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date: 03 March 2021

African Englishes From a Sociolinguistic Perspectivefree

  • Rajend MesthrieRajend MesthrieSchool of African & Gender Studies, Anthropology & Linguistics, University of Cape Town


Four types of English exist in Africa, identifiable in terms of history, functions, and linguistic characteristics. West African Pidgin English has a history going back to the 15th century, 400 years before formal colonization. Creole varieties of English have a history going back to repatriation of slaves from the Caribbean and the United States in the 19th century. Second language varieties, which are the most widespread on the continent, are prototypically associated with British colonization and its education systems. L1 (First language) English occurred mostly in Southern and East Africa, and is best represented in South Africa. The latter shows significant similarities with the other major Southern Hemisphere varieties of English in Australia and New Zealand. All four subgroups of English are growing in numbers.

1. Historical Background

As with most parts of the world, English continues to grow in Africa, long after the heyday of British trading, slavery, exploitation and colonization. The form and functions of English have long diversified on the continent, depending on the history of particular regions and the nature of the contacts with speakers of English. Those contacts may be extended to include islands off the mainland of Africa like Mauritius, Tristan da Cunha, and St Helena, originally uninhabited and then populated partially with enslaved people from Africa. The continent displays a wide range of forms of English—Pidgin, L2, Creole, and “transplanted” L1. On the mainland the earliest significant presence of English was in West Africa, then Southern Africa, next East Africa and North Africa. All these are predated by English on the island of Tristan/St. Helena, which Schreier (2008, p. xi) characterizes as the oldest Southern Hemisphere variety of English in the world. The growth of English in the 20th century extended to all parts of the continent, with areas that were under French, Portuguese, or German influence finding it hard to resist the globalization of English. The historical account in this section is a summary and update of Mesthrie and Bhatt (2008, pp. 1–17), in relation to the foundations of English in Africa.

English (in an Elizabethan form) was probably first heard in Africa in the 1530s when William Hawkins the Elder passed there on his way to Brazil (Spencer, 1971, p. 8). This was not the first European language to be used on the continent, as Portuguese and its simplified contact varieties take precedence here. A regular trade in spices, ivory, and slaves began in the mid-1500s when British ships sailed along the Guinea coast (Schmied, 1991, p. 6). With other powers following suit, European forts were built along the West African coast. English became established as British supremacy in trade gradually grew. During this time West Africans were taken in small numbers to Europe to be trained as interpreters. An account in Hakluyt (1598–1600, vol. VI) cited by Spencer (1971, p. 8) suggests that by 1555 five West Africans had been taken to England for over a year for this purpose. In South Africa a similar development took place centuries before formal settlement by the English. The Cape was seen as a stopping place for European ships en route to the East Indies before the 17th century. Trade and barter with the local coastal Khoesan inhabitants led to the development of a small lexicon (or “jargon”) that included words from Dutch, Portuguese, and English (Den Besten, 1989). Moreover a few Khoesan people were taken to England to learn English; others were taken on ships bound for the East to acquire English in the process and eventually serve as interpreters (Malherbe, 1990).

These earliest contacts between locals and foreign English speakers were informal and sporadic. There was no expectation of a permanent settlement or of formal colonization until centuries later. In this early phase pidgins and ‘broken English’ (i.e., early-fossilized interlanguages) were the main outcomes of contact. These were not short lived: West African Pidgin English, whose roots lie in the 17th and 18th centuries, is today more widespread (in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana) than English as a second language. Pidgin English was not the only code used, as the African interpreters returning from training in England would have acquired English as an L2.

St. Helena English has its roots in the 17th century when the East India Company began its reign there, taking over from the Portuguese and Dutch (Schreier, 2008). The island, up till then unpopulated, was soon filled with English settlers, West African and Malagasy slaves, French Huguenots, and still other settlers. The island served as a halfway station for the infamous middle passage between West Africa and the Americas. Schreier (2008, p. 246) comes to the conclusion that St. Helenian English just about falls into to the category of creole.

