Lingala—A Simple African Language
By “Awake!” correspondent in Zaïre
“MBOTE! Ozali malamu?” This is the friendly greeting and inquiry as to one’s well-being that is heard in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaïre, as well as all the way up the Zaïre River to where we live, in Kisangani. This stretch of about 750 miles is Lingala territory.
Although French is the official language of the country, Lingala is the language used by both the Army and the police force of the Republic of Zaïre. Spoken by over a million people in Kinshasa and by thousands more in the “interior,” Lingala’s popularity goes on increasing.
True, Lingala does not contain technical terms for cars, radios, and so forth—these words have to be borrowed from French. But this in no way detracts from the language as a means of communication. Actually one can be as precise in conveying one’s thoughts in Lingala as one wishes to be, and the language is relatively easy to learn.
The origin of Lingala is not clearly known, but the Portuguese evidently had something to do with it. When they were exploring up the Zaïre River (formerly known here as the Congo River) in the seventeenth century, they are said to have developed Lingala as a means of communicating with the natives. Words like “mesa” for table and “mateka” for butter testify to the Portuguese influence.
However, quite a bit of the vocabulary comes from Swahili, which is a popular African language carried into Zaïre from the east. Other words, like “lopitalo,” meaning “hospital,” come from the French, and were introduced by the colonialists. The word “motuka” (pronounced mo-too-kah) rather resembles the English “motor car”—and that is exactly what it means.
Lingala has no articles, either definite or indefinite, and no troublesome genders to learn. Therefore it quickly endears itself to the one who finds language study difficult. The verbs are simple to construct, the verb root stays the same for one verb, with few exceptions. The person and tense are determined by adding suffixes and prefixes to the root or stem of the verb.
For example, the root word for “preach” is “sakol.” In the word “kosakola” (to preach) the prefix “ko” is the equivalent of “to” in the English infinitive. If “na,” instead of “ko,” is used as the prefix and “i” instead of “a” is used as the suffix, the word formed is “nasakoli,” meaning “I preach.” To say “I preached,” “ak” is added to the suffix, forming the word “nasakolaki.” So precision of expression can be obtained in Lingala.
Some persons, however, complain about the lack of adjectives in the language. And it is true that there are not many, but this lack is easily compensated for. Abstract nouns can be used with a preposition. Thus instead of saying that “Jehovah is a loving God,” one says, “Jehovah is a God of love.” The meaning is still clear.
Something often difficult for a European or an American to get used to is forming the plurals of nouns with a prefix rather than a suffix. In Lingala “Nzambe” means one God, but “ba-nzambe” is the word for more than one god. A person is “mutu,” while “batu” is the word for people.
Idioms and Peculiarities
Lingala has a number of interesting idioms. For example, one does not necessarily “feel” pain; one may “see” it or “hear” it. One does not “make” decisions; one “cuts” them. The rain does not “stop,” but “is cut.” An angry person “ties up his face.” If one is worried, his “heart is in heaven.” A divorced person has had his marriage “killed.”
Also, a blind person has “died for the eyes,” but the alert one has “strong eyes.” The flatterer has a “mouth of sugar” and the one who embezzles money is said to have “eaten” it. If you forget to wind your watch, it will “sleep,” but if you drop it and it breaks, it is, in the Lingala way of thinking, “dead.”
Another thing about Lingala that takes getting used to is the literal way in which questions are answered. To the question, “Have you not done that job yet?” one may get the reply, “Yes.” And that is exactly what is meant, “Yes, I have not done the job.”
Lingala is also to some extent a tonal language. That is to say that you must put the right stress or intonation on each part of the word to speak the language properly. This can produce some rather odd effects when one is a novice.
For example, a visitor may be collecting souvenirs and ask to buy a native shield. But if he uses the wrong tonal stress it may cause confusion, for he may be asking for a peanut. A woman just learning the language was overheard asking if the lady would like another man. What she meant to say was “man child.”
Sometimes a new word has to be invented to express a thought in Lingala. For instance, the language has only one word for the words “soul” and “spirit.” This is the word “molimo.” In the Bibles translated into Lingala, “molimo” is generally used for both words. Yet these two words soul and spirit have entirely different meanings. So what happens at Hebrews 4:12, which says: “The word of God is alive . . . and pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit”?
In Lingala most translators render this as the dividing of “motema na molimo.” But this is not a good translation, for “motema” means “heart,” and neither “soul” nor “spirit” is the same as “heart.” So, in talking to people about the Bible, ministers of Jehovah’s witnesses use “molimo” for “soul,” and they use an invented word, “elimo,” for “spirit.” Bible study aids printed in Lingala by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society also use “elimo” for “spirit.”
Apart from this problem with “molimo,” the Bible versions available in Lingala are generally good in their conveying the meaning of the original-language text. They make known the Divine Name in the form “Yawe.” Earlier versions of the Christian Greek Scriptures even preserve the name “Yawe” in places where quotations are made from the Hebrew Scriptures where “Yawe” appears.
Lingala is thus one of the many languages in which God’s name and kingdom are being proclaimed. About 10,000 copies of the Watchtower magazine in Lingala are printed each issue, and tens of thousands of the Bible study aid The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life have also been printed in Lingala. Thus this simple African language, which has been such a useful means of communication, is now a powerful instrument in spreading the good news of God’s grand purposes.