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“A de pan kam”: Language “corruption” or “enrichment”?

26 November 2011 at 23:26 | 2787 views

By Dr. Sheik Umarr Kamarah, USA.

Krio, a member of the creole family of languages, is Sierra Leone’s national lingua franca. The language has been designated as one of the four national languages; the others are Hu-Limba, Mende and Kʌ-Themnε. Many people in the diaspora may not be aware, but these languages are now being taught in schools and colleges; their orthographies have been standardized. In fact, Krio has a dictionary written in 1980 by two prominent intellectuals of Sierra Leone; the late Professor C. N. Fyle and Professor Eldred Jones, both of whom are native speakers of Krio. The dictionary was published by Oxford University Press. Dr. Bai-Sheka, a Themnɛ linguist, has written a dictionary of Kʌ-Themnɛ.

As a creole language, Krio is one of the newest languages in the world. It arose out of a contact between/among different language communities: English and African languages, principally Yoruba. English, an Indo-European language, is its lexifier or its superstrate. That means, most of the vocabulary of Krio is from English. However, the structure of Krio is from African languages (its substrate). So, while most of the words may have come from English, they are subjected to a different phonetics/ phonology (pronunciation and sound structure); a different morphology (word formation); and a different syntax (order of words in a sentence). In many cases, the English words acquire different semantic frames in Krio. Thus, Krio is a fully fledged language different from English.

But Krio and its native speakers, the Krios, have existed in Sierra Leone for centuries and quite naturally the language has been influenced, and continues to be influenced by the languages that surround it. Many words and phrases in Krio come from the indigenous Sierra Leonean languages like Mende, Temne, Limba, Mandingo, Susu, Kono, Fula etc. The question is, does influence from surrounding languages constitute a corruption of the Krio language?

In recent times, especially during and after the rebel war, distinct syntactic influences from indigenous Sierra Leonean languages have made themselves noticeable. One of such syntactic constructions is, A de pan kam “I am coming” or “I am in the process of coming.” The phrase is itself is not new. It has been around for quite some time even before the war. But it was popularized in Freetown during and after the war. But the native speaker of Krio uses a different construction to express the meaning, “I am coming”: A de kam. The phrase, A de pan kam, has generated various reactions from mostly native speakers of Krio. Some of them are on Facebook, others on the Krio Descendants Union discussion “Pala,” and other social networks. Let me hasten to say that there are some native speakers of Krio who do not react negatively to this construction but they are few. I must also add that negative reactions to change in any language by its native speakers, is natural. It is happening everyday in languages around the world. Here are some of the reactions to a de pan kam:

“Wen posin se den sabi fo tok krio den yu yeri e de ansa di mami wen e kol Gladys—“mama a de pan cam.” Eeesh wen a yeri dat mi fukfuk ol kin grap! Mi fambul den dat noto Krio ya. Leh unu lef fo bastardise wi language…Unu tenki!”

“A de fred se, in 20 to 30 iya tem, dem wata wata Krio ya go tek ova. Di wata wata , Krio don so borku na Salone, dat di Krio pekin dem sef de falamakata…Wen yu tek fo egzampul, di music dem we di pikin dem de listin to, most of dem get watat wata Krio pan dem”

“Often these days, more so in Freetown, you hear the expression “e de pan kam.’ It means, or it’s intended to mean, s/he is on the way/coming. I think it is an interesting deviation from “e de kam” or “e de na road.” “E de pan kam emphasizes a present continuous process. Sounds like post rebel war Krio? Who says language is not dynamic?”

What is wrong with “a de pan kam”?

It is important to know that there are three kinds of “de” in Krio:

de, pronounced with a high tone, means “day,” as in, na tu de a tek dɔn am “It took me two days to finish it.”
de, pronounced with a high tone, means (i) “there” (locative), as in go de! “go there,” or (ii) exist/exist at/live/, as in, mama de na os “Mummy is home.”
de, pronounced with a low tone is an aspect marker, indicating the Present Progressive or Continuous; it cannot stand alone and it always immediately precedes the verb.

In “Standard” Krio or the Krio spoken by native speakers, de (with a low tone) is used to mark the Present, Past, and Future Progressive/Continuous as in the following:

Present: a de kam I am coming

Past: a bin de kam I was coming

Future: a go de kam I shall be coming

So, where does the phrase, a de pan kam come from and what does it exactly mean? Well, the word pan is a preposition in Krio meaning, “on/about/concerning/in etc.” and the phrase, de pan means, “be upon.” For example, a de pan wahala “I am in trouble” While de is always followed by a verb, de pan, in “Standard” Krio is followed by a noun. Note that the de in de pan is pronounced with a high tone.

Thus, native speakers do not use de pan to talk about actions in the Progressive or Continuous. The phrase is generally used to talk about being involved or engaged in something. The syntactic structure, de pan kam, must have therefore come from the indigenous languages. But why should the indigenous languages use de pan kam instead of de kam to talk about actions that are in progression or that are ongoing?

Languages differ in the way they splice up the time continuum in talking about events. In Krio, the sentence, a de kam “I am coming,” does not precisely tell whether the speaker is actually on his or her way at the moment of speaking. It can mean that the speaker intends to come some time after the moment of speaking. Other Sierra Leonean languages have a way of speaking about an act that is happening at the moment of speaking, separate from that which may occur at some point after the moment of speaking. In Kʌ-Themnɛ, for example, the sentence, i bek “I am coming,” is equivalent in meaning to the Krio sentence, a de kam. But Kʌ-Themnɛ uses the sentence, i yi rǝ kǝ der “I am in the process of/on my way, coming’ to talk about the event as it happens at the same time the speaker is uttering the sentence. Because KʌThemnɛ employs two different expressions to talk about these two different events in time, native speakers of KʌThemnɛ find the Krio sentence, a de kam inadequate to serve the purpose of i yi rǝ kǝ der. Thus, a de pan kam is recruited to serve this purpose. The introduction of this structure in Krio enriches, rather than “corrupts” the language. It now allows Krio to express the idea of an event going on at the moment of speaking in a precise way. Borrowing, syntactic and otherwise, is one way a language grows and expands. In this case, it is a syntactic borrowing. It is a legitimate form of one of the dialects of Krio.

The burden of a lingua franca

As a lingua franca, Krio enjoys a special privilege in Sierra Leone. It is the communicative bridge among members of the different language communities in the country. It is an unofficial source of national identity. But the implications of being a lingua franca are, among others, that the language ceases to be the sole property of the native speakers; the direction of change in the language is outside the control of the native speakers; the language assumes different dialects (native and non-native) each of which is legitimate and linguistically equal to the other. Language change is not corruption or destruction of a language; it is a mark of growth and expansion.

It was the late Freddy C.V. Jones who introduced me to the fascinating study of linguistics. One of the many things he said that still occupies my memory is that, “Language is a living phenomenon; its use is subject to modification, amplification, revolution and evolution as slowly but as surely as time marches on.”