05 April 2009

not the queen's english

Bamenda, Cameroon – “English-speaking,” I have learned, is a relative term. When we first arrived in Bamenda six days ago, I was excited to be in a region of Cameroon where language would be less of a barrier to interacting with the locals. Then we went out to Bamenda’s most posh restaurant—we’re still talking fluorescent lighting and 3,000 CFA ($6) entrees here—and I got a reality check. After spilling some Top Pamplemousse (Cameroon’s delicious homegrown brand of grapefruit soda) on the table and floor, I went back to the bar to ask the bartender for some napkins. My initial request was met with a look of incomprehension. I gradually simplified my question to just “napkins?”, but that didn’t work either. I finally got the message through by miming a spilling beverage and wiping motion.

The majority of people in Anglophone Cameroon don’t speak the Queen’s English in their daily lives. The true lingua franca is Pidgin, a blend of English and local languages that is incomprehensible to a speaker of standard English. To give you a small taste of how different it is, prior to our mountain bike trip along the Ring Road I asked one of the local Peace Corps volunteers for a short primer on asking for directions in Pidgin. I was told that “which way to Ndu?” would be translated as “wu side Ndu de?” The word “side” does come from the English, but as you can tell, the meaning of the word is a little bit different than the sense we are used to.

That said, most of the Cameroonians I have met in this region can speak and understand English fairly well, as long as you adopt what the Peace Corps folks call “Special English.” Special English entails speaking very slowly, enunciating clearly, eliminating contractions, and introducing a bit of a lilt to one’s voice. It’s funny, but this seems to be the one place in the world where the stereotypical “ugly American” way of speaking to the locals—i.e. speaking more slowly and loudly, as if the listener were stupid—actually works. I’m told there is one volunteer in this region who has got Special English down so well that now he can’t turn it off, even when talking with other Americans. I’m pretty bad at Special English, which means that even here, Kate does most of the talking with the locals.

Some of the importations from English are downright hilarious to American ears. Whereas in the north of Cameroon I would be addressed as “nassara,” here I am “white man.” “White man” is a unisex and even a plural term; thus Kate is also “white man,” as are the two of us together. In almost every village we biked or hiked through, children would shout to us from the roadside; at one point we got shouts of “WHITE MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN” in stereo from both sides of the road, the kids apparently competing to see whose lungs could hold out the longest. Another of my favorites is “I will beat you” (that’s “beat” in the sense of “smack around,” not “defeat”), which seems to be the preferred idle threat among children and Peace Corps volunteers. Cats are referred to as “pussy,” and a kitten is “small pickin’ pussy” (“pickin” somehow means “children”). But my favorite local phrase of all is “you are welcome”—Cameroonian hospitality in action.


Bob said...

I'm curious -- In Ghana, the phrase "you are welcome" was commonly used as its literal translation suggests it would be, to welcome me and my compatriots to a place or situation. Is it the same in Cameroon, or do people actually use it as an otherwise meaningless response to "thank you"?

Shawn said...

Definitely the former. We also heard shouts of "you are welcome!" from the roadside- which isn't as funny as "white man," but it did have its intended effect of making me feel more at ease in the new surroundings.

I also neglected to mention that a little girl in Missaje made up a song for us. It went: "white man, white man, white man / white man is a good man" (repeat ad infinitum). The melody was strikingly similar to "dreidel, dreidel, dreidel."

Anonymous said...

Shawn you should visit this blog http://www.postnewsline.com/2009/04/cameroon-not-the-queens-english-.html if you have not already?

You find your article has touched some nerves - and trust me not in the right way.

You also got some challenges - hoping to see if your take on it.

Fun reading though.

Afrika said...

I sense some European superiority in this writer's tone...and why are you surprised Anglophone Cameroonians don't adhere to the Queen's English in everyday life? are we governed by the queen? what an idiot. I would advice you to read some A' level Literature scripts in Cameroon. Then you will discover that we write better English than those alcoholic British teenagers who spend their time having sex and "hot-boxing" tents.

For comments on this ethnocentric piece of junk, please visit


Anonymous said...

You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I sense some European superiority in this writer's tone...and why are you surprised Anglophone Cameroonians don't adhere to the Queen's English in everyday life? are we governed by the queen? what an idiot. I would advice you to read some A' level Literature scripts in Cameroon. Then you will discover that we write better English than those alcoholic British teenagers who spend their time having sex and "hot-boxing" tents.

Posted by: UnitedstatesofAfrica | Wednesday, 22 April 2009 at 03:32 PM

Why should we speak Queen English when we are not English? Dow n right stupid think to think about

Posted by: Samm | Wednesday, 22 April 2009 at 07:43 PM

I guessed the writer in his mindset journeyed to Cameroon in order to watch black monkeys satisfy his curiosity, such as speaking the Queen's language and upon discovery of Pidgin English, he thinks he has discovered a novelty about the African country...What a disgusting point of view! This demonstrates a degree of ignorance coupled with idiotic arrogance, not even forgivable on the standards of education earned at Cambridge University!

