lower Fungom, a region of Northwest Cameroon. This cluster includes an estimated 7-9 languages, but given that adults often speak several, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number. Not to mention, they’ve never been formally written down. 

“Multilingualism is like an insurance policy in Lower Fungom,” Good stated in a recent presentation. “The more languages one speaks, the wider range of resources one may access.” 

Crossing Tongues

In an area with multiple villages, language is directly tied to political independence (to retain village status, there must be an associated language), as well as a complicated social hierarchy. One dramatic example of the power of language in Bantu society revolves around a conversation recorded by Rachel Ojong, a Cameroonian PhD student who works with Good’s team:

SR: Did you come up to Fang? I heard that you were chased away there.
JR: Chased away? It was not me, it was Manto.
SR: So where did you go? 

JR: I reached here and saw you in this bar. 

SR: You are still a child.  

Two men, one senior and one junior, engage in a tense exchange (left), conducted mainly in the senior man’s village language, Buu (blue) and then the junior man's language, Missong (yellow).

A noticeable shift occurs when, unexpectedly, the junior man switches to his own village language, signaling that he no longer wishes to continue the conversation. The encounter ends shortly afterward with the senior man departing in a huff. 

“Being lower status in that particular social context, the junior man could not simply walk away, but the ability to signal his displeasure by changing the language is a microcosm for larger patterns of language interaction in this part of Africa,” Good explains.  

Jeff Good (Photo: Doug Levere)

Colloquial Cartography

At UB, Good finds fertile ground for interdisciplinary collaboration. For instance, he’s working with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to develop a data-collection tool for smart phones that could help linguists capture endangered languages before they disappear, and with Ling Bian, PhD, of the Department of Geography on detailed linguistic mapping using GIS and social network representations.

Instead of blanket language generalizations (e.g. Buffalo, N.Y. = English), these maps can visually display the wide variety of languages actually spoken on the ground in any given geographical area. In Lower Fungom, this could unearth previously camouflaged layers of multilingualism.

“Village A and Village C may not have any common language speakers, but through mapping we might discover that residents of Village B, in the middle, can speak all three languages,” Good says. “It’s very exciting.”  

To learn more about Jeff Good's research, visit: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jcgood/.