Two varieties that gained significance in West Africa (from about 1787 onward) were the forms of Creole English spoken by manumitted slaves who were repatriated from Britain, North America, and the Caribbean. Krio was the name given to the English Creole of slaves freed from Britain who were returned to Sierra Leone, where they were joined by slaves released from Nova Scotia and Jamaica. Thereafter, Liberia was established (in 1821) as an African homeland for freed slaves from the United States. The Creole English that the returnees brought with them was most likely related to African American Vernacular English (Hancock & Kobbah, 1975, p. 248, cited by Todd, 1982, p. 284). Today, American rather than British forms of English continue to dominate in Liberia (Singler, 2004a, 2004b). In addition to these forms of English in West Africa, Todd describes two further types: standard written West African English (mostly oriented to the United Kingdom, with the exception of places like Liberia) and francophone West African English.

English settlement in East Africa followed a slightly different course from that of West Africa. English ships began making trips toward the east coast of Africa by the end of the 16th century, prior to the formation of the British East Africa Company. An alliance was formed with the British Indian government in 1810, resulting in Mombasa being made a protectorate of the Crown. Whereas in West Africa local people had very little exposure to native speakers of English, giving prominence to Pidgin English, in east Africa “‘native speakers were present in considerable numbers, had great influence in government and filled a higher percentage of teaching posts’” (Hancock & Angogo, 1982, p. 306).

In North Africa English was not as influential as Arabic and French. However, given that places like Egypt had “‘protectorate’” status in the British empire, English was not entirely foreign here. South Africa provides the largest mother-tongue base for English in Africa, though even here the percentage was never more than 10%. The settlement was relatively late, first of administrators and military personnel in 1795 (in Cape Town), with civilian populations from 1820 onward.

2. English-Based Pidgins in Africa

Pidgin Englishes of Africa have exhibited durability, and should not be mistaken as transient forms, associated with incomplete mastery of a target language. Their historicity, as outlined, goes back to the initial contacts with European traders, sailors, and slavers. Huber (2004, p. 842) emphasizes that trading contacts in the Gold Coast (later called Ghana) date back to 1471. This phase lasted for almost 400 years before formal colonization by Britain in 1844. Menang (2004, p. 903) notes that by the 18th century Pidgin English was firmly established throughout the West African coast. In addition to these early contacts, some pidgins appear to have absorbed some vocabulary from the creoles brought back by freed slaves from the Caribbean and American South (in the 18th and 19th centuries). English-based pidgins in West Africa fulfill a range of functions today beyond their original historical role. One of these is as a lingua franca among equals when there is no other language available for the purpose. Thus pidgin can play a vital role in the multilingual urban marketplaces of West Africa (see Menang, 2004, p. 905 for Cameroon). When new plantations were established within Africa, a pidgin variety proved useful in uniting a diverse labor force. It is also an important medium when young people gather, especially in schools and now at universities (Huber, 2004, pp. 869–870). Menang elaborates four functions for Pidgin English (also known as Kamtok) in the Cameroons: an ecclesiastical function (in evangelization and liturgy), a commercial function (as in the marketplaces), a technical function (for technological and knowledge transfer), and a lingua franca function (among urban dwellers and students). Menang shows how Cameroon (with more than 200 languages), functions in terms of four lingua franca zones—French, Fulfulde, Pidgin English, and possibly a Fang-Beti zone. Menang considers the Pidgin English zone to be “matched only by the French zone in the size of its population” (Menang, 2004, p. 905). Although Pidgin English is often associated with lack of an advanced education in English, it carries an increasing symbolism of youth, especially maleness and urban modernity. Huber (2004, p. 870) proposes that Pidgin English is slowly becoming more acceptable within the universities of Ghana, where previously it was proscribed: “This is because unlike their senior and linguistically more conservative colleagues, young male Ghanaian lecturers did speak Pidgin at the time they were students.” All of these considerations mean that pidgins are likely to grow in West Africa, together with languages associated with traditional culture, formal education, and higher echelons of employment. Finally, it is necessary to stress that the boundary between pidgin and creole is not very clear-cut given that (a) the creoles of the area (like Krio) exerted an influence on the growth of pidgins, (b) pidgins are becoming acceptable as one of the languages of the home in places like Nigeria and Ghana, and (c) creolists today acknowledge the considerable overlap between pidgins in extended use and a creole in the sense of an L1.

