Documenting Wawa –

a Mambiloid language in the Cameroon-Nigeria borderland.



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Table of Contents


1 Introduction. 3

2. The location: Oumiari 3

3 Language endangerment of Wawa. 5

3.1 Historical reasons for endangerment 5

3.2 Endangerment of Wawa. 6

3.4 Why care?. 7

4 The language ecology of Wawa. 9

4.1 Demography. 9

4.1.1 Number of speakers. 9

4.1.2 Nature of setting?. 9

4.2 Sociology. 9

4.2.1 Socioeconomic status and economic health of speakers?. 9

4.2.2 Degree of language transmission. 10

4.2.3 Nature of previous/current maintenance efforts. 10

4.3 Linguistic. 11

4.3.1 Linguistic capabilities of speakers. 11

4.3.2 Degree of language standardisation. 11

4.3.3 Nature of in- and out-migration. 11

4.4 Psychology. 12

4.4.1 Language attitudes of speakers. 12

4.4.2 Aspects of language-identity relationship. 12

4.4.3 Attitudes of majority group towards minority. 12

4.5 History. 12

4.5.1 History and background of the group and language and of the area in which the group now lives  12

4.6 Political 13

4.6.1 Rights and recognition of speakers. 13

4.6.2 Degree and extend of official recognition of language. 13

4.7 Geography. 13

4.7.1 Geographic situation. 13

4.8 Education. 14

4.8.1 Speakers’ attitudes and involvement regarding education and state of education in the area  14

4.9 Religion. 14

4.9.1 Religion of speakers and type of association between language and religion. 14

4.9.2 Importance of religion in the area. 15

4.10 Economics. 15

4.10.1 Economic health of speaker group. 15

4.11 Technology. 16

4.11.1 Group and language representation in media and general public awareness of area. 16

5 Ethnobotany. 16

6 References: 17




1 Introduction

The Nigeria-Cameroon borderland is one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, with many languages either near extinction or severely endangered. Wawa is a Mambiloid language spoken in the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland with an estimated number of speakers of roughly 3000 in 1991 (Gordon 2005) and consists of 3 main dialects (Connell, personal communication).  It is closely related to the Vute of Banyo (Starr 1989) and shares many cognates with other Mambiloid languages[1]. The only linguistic data on Wawa currently available other than my own research is a recorded and partly transcribed wordlist of about 800 words for each dialect recorded by Dr Connell.


This PhD project is closely affiliated with two other PhD projects at the University of Kent on endangered languages in the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland. Laura Robson will document the Njanga dialect of Kwanja in the village Mbondjanga, near Bankim, while Sascha Griffiths will work in Oumiari village on word ancd construction grammar of Wawa. His data will be part of the Wawa language documentation.


2. The location: Oumiari

There is no official spelling of the village name. The locals write it as Woummyari, Oumyari and in other ways. I will stick to the spelling Oumiari, as it is used in an official map of the area. The village Oumiari is situated ca. 18 km north-west of Banyo and ca. 15km east of the Nigerian border. On the following map I have marked both Oumiari and Banyo.


(Figure 2: map of Cameroon: source: Google maps online, 14.6.07)


Oumiari village is on the Adamawa plateau at about 1000 m altitude, so the climate is quite dry, compared to the humidity one finds in the lower regions. The village consists of  14 quarters, each situated at approximately 1km from the next one and each having between 10 and 150 inhabitants.


According to Allan Starr (1989) there are thirteen Wawa villages, all of which are situated west of Banyo.

Main (central) village quarter which has the biggest mosque. In this picture people are bringing the things (mostly produce) which they want to go sell in town. Every Friday there is a car coming to pick people up from the village to go into town.




3 Language endangerment of Wawa

3.1 Historical reasons for endangerment

Wawa is spoken on a daily basis in the village. It is the language of the home and friends. However, people younger than 35 years tend to use many words from the regional lingua franca Fulfulde. This influence has historic reason I will shortly describe below.


The Fulbe are mostly nomadic herdsman and can be found throughout Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Burkina-Faso, Nigeria and Cameroon in considerable numbers and even beyond that in scattered minorities. In other countries the Fulbe are referred to as Fulani, Foulah, Peul, Fellatta and other names, but they share the same ethnicity. The Fulbe come originally from Senegambia, where local people mixed with Berbers coming from the north. There are two kinds of Fulbe People, often called Town Fulani and Cattle Fulani: The Cattle Fulani are mostly nomads that lead a rather politically indifferent life as Muslims, while the Town Fulani are settled in villages. The Fulbe first migrated into Cameroon during the 13th and 14th century and settled in the Adamawa region. Over the centuries the number of the Fulbe increased and they rose from being migrants to a position of power. They did, however, not occupy one homogenous territory; each migrant group formed their own settlement (Njeuma 1990).


