Interviewed by Teresa Sofia Fortes
Your most recent book is entitled Africanismos na língua cabo-verdiana. How did this project come about?
This project originated a long time ago. Actually, the first time I studied the matter of the African heritage in the Cape Verdean language was during the writing of my doctoral thesis in 1990. In the second volume of my doctoral thesis, entitled “Cape Verdean: origins and future of a mixed language,” I discussed the issue of Africanisms. Later I was approached by an English publisher to write a wider article about the subject, which was written in 2002 and is a more extensive version of that I’d written in French. This article is about to come out. As you probably know, there is always a rather extensive lapse of time between the date of elaboration and the date of publication with regards to scientific publications. Meanwhile, last year I presented the English version of the article to the French Cultural Center in Praia and we thought it would be interesting to make this information available to the Cape Verdean public in a language that would be more natural for Cape Verdeans, in other words, Portuguese. Since I was working with the French Cultural Center on this project, it made sense for there to be a French version as well. So the French Cultural Center sponsored the translation into Portuguese and the layout of the book, and I managed to get financing for its translation into French. After the translation work was finished in 2008, I released the book on September 23, in France, and almost immediately thereafter in Praia and Mindelo.
In this book, you affirm that 5% of the Cape Verdean language’s lexicon is of African origin, and point out 70 examples of words that originated from African languages. What weight does this have in the Cape Verdean language?
After I concluded the book, I identified other words in the Cape Verdean language that are of African origin. At the moment, I have a list of some 80 words. Responding to your question: the weight of the African vocabulary in the Cape Verdean language is extremely low, equivalent to 3%. Examples include djobi (to look for, to look at), of Mandinga origin, and funko (round stone hut), of Timene origin, from Sierra Leone. Not only is it small in numerical terms, but also in terms of core vocabulary – in other words, the words that are used most in the Cape Verdean language – for example, man, woman, water – come from Portuguese, without exception. This African element in the Cape Verdean language is, however, important in order to know what African languages contributed to the emergence of Crioulo. Nevertheless, the African influence in the Cape Verdean language goes beyond vocabulary. You could think that the marginal weight of the African lexicon in the Cape Verdean language is similar to that of Gaul in the French language. French has some words of Gallic origin, but in no way could you say that French is a Gallic language. On the contrary, French is a romance language, everything or almost everything comes from Latin. This is the main difference between the African heritage of the Cape Verdean language and the Gallic heritage of the French language – if, from the lexical point of view, the African heritage in the Cape Verdean language is very reduced, from the grammatical point of view the influence is great, particularly with regards to verb morphology. With the same inflection, you conjugate different verb tenses. If we translate this into Portuguese – and here we always have to keep in mind that translation is betrayal – this sounds very strange. Verb conjugations in the Cape Verdean language are governed by aspect and not by tense. This is a radical change from romance languages like Portuguese. The same thing happens with noun inflections, for example fidju matcho and fisju fêmea (son and daughter), which probably have to do with an inheritance from Mandinga. Another example: burmedju d’obo (egg yolk), which corresponds word for word with what is observed in most of the Niger-Congo languages, which played a role in the development of Crioulo. The African influence is felt in semantics as well, as there are many expressions that have their origin in Wolof, for example. With regards to lexicon, maybe one day we’ll get to 150 or 200 words of African origin. In lexical terms, Portuguese is absolutely dominant, but in the grammar and semantics, it’s African languages. That’s why I can say with near certainty that Crioulo is an Afro-European language.
So is this what makes Cape Verdeans speak Portuguese incorrectly so often?
What trips Cape Verdeans up is the fact that the two have common lexical points. But the grammar, for the most part, is not of Portuguese origin. I think raising the Cape Verdean population’s awareness to the fact that Crioulo is not Portuguese would help a lot towards learning Portuguese well. In other words, it is important to understand that there are two mental schemes that are different, in spite of the points they have in common.
But there are Cape Verdeans who are opposed to the teaching of Crioulo and to its being made an official language, because, they say, it would make learning Portuguese more difficult. There is another school of thought that says the opposite, that is, that learning Crioulo (grammar, syntax and semantics) would make learning Portuguese easier.
I would agree with the second position. I understand this reluctance perfectly, because Portuguese is the maternal or vehicular language of more than 200 million people throughout the world, and Crioulo has a reduced number of speakers, approximately one million, including the diaspora. Obviously there are many social advantages that make people want to learn and speak Portuguese. Indeed, I don’t think anyone in Cape Verde is thinking about substituting the teaching of Portuguese with the teaching of Crioulo. But care must be taken. If only Portuguese is taught, you run the risk of seeing Crioulo disappear. It might not be in 100 or 200 years, but one day it will happen. A language that is not taught in all ways in today’s world is doomed. Cape Verdeans should take advantage of both of the languages that are a part of their cultural heritage. I don’t think there’s anything preventing learning and teaching the two languages alongside another. A well-constructed and well-programmed Crioulo curriculum would help make children and the rest of the population aware that they’re dealing with two different languages, and would probably help a lot of people to speak Portuguese better, because they would have a solid foundation so that they could then open p to other languages.