West African pidgins share many phonological similarities with the L2 English in their area, but this is less true of the syntax (see Mesthrie, 2004a, 2004b).

3. English-Based Creoles in Africa

Also influential in West Africa (from about 1787 onward) were the forms of Creole English spoken by manumitted slaves who had been repatriated from Britain, North America, and the Caribbean. Krio is the name of the English Creole spoken in Sierra Leone, brought there by manumitted slaves from Britain, Nova Scotia, and Jamaica. Liberia was established in 1821 as an African homeland for freed slaves from the United States. Hancock and Kobbah (1975, p. 248, cited by Todd, 1982, p. 284) propose that the Creole English that the returnees brought with them was most likely related to African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This variety is today called Liberian Settler English and continues to be special within Africa, insofar as American rather than British forms of English continue to dominate there. Singler (2004a) distinguishes between Liberian Settler English and Vernacular Liberian English. The former is the language of the Settler ethnic group, in which the effects of formal education can be seen. Nevertheless, it can still be considered a direct descendant of 19th-century African American English that the immigrants brought to Liberia. The latter, Vernacular Liberian English, is historically a variety of the pidginized English that had earlier developed along the West African coast, but which shows so much influence from Settler English, as “to diverge sharply from pidgin English in the rest of West Africa” (Singler, 2004b, p. 875).

Singler (2004a, 2004b) shows how an analysis of the Settler variety can illuminate debates about the early history of AAVE. The debates revolve around an Anglicist position that the core features of AAVE can be found in British English dialects of earlier times (McDavid & McDavid, 1951) and the Creolist position that AAVE began as a creole, evolving features that were maximally distinct from the superstrate (Rickford, 1975). Furthermore, Singler is able to posit that Liberian Settler English is more conservative than AAVE even, given that the frequency of the diagnostic features he identifies is greater in Liberia.

4. L2 Englishes in Africa

The second language varieties of English in sub-Saharan Africa have been studied mostly from a synchronic perspective, within the paradigm of “World Englishes” (Kachru, 1983), in which the development of new norms features strongly in the face of language contact and transfer from the substrates feature strongly. The terms ‘nativization’ and ‘indigenization’ feature prominently in these descriptions. Mesthrie and Bhatt (2008, pp. 10–11) propose a separation of these terms to indicate the psycholinguistic property of L2 fluency of processing (nativization) versus the sociolinguistic property of blending the L2 into its local physical and human context (indigenization). The substrates are potentially any of the major language families of Africa, but in practice the most prominent ones appear to be languages of the Niger-Congo family. This family contains the large and influential West African and Bantu subgroupings. Varieties of English in sub-Saharan Africa have been studied for their phonological and morpho-syntactic similarities, as well as differentiating features.

4.1 Salient Features of Phonology

Among the major phonological tendencies in Bantu languages that are relevant to English in Africa is the prevalence of five or seven vowel systems, in which length is not distinctive and diphthongs absent (Clements, 2000, p. 135). Furthermore, African languages tend to have few instances of vowel reduction to schwa. Accordingly, most of the varieties in sub-Saharan Africa, especially those spoken by people with lower levels of formal education and hence few contacts with educated speakers, display a five vowel system, with less than a full set of Standard English diphthongs and few traces of schwa. Figure 1 gives as an example the South African English L2 vowel system, using Wells’s (1982) lexical sets for monophthongs.

Figure 1. Five-vowel system—type 1 (Southern Africa idealized).

In this five-vowel system KIT and FLEECE are realized as /i/, FOOT and GOOSE as /u/, DRESS and NURSE as /e/, LOT and THOUGHT as /o/, and TRAP, STRUT, and BATH as /a/. There are some complexities to these phonological idealizations in Figure 1. The first is that TRAP is split phonologically into /a/ as per Figure 1, but with monosyllabic tokens is more often realized as [e]. TRAP1 (a raising to [e] or [ε‎]) can be found in words like have, trap, fat, back, happy, and bat. Words of this subset tend to be monosyllables or occasionally disyllables. On the other hand, the polysyllabic words of Wells’s TRAP set shown in Figure 2 have TRAP2 (a central low [a]): salaries, analyst, adamant, academic, etc.