The Fulbe were the first people to be converted to Islam in the region and during the 19th century they waged jihad under Uthman dan Fodio, a Hausa, starting in 1804. The goal for the jihad was to set up governments under Muslim leaders or to improve the knowledge and commitment to Islam of already existing Muslim communities. Their strategy was to enslave people that lived in small settlements, and convert them by force or by threat of force. Bigger communities that had a central government were given the option to pay tribute and not convert (Njeuma 1990). Gausset (2003: 188) also claims that the economic and political considerations of the conquest were in fact much more important than the religious ones, and by converting the local people the slave trade would have dried up. He states that “It was not so much for the sake of religion that many Fulbe, who were not yet Muslims at the time of conquest, participated in this enterprise [the jihad]; it was rather in order to free themselves from submission to local chiefs, to gain access to grazing areas, and to enrich themselves in the slave trade” (Gausset 2003: 188).


The Fulbe created lamidates all over the region, and by 1860 they had founded over forty lamidates under Muslim leadership. The Fulbe preferred often not to convert their enslaved victims, as they couldn’t afford a shortage of labourers, and it is against their religion to enslave co-religionists. They slaves would thus have lost their slave status once converted (Njeuma 1990).


The impact of the Fulbe jihad can for example be seen in the fact that there is a Wawa community in Nigeria, which we were told had to flee from the Fulbe. The Wawa converted to Islam mostly in the 1950’s and 1960’s and had not been converted by the Fulbe during the jihad. When the Fulbe arrived in the Banyo area, the Wawa only evaded being enslaved by helping them to conquer the sultanate of Banyo (Gausset 1999).


The Fulbe have since had to accept the Wawa as their equal in status, as the Wawa can read the Quran, but culturally this is not reflected very strongly. There are two Fulbe quarters in Oumiari and the local Immam is also a Fulbe. These people have never learnt Wawa and don’t see the need to, as all Wawa are bilingual with Fulfulde. Whenever there is a one Fulbe within a group of Wawa the language of conversation is Fulfulde. Due to this all public discussions and meetings are held in Fulfulde. Wawa is only used when all participants speak it well, thus only among Wawa people.


The influence of Fulfulde on the language is very strong. The amount of loan words in the language of Wawa people younger than 35 is very high and among the younger generations ever growing. The children don’t know how to count to ten in Wawa anymore and also older people have to think hard sometimes to come up with the right number in Wawa, as I and my colleague refused to use Fulfulde numbers. The normal way of counting would be 1-5 in Wawa, 6-9 in Fulfulde and 10 in Vute, from 11 on is again counted in Fulfulde. Fulfulde has even penetrated the domains of animal names and kinship terms. Many younger people are not even aware of their code mixing. They may use a Wawa word in one sentence and the Fulfulde word for the same thing in the next sentence. As mentioned before everyone is bilingual with Fulfulde, so either language is well understood.


3.2 Endangerment of Wawa

There are many different definitions of an endangered language in the literature. Stephen Wurm (1998: 192) gives a five-level classification of language endangerment:


potentially endangered – communities that are under pressure from another larger language and are beginning to lose child speakers

endangered – communities that have few or no children learning the language

seriously endangered – the youngest good speakers are over 50 yeas of age

moribund – communities that have only a handful of good, but very old, speakers left

extinct – communities that have no speakers left


David Crystal also uses a five-level system, but defines endangered languages as  being “spoken by enough people to make survival a possibility, but only in favourable circumstances and with a growth in community support” (1992: 20).


This definition is a little more optimistic than Wurm’s, but it follows that if nothing is done within community support, the language will die.


To apply these definitions to the Wawa language situation, it seems that the language is not very endangered, as it is still transmitted to children, although they might not speak “pure” Wawa (as far as any language can be pure) anymore, as they use many Fulfulde words. But, one will find many children in European countries using English words. The reasons for seeing Wawa as endangered are mainly the lack of prestige of the language due to historical reason explained above, no written material available on the language and the heavy lexical and syntactical (sentence structures)  borrowing taking place. For example when creating an ‘when/if…then’  phrase Wawa speakers use the Hausa word /to/ ‘if/when’ and the particle /-ni/ attached to the end of the sentence to mark its dependence on the next phrase, i.e. to show the sentence isn’t complete yet. I have not yet been able  to find the original Wawa way to express this kind of structure, and elicitation is difficult, as the structure has been incorporated into the Wawa language long ago.


In Africa, where the language of education is often at least officially a colonial language and different from the languages used for everyday life, the use of indigenous languages in education could make a significant change to the prestige of these languages. So far, nothing has been done to develop the language, such as creating an orthography or language material.


3.4 Why care?

So why should we care about endangered languages and language death?

One rather amusing answer could be that of David Berreby who says:


“It is no surprise that linguists and activists promote maintaining spoken languages. Just as the Poultry and Egg Council wants us to eat eggs, linguists want languages to study… It would be a terrible thing to run out of languages.” (2003)


Also Kenan Malik wrote in the magazine Prospect:  “What if half the world's languages are on the verge of extinction? Let them die in peace.” (2000).


What both of these two essays disregard is the loss to science if the languages would die before they could be documented. African languages in particular can give us vital clues about history (Childs 2003) and movement of people, and language contact through trade and travel. Tsunoda