First of all, he does not seem to know that Pidgin English was imported by the missionaries, accompanied by freed slaves from the English-speaking world and it was the only medium of communication between the Western world and the Africans - sort of a compromise between the the English spoken by the explorers and the natives, and facilitated by the freed slaves. He seems to assure himself he has mastered the language in 6 days and could further instruct other expatriates on the intricacies of Pidgin English. This is so typical of Europeans!

Secondly, he is so stupid to realize every part of the world has an accent over a language. Even in Britain not everyone understands the Cockney accent. What does he really mean by "Special English"? He tries to attach some inferiority that Africans speak English slowly...can he speak the local languages in Cameroon at a fast pace? This is what baffles me about some of these Europeans whose shallow view narrows their understanding! I shall propose he visits a neighboring EU country and peek at the different language accents that pervades the country. I would love to invite him to visit Germany and try a taste of Bavarian German in comparison to Ruhr German. Would it be that some Germans speak "Special German"?

Finally, I think he should re-read his history/geography books. If he thinks Cameroon belongs to the British dominions, then he should recheck his senses. Even Australia - one of the British territories that respects the Queen as a ceremonial Head have expressions in English that differ from the so-called Queen's language.

In fact, the writer had embarked on a journey in Cameroon to self-glorify himself as a master White man coming to help and illuminate the poor Africans and was rather dismayed that his expectations were not satisfied. After failing to confirm the nauseating clichés propagated in the western in media about Africa, he resolved to select the language topic as a means of reminding himself on his alleged superiority.

If he reads my comment, I would like to sit down with him and have a chat with him in various languages, beginning with my local native tongue originating from the Ndop plains... If he succeeds to speak faster than me, I shall scrape off my comments, else he shall owe all Cameroonians an apology for his mockery-laced, self-glorifying article.

Posted by: Reex Flames | Wednesday, 22 April 2009 at 09:22 PM

Most Cameroonians speak more than one language which means that the other languages they speak will definitely affect the way they speak English.Is English our mother tongue?How many languages can he speak?I am in the UAE, a country where every British can be a teacher because he/she speaks English "stylishly".

Posted by: nadine | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 04:57 AM


Posted by: nad | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 08:39 AM

I don't know why The Post always insists on publishing such racist rubbish from "Oyibos" who visit Cameroon...and in case the writer didn't notice, I referred to his or her skin color in PIDGIN not the "Queen's English". You have a problem with that? go suck an egg.

Posted by: UnitedstatesofAfrica | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 09:01 AM

I wish I met that ignorant idiot to compare our knowledge of the English language. And above all to discuss with him in the French language and some ngemba dialects. That would make him never to write such trash again.a

Posted by: routine | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 09:18 AM

The Tittle alone amuses me. It reminds me of when i was in a University in the Netheralnds and the Business english professor outrightly told me 'Cameroonian English is not really English' - I laughed before responding to his ignorance (becasue a few minutes later he realised i had the highest TOEFL results of 8 on 9 in the class) - he was a dutch guy who had studied i the Uk for 3 years and thought he could speak with an english accent.

Such Ignorance and Stupidity

Posted by: Le Chiffre | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 09:38 AM

Just wanted to remind the people who put this website together that it is customary not just to steal blog posts from other blogs without, at the very least, providing crediting the author and providing a link.

I'll do it for you in this instance.

The link is here:


Posted by: Steve Jackson | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 11:08 AM

I agree with Steve Jackson about crediting authors of copied articles. As a Cameroonian, I find it appalling to discover the article was actually copied and pasted here without due credits to the author.

Sadly, this negates our whole effort of criticizing the contents of the article and renders the contributions of bloggers less effective.

Anyway, I would love the author to comment on the reaction from the bloggers and for the sake of debating, I will emphasize our comments were not meant to be inflammatory but to clear some common clichés, which are used to describe European-African interactions - most of the time over-simplified representation of Africans and their cultures.

As the blogger (Malum from the blog site: http://intlmanofmystery.blogspot.com/2009/04/not-queens-english.html)stated to the author (Shawn) of the article: "You also got some challenges - hoping to see if your take on it."

Posted by: Reex Flames | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 12:25 PM

This guy does not understand what is meant by language twisting.Being in the best university does not make him an intellectual because he fails to think before writing.Language has being and will always be a means of communication that is influence by TIME,PLACE AND EVENTS.He refused to understand that he was now an immigrant in Bamenda where he was supposed to learn the language and culture of the people in that region.What does he mean by the queen's language.we have hundreds of languages that are enough for communication,so when visiting cameroon next time he shouldn't forget his pen and paper for the definition of language and first lessons on how to integrate.