Figure 2. Five-vowel system—type 2 (East Africa idealized).

In East Africa the system is the same, except for one crucial and salient difference: the NURSE vowel is realized as /a/ not /e/. Speakers from these two areas are learning to recognize this as a major dialect marker. In West Africa NURSE has the same realization as in Southern Africa, but STRUT is realized as /o/, showing the system in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Five-vowel system—type 3 (West Africa idealized).

Cameroon, at the western edge of Central Africa, shows a fourth pattern, intermediate between East and West Africa. Like West Africa STRUT patterns with LOT, but unlike the other areas NURSE also joins this set, as in Figure 4. For NURSE the usual realization is [ɔ], though some words in this set take [ε‎] (Simo Bobda, 2004, p. 888).

Figure 4. Five-vowel system—type 4 (Cameroon, Central Africa).

Despite the broad similarities owing to neutralization of length, the four types are thus distinguishable as follows: East Africa has /a/ for NURSE in contrast to the others; West Africa and Cameroon have /o/ for STRUT, unlike the others; Southern Africa has /e/ for some realizations of TRAP (i.e., a TRAP split between [e] and [a]); while Cameroon can be differentiated from West Africa by its [ɔ] realizations of NURSE.

The diphthongs of African Englishes lend themselves to fewer dialectological generalizations. A noticeable tendency is the monophthongization of FACE and GOAT. These are realized as [e] and [o], respectively, in East and West Africa, the Cameroons, and South Africa. That these are phonemically distinct as /e/ and /o/ from the other sets that might be conceived of as /ε‎/ and /ɔ/ appears to be the case in Southern Nigeria (Gut, 2004, p. 819) and possibly South Africa (Van Rooy, 2004, p. 947). However, for South Africa FACE and GOAT may have diphthongal realizations too.

4.2 Salient Features of Sub-Saharan English L2 Syntax

The syntax of African Englishes lends itself particularly well to the analysis of features within the paradigm known as World Englishes (Kachru, 1983). It had been noted quite early within the development of this field that varieties of English arising out of colonial and classroom contact in diverse parts of the world had a large number of similarities. These applied particularly to varieties in Africa and Asia. Mesthrie (2012) summarizes some of the major recurrent features of morphology and syntax for sub-Saharan Africa:


Tendency to use resumptive pronouns inside relative clauses: This is the kind of person that I would like to give an award to them.


Extension of the progressive into stative contexts, thus allowing be + -ing with verbs like love, understand, know, have.


High use of left dislocation in topic–focus constructions: The children—they are facing many challenges.


Occasional conflation of gender in pronouns, especially among less advanced speakers of the L2: My wife hurt himself.


A different system underlying presupposition concerning and responses to yes/no questions couched in the negative: Q: Aren’t you a doctor? A: Yes (I’m not a doctor).


Tendency to extend plural –s to non-count or mass nouns (staffs, machineries, lug gages).


Comparative and superlative forms without ‘more’ or ‘most’ (He is one of the radical students that you can ever find; He loves his car than his children).


Use of prepositions with verbs like mention (about), discuss (about).

Because all of the above except (d) and (g) are also reported in L2 varieties of English of Asia, the case for universals of L2 psycholinguistic processing would appear to be strong. Factors like analogy, regularization, and overgeneralization would appear to be operative here in the context of absence of full access to L1 speakers, and hence L1 speech norms. But some role for contact is obviously indicated, not just with (d) and (g), but with other examples too. In fact current corpus-based research is uncovering subtle differences in constructions in individual varieties, even where they appear at first sight to be broadly the same (e.g., Sharma, 2009; Paulasto, 2014 for qualitative differences, Van Rooy, 2009 for frequency differences).