How can the influence of languages such as Mandinga, Timene and Wolof in the Cape Verdean language be explained?
Two things. With regards to the identity of the African languages that played a greater role in the genesis of Crioulo, Mandinga is absolutely dominant, followed by Wolof and, to a much lesser degree, Timene. If we consider the part of the African coast that corresponds to the zone in which Portugal was the predominant trading power in the 16th and 17th Centuries, we will see that these three languages were the most widely spoken vehicular languages in the region. Today still, especially Mandinga and Wolof remain extremely important vehicular languages. In other words, not only are they the native languages of millions of people, but they are also used by millions of other people who speak some other language in the home but use Mandinga or Wolof in their daily public lives. What we see is that the three languages that left the biggest imprint on Crioulo in terms of vocabulary are the three most widely spoken vehicular languages of the Niger-Congo region. These languages were not the mother tongues of most of the slaves that arrived in Cape Verde, but they were the international languages of the time. At the time of the Portuguese discoveries, the Mandingas founded the Kingdom of Gabu, which lasted until the 19th Century, if I recall. They sold non-Mandinga slaves to the Portuguese to populate Cape Verde. These slaves were not Mandingas, but were able to use Mandinga as a vehicular language. When these slaves would get together, since they couldn’t use their local languages, they would predominantly use Portuguese vocabulary, and for other notions would use the African languages within the reach of all of them, which were Mandinga, Wolof and Timene. Timene is the least known by those who have studied the Cape Verdean language. It’s a language that is now spoken in the north of Sierra Leone, in the extreme south of what was then the Captaincy of Cape Verde. Currently it is a language with a vehicular role that is much less important than in that time, in which it was the most commonly used language in the cola nut trade. Indeed, cola nuts are still the base product for the marriage dowry negotiation process in all of West Africa. Because of this important role in people’s social lives, a lot of people knew how to speak Timene. There are two types of words of African origin in the Cape Verdean language. There are some that entered Crioulo because they corresponded to realities unknown to the Portuguese, who are a European people with another culture. One example is polon (cottonwood tree). The word comes from Timene. There was no word for this in Portuguese, because there are no cottonwood trees in Portugal. But Portuguese also borrowed this word from Timene, and now has the word poilão. Another example: bombu (to carry on one’s back) is something that is not done in Europe, but is done very much in West Africa and in Cape Verde, at least on some islands. These terms of African origin remained in Crioulo because they express realities unknown to the Portuguese. Then there is another stratum of Africanisms whose presence in the Cape Verdean language is explained by the specificity of their semantic meaning. I’ll give you one example: the only African word attested to in this group is kundindin, which in Portuguese [and English – translator’s note] corresponds to the coccyx. I don’t know if in everyday Portuguese there’s a precise word, because coccyx is a scientific term. Another example: in Crioulo you say kume (eat) and nheme, which corresponds to chew. Nheme is a word of Mandinga origin. Now, it’s much easier to learn “kume” when learning Portuguese than “nheme,” because “chew” is much less frequently used.
You pointed out examples of words of African origin that are still part of the lexicon of the Crioulo spoken on Santiago. But there are also remnants of Africanisms in the other dialects of Crioulo, both in the Leeward and Windward Islands region of the archipelago, is that not right?
Of course. I don’t presume my work to be the final say in investigations in this area. The field is wide open. I’m absolutely sure that in the dialects of Crioulo spoken in the islands of Fogo and Brava there are elements of African origin that do not exist in the Santiago dialect. Some surveys have already been done. In the Windward Islands varieties there are fewer words of African origin, but they’re there. There is, for example, “tchapéu de gongon” (mushroom, literally “ghost hat”). More studies in this area must be carried out. The problem is that there are currently very few systematic descriptive works on the Crioulo spoken in the north of the archipelago.
If I’m not mistaken, the project for the teaching of the Cape Verdean language proposes that two dialects be taught in schools: that of Santiago and that of São Vicente. But people from the islands whose variants of Crioulo are not contemplated by this idea are outraged and won’t accept learning the dialect of others. How can this problem be untangled?
Cape Verdeans have to resolve this problem among themselves. I think what’s important is that people understand that the Cape Verdean case is not an exception, it’s the rule. Every culture with a written language that has been developed did so based on radical choices at a given moment in history and that won out over the others.