Posted by: oyibbao | Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 01:01 PM

Naneh said...

Some of the previous writers make a lot of sense but their angry comments might derail readers from the real issue.
I am surprised our Cambridge-trained could pass judgement on Anglophone Cameroonians based on his interaction with a bartender and some local children. That is just like Judging England fron what one sees in the council estates of economically disadvantaged areas like Sunderland. In any case, the author needs to know that a normal Anglophone Cameroonian post secondary school speaks his native language, English, French and pidgin almost very fluently! And today, we encourage ourselves to know and speak our local languages first before any other! So our cambridge-trained might just have been talking to somebody in his third or fourth language - his local language, pidgin, maybe French before English! Is that too much to understand then, that his use of certain Englsih words might be affected by the above languages? And for information, pidgin IS NOT a descendant of English!
The next time you travel to Africa, endevour to speak certain local language as well. Otherwise be thankful that people even bother to understand you!

Naneh said...

Shawn, a whiteman said; 'I also neglected to mention that a little girl in Missaje made up a song for us'. Do other English language masters find anything wrong with this? Obviously shawn is translating from another language to English. In english,it is appropriate to say 'I forgot to mention that....' and NOT 'I neglected to mention that.....'.
Also there is an outcry from some English language foundations that the English spoken even on the BBC by British journalist has become appalling. Not to mention what British youths speak these day!!
Hey, I am an anglophone Cameroonian based in the UK as a professional and I speak good English; I am 100% certain that if a national english test is done in the Uk, I will be in the top 10% - but English is my third language. Yes THIRD!!
So Cambridge-trained should appreciate little things like people who speak other more important languages trying to understand him.

Shawn said...

I have posted a reply here: http://intlmanofmystery.blogspot.com/2009/04/response-to-my-critics-re-not-queens.html

watoh said...

I want to draw the attention of this English graduate student to the following facts to enable him understand why the "Queen's English" is not a legacy of the British colonial administration in the Southern Cameroons under United Kingdom Trusteeship. From the occupation by the French and British at the end of World War I in 1918 of part of German Kamerun (renamed Cameroons) to independence in 1960/61 (more than 50 years), the British did very little with regard to education in the territory. For instance, it did not create a single high school before 1961. Elementary education was managed by the Native Authorities (in accordance with British Indirect Rule policy). The elementary schools created by the colonial government were located in the few existing administrative divisions. The only secondary institutions created by the British were elementary school teacher training centres (GTTC) and Ombe Government Technical “College” (GTC), to train technicians for the few existing factories, industries and agricultural farms such as the Commonwealth (Cameroon) Development Corporations (CDC). The only two secondary schools that existed (Bali and Sasse) were created by the Basel and Roman Catholic Missions. A year to independence, the Endeley government provided grants to Sasse College to start a higher school course to prepare students to enter university. After three years, the science course was dropped because of poor performance due to lack of good teachers. It appears the British government offered little or no help for this.

Were it not for missionaries (Catholic and Presbyterian) who created two secondary schools (notably, Basel Mission College, Bali, and Saint Joseph's College, Sasse), few Southern Cameroonians would have had a grammar school education. A few elementary school graduates managed to go to Nigerian government secondary schools. The College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST) project for Nigeria and the Southern Cameroons, which were to be the embryos of Universities for these countries at independence, were not implemented by the trusteeship authority (UK) in the Southern Cameroons before independence on 1st October, 1961. Whereas, since independence in 1960, those in Nigeria have become full-fledged universities awarding advanced degrees, CCAST Bambili is still a high school.
So, in a nutshell, regarding education, the United Kingdom breached the UN trust to administer the British Cameroons in a manner to prepare them for independence. Contrary to the British, the French, with their assimilation and 'civilizing mission' policies, did much better to create a few government secondary schools that produce graduates who continued their education in France.

The citizens of the North West and South West Provinces (formerly Southern Cameroons) should be praised for achieving the level of English they have today. That they speak English with a local accent is immaterial. As there is such a thing as American, Nigerian or Australian English, there is also Cameroonian English. The visitor has a duty to learn it - if he or she wants to interact with the people. It is not for them to adjust their English to meet the demands of a visitor. In the US, when an American interacting with me tells me that I speak English with an accent, I respond,
"You don't speak English, you speak American. I speak English - the Queen's English." “Why”, he would ask. “Because I was a subject of Her Majesty the Queen of England, having been born and raised in a country that was part of the British Empire”, I would explain.

Furthermore, how many educated English people know a foreign language? Most Anglophone high school and University graduates have a working knowledge of four languages (National, Pidgin, French and English).

These comments should not be construed as constructive criticism of this student; they should give him a better perspective of language as a means of domestic and global communication.