5. L1 Englishes

The main L1 English in Africa, showing continuity with the L1 British English “matrilect,” is the variety spoken by descendants of 19th-century English settlers in southern Africa, chiefly in South Africa and (decreasingly) Zimbabwe. The variety now called “White South African English” is an important one on the continent, because it provided the input, or was an influential model to L1 varieties that jelled in neighboring countries in southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, etc.) and East Africa (especially Kenya). As Lass (2002) observed, although the origins of 19th-century British settlers in South Africa were diverse, the variety that emerged in South African showed the influence of the input from the south of England: in being largely non-rhotic, in distinguishing TRAP from BATH, and STRUT from FOOT, and having lengthened [æ] before voiced stops, including /m/ and /n/ (as in bad, bag, man). Within South Africa there were originally three strands that merged into a continuum: (a) Cape Town English dating to 1795, spoken largely by an administrative, sailing, and military segment; (b) Eastern Cape English dating to 1820, spoken by a class of settlers of mainly upper-working class origins from the Home Counties (Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Essex, etc.); and (c) Natal English dating to the 1840s, comprising a mixture of origins with a middle class segment perhaps dominating and a mixture of people from the North and South (Lanham & Macdonald, 1979). The Eastern Cape variety would have been the most similar to other Southern Hemisphere varieties in the Antipodes: the 1820 settlement was a mere 32 years after the first British settlements in Australia and 20 years before formal British colonial rule in New Zealand. The Natal variety is perhaps closer to the other “Southern variety”—that of the United States (settled from the 17th century on), with which it shares some prominent phonological rules: glide weakening of PRICE, fronting of the nucleus of the MOUTH diphthong, fronting and lowering of the nucleus of the GOAT diphthong, and lowering and retraction of the nucleus of the FACE diphthong (see Tillery & Bailey, 2004, p. 333 for the southern U.S. vowel realizations; Lass, 2002 and Bowerman, 2004 for the South African ones). To these can be added prominent GOOSE fronting, which within the United States may have originated in the South and which has long been present in South African English (Hopwood, 1928, p. 22).

Lanham and Macdonald (1979) argued that while they were once initially distinct, the Eastern Cape and Natal varieties have become more similar because of the opening up of the mines in the northern interior of the country, which drew people from the coastal provinces (and from other territories worldwide). This resulted in the rise of the more prestigious Natal variables (like glide weakening in PRICE) as a counterforce (or substitute in Lanham’s thinking) for the more prestigious, but less available, RP-like varieties in the mining houses and elsewhere. And as White English speakers returned to the coastal areas a more homogeneous South African English spread, which today remains hard to describe purely in terms of regional variation. Bekker (2009) provides an acoustically based study with a detailed historical overview and an important new historical account of the dialect around Johannesburg, arguing—contra Lanham—for its relative autonomy from other centers in the country both historically and currently.

Historically, South African English shares a front vowel shift with other Southern Hemisphere varieties, especially New Zealand. In these varieties DRESS is raised to a position just short of high front, and TRAP is raised to a position closer to mid-front. Lass and Wright (1986) argued convincingly that this was a systemic selection from a range of variants found in working-class Victorian English. These changes form a chain shift with KIT, which is either raised and fronted (with quality of /i/) or centralized (to [ï]). The former option is taken in Australia. Both options are taken in South Africa, where an allophonic distribution occurs between [i] or [I] in velar, glottal, and initial environments and [ï] elsewhere (Wells, 1982, p. xx). In New Zealand the fronted allophone is reported only before the velar nasal [‎]. The complications with the KIT allophone have been called the KIT-split (Wells, 1982). Schreier (2008, p. 243) notes that St. Helenian English also has variation in this short front vowel set, with closer rather than more open articulation. South Africa is not as “advanced” as New Zealand in the chain shift, where to South African ears the degree of raising of DRESS and TRAP is greater, and more widespread socially (Bauer & Warren, 2004, p. 586).

More recently—since about 2000—young, middle-class White South Africans have been showing signs of adopting features that go contrary to the front short-vowel chain shift. In a detailed study of the new norms of young middle-class students and recent graduates in Cape Town, Chevalier (2016) shows the participation of what appears to be a new global trend of (a) the lowering of the front allophone of South African English KIT (to a slightly retracted [ë]), (b) a slight lowering of DRESS in comparison with older speakers’ norms (to a value between [e] and [ɛ]), and (c) a noticeable lowering and retraction of TRAP (to [a]). The most salient of these changes is the new realization of TRAP so that flash sounds (variably) somewhat like older flush, shatter somewhat like older shutter, and batter somewhat like older butter (without postvocalic /r/).