Yes, of course, that too. If we look at those languages that seem so naturally standardized, like Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, we see that they went through the same process as Cape Verde. Today’s English developed based on the dialect of London – in other words, the city of London imposed its English upon the other regions of the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. The same thing happened with French. It was the dialect of the region of Paris, which is small but, since it had a great deal of economic power at the time and was the seat of royal power, imposed itself upon the other varieties of French and the other languages that were spoken at the time and are spoken still. The Spanish of today is the Spanish of Old Castile, that is, of Cantabria, a very small part, in terms of surface area, of the north of Spain, that spread with the conquest of the Castilians and which is now the language of 400 million people. This means that if we look at history, we’re going to see that in each case there was this arbitrary choice, but one that has to be made. Cape Verdeans will have to make this choice as well, no matter what dialect is selected. Cape Verde is a small country in terms of surface area and population, and those who really count for the maintenance of Crioulo in the long term are those who live here, more or less 500,000 people, and with the country’s economic and human resources I think it would be very difficult to seriously develop education in the various dialects of the Cape Verdean language, produce teaching materials, and recruit Crioulo specialists, who all told throughout the world total about 20. Like I said, this is a matter for Cape Verdeans, and I’m not a Cape Verdean citizen, but I doubt it would ever be possible to teach all of the dialects of Crioulo. Cape Verdeans must have a serious discussion on the issue to determine a consensual variety.
I’m not pessimistic, but I think it’s going to be hard to resolve this problem, because it generates extremist reactions.
Right, I also think so, because language is one of the most profound elements of a person’s identity. I want to stress the following here. For one thing, all of the languages that have ever developed a standard form went through this choice process, there are no exceptions. What’s more, the standardization of one of the variants does not necessarily imply the absolute disappearance of all the others. The variants of Portuguese spoken in the Azores and in Madeira, for example, are very different from the Portuguese of Lisbon, but are also spoken. What’s important is that there be a common written reference for the Cape Verdean language for teaching purposes or so that someone who wants to know something about Crioulo can find it in the dictionary. But the standardization of the one of the dialects does not obligatorily exclude the others, for expressions from other variants may be included in the standard one.
Actually, at present, because of the circulation of people among the islands and because of music, television and other things, the different variants incorporate words from one another.
Yes, this results in a certain uniformization of the Cape Verdean language. This is what happened with French, for example. The French language has as its standard the dialect of Paris, but it has a lot of words from other languages or other dialects spoken in France. In other words, in the Cape Verdean case, the grammatical base of one island can be chosen, and it can take in words from the varieties of all the other islands. Because there’s a common matrix among the dialects, which is the grammar.
By my calculation, you’ve published nine books with Cape Verdean themes, mainly about the Cape Verdean language. Do you have any other project related to the Cape Verdean language?
Yes. At the moment, the biggest project I have is a scientific project for the publication of a linguistic atlas of the southern part of the archipelago of Cape Verde. I spent years making surveys to prepare the publication of this atlas. People always talk about the variations among the different islands, but it’s important to know that even within a single island there are many different variations. At the moment, my greatest interest is to concentrate on these variations to show that the issue of islands is not enough to encompass the multiplicity of variants of Cape Verdean Crioulo.
You said a short while ago that “every translation is a betrayal.” With this affirmation in mind, I would like you to talk a little about the process of the translation of traditional Cape Verdean stories into French. What was the challenge of translating these predominantly oral stories and turning them into a book?
The author of the Cape Verdean version of the three stories I released last week in Praia is Cape Verdean Aires Semedo. The stories come directly from the Cape Verdean oral tradition, mainly from the island of Santiago. What we did was make them available to other cultures. But we wanted to conserve the original, in the Cape Verdean language, so that people could make a comparison, so we opted for bilingual publications in the first two cases (Crioulo/French) and trilingual in the third case (Crioulo/Portuguese/French). Of course this brought up a lot of problems, because Crioulo is a very economical language that is mainly oral and has hard-to-translate idiomatic expressions, but considering the fact that we already had training translating Crioulo into French, we ended up finding solutions, after a great deal of work, both for Portuguese and for French, while seeking to conserve the original and providing a translation that would be pleasant for a Francophone or a Lusophone.
The first two books were published in France in 2005 and the third in 2007. What has the reaction of French and French-speakers in general been?
The reaction has been positive. That is, the books are being sold, albeit, of course, not massively. And every time I publish a book in France on the Cape Verdean language, several hundred copies are sold, which means that in the Francophone area there is an audience for this type of publication, an audience that is currently made up 50/50 of people of Cape Verdean origin (descendants living in France and who want to know more about their culture of origin) and also of French people, sometimes tourists but mostly French people who for various different reasons have ended up knowing Cape Verdeans, and who think it’s good to know something about the Cape Verdean language in order to relate with Cape Verdeans better.