Bekker (2009) linked TRAP lowering in South Africa with developments in London and southeast England (Torgersen & Kerswill, 2004), where a reverse chain shift is evident with the fronting of FOOT, the extreme fronting of KIT, and lowering of DRESS and TRAP. This is a reversal and opposing trajectory to an older Cockney tendency of vowel raising (keb, kittle, and git spellings occur in 19th-century spellings for standard cab, kettle, and get) that was the precursor to Southern Hemisphere raising. Although Bekker (2009, p. 63) ties TRAP lowering in South Africa to this vernacular-driven shift in the south of England by invoking colonial lag, it is more likely to be a change from above, given that there is a middle-class, prestigious, experimental, or innovative aspect to it, with young middle-class females leading the way in “expressive” styles. Whereas around 2000, it was customary in my undergraduate second-year sociophonetics class to find many white students with vowel raising and almost none with the counter shift, by my class of 2009 the numbers were dramatically reversed. By 2015 students showed no familiarity with older speakers’ (raised) realizations. The new set of realizations has been dubbed the reverse front vowel shift. Chevalier (2016) argues that there is evidence of a pull chain, with TRAP lowering and FOOT fronting being the prime movers. In this regard young middle-class South Africans are following global trends, in keeping with similar developments in Canada (see Clarke, Elms, & Youssef, 1995 on the Canadian Shift), California (see Gordon, 2004, p. 347 on the California Shift), RP (Received Pronunciation) (Upton, 2004, p. 222), and Australia (Horvath, 2004, p. 640). For South Africa the most plausible source of influence is no longer RP but California, via Hollywood.

Language contact has also played a role in the unfolding of L1 White South African English, with Afrikaans being a major source of influence in lexis (trek, veld, and apartheid), syntax (e.g., and them as an associative plural marker), and phonetics (e.g., voiceless velar fricatives in proper names).

6. The Relation Between the Varieties of English in Africa

Thanks to the compendium afforded by Kortmann and Lunkenheimer (2012) it is possible to examine the varieties of English in Africa in relation to their characteristic sets of morpho-syntactic features. Their survey of 74 varieties worldwide included 18 ESL varieties, 30 regional varieties of L1 English, and 26 English-based pidgins and Creoles. The 235 features were divided into 12 sections as follows: I Pronouns, II Noun phrase, III Tense and aspect, IV Modal verbs, V Verb morphology, VI Negation, VII Agreement, VIII Relativization, IX Complementation, X Adverbial subordination, XI Adverbs and prepositions, XII Discourse organization and word order. The features analyzed are the most common ones reported in the World Englishes and English dialectology literature that differ from the grammar of standard English. Such features have come to be known as “‘Angloversals’” (Mair, 2003). Specialists in the different varieties contributed to a questionnaire and provided an overview essay on each variety covered in the project. For the questionnaire they provided rating responses per individual item as follows: obligatory or pervasive, neither pervasive nor extremely rare, extremely rare, absent, not applicable, no information available. Figure 5 is an update of a ‘Neighbornet’ diagram compiled by Kortmann and Lunkenheimer (2012, p. 930), taking into account all 135 features of the 74 varieties originally studied in the project. Neighbornet is a powerful statistical tool that arises out of bioinformatics and genetic modeling (Bryant & Moulton, 2004) and has found favor in linguistic typological characterizations (Cysouw, 2007). In Figure 5 the different branches (or clusters) of the “fallen tree” represent distinct subsets within the data, arrived at on the basis of similarities in linguistic features, rather than by geographical location. Nevertheless, the main branches show a great deal of geographical cohesion. The 16 African varieties of English surveyed fall into clusters 1, 5, and 7 in Figure 6.

Figure 5. A Neighbornet comparison of 75 varieties of World Englishes, showing similarities in a set of 134 linguistic features.

Courtesy of Kortmann and Lunkenheimer (2012).

Figure 6. Neighbornet clustering of 16 African varieties of English. Based on Huber (2012, p. 809).

Figure 6 shows the four different clusters for African Englishes in greater detail, which Huber (2012) lists as follows:


Krio & West African Pidgin Englishes,


Liberian Englishes,


Southern Africa, and


L2 Standard Englishes (outside Southern Africa).

Clusters I and II involve the pidgins and creoles of Africa, with a split between American-oriented Liberian varieties and the rest. Cluster III reflects the coexistence of L1 and L2 varieties of English in Southern Africa for over a century. Even though L1 and L2 varieties are distinct in Southern Africa, their coexistence has led to many similarities. An additional factor is the influence of Afrikaans, which takes L1 and L2 varieties away from a strongly British orientation—see the overall diagram in Kortmann and Lunkenheimer (2012, back inside cover). From a more general theoretical perspective, the data from Africa upholds the traditional distinction between creole and L2. It also upholds the more recent blurring of theoretical distinctions between extended pidgin and creole. It is also noteworthy that despite contact-induced and other changes in over two centuries the differences between Krio and Liberian Settler English Creole remain strong enough to place them in separate statistical clusters.

7. Conclusion: The Durability of Diversity

Opinions are divided about the relation between African Englishes and their antecedents. Huber (2012, p. 383) suggests that the essence of Ghanaian English is “not in radically new constructions but in a subtle rearrangement of the British English input.” Conversely for Cameroon, Simo Bobda (2012, p. 434) suggests that English has “so deeply settled” that it can be considered a new mother tongue (as is the case with French there). Opinions are also divided about the future relations with an exonormative standard English. Some writers stress the growing distance between the local standard and international standard English. Simo Bobda (2012, p. 436) forecasts that “any teaching seeking to significantly bridge the gap between the two varieties [Cameroon English and Standard International English] might meet with frustration and disappointment.” To further complicate the picture Schroder (2012, p. 442) points out that it is Cameroon Pidgin English that is “sometimes believed to represent the true—albeit unofficial—national language of Cameroon,” rather than the L2 English variety. While less prestigious than English or French, and not associated with a specific cultural identity, pidgin is considered more “African” than English or French.

As far as speech is concerned, it is likely that a continuum of usage between acrolectal L2 English and other varieties oriented toward pidgin, and more mesolectal L2 varieties will persist. Even in post-apartheid South Africa where sizable L1 English-speaking communities exist, the more traditional L2 variety’s star has not waned. It is the most commonly used variety in government communication and parliament, and is ever-present on radio and television. In parliament “authentic” L1 English is regularly challenged by “authentic” African English.

We may conclude that English in Africa comes in many shapes and sizes, all of which look set to grow.

Further Reading

  • Mesthrie, R. (Ed.). (2008). Varieties of English: Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.


  • Bauer, L., & Warren, P. (2004). New Zealand English: Phonology. In E. W. Schneider, K. Burridge, B. Kortmann, R. Mesthrie, & C. Upton (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English (Vol. 1, pp. 580–602). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bekker, I. (2009). The vowels of South African English (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa.
  • Boberg, C. (2004). English in Canada: Phonology. In E. W. Schneider, K. Burridge, B. Kortmann, R. Mesthrie, & C. Upton (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English (Vol. 1, pp. 351–365). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bowerman, S. (2004). White South African English: Phonology. In E. W. Schneider, K. Burridge, B. Kortmann, R. Mesthrie, & C. Upton (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English (Vol. 1, pp. 931–942). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bryant, D., & Moulton, V. (2004). Neighbor-Net: An agglomerative method for the construction of phylogenetic networks. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 21(2), 255–265.
  • Chevalier, A. (2016). The reverse front vowel shift in South African English (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Cape Town.
  • Clarke, S., Elms, F., & Youssef, A. (1995). The third dialect of English: Some Canadian evidence. Language Variation & Change, 7, 209–228.
  • Clements, G. N. (2000). Phonology. In B. Heine & D. Nurse (Eds.), African Languages—An introduction (pp. 123–160). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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