Documentation of endangered languages and cultures in the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland


This project was supported by the AHRC. It ran for three and a half years from 1 Jan 2006. It concentrated on endangered languages on the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland.

The Nigeria-Cameroon borderland is one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world, with many languages either near extinction or severely endangered. This project builds on previous work by the participants in surveying and documenting endangered languages in this region. One example is the language of the Somyewe, a small group of blacksmiths whose language and culture are on the verge of disappearing. Documentation of two other local languages was also undertaken Mbonjanga (Kwanja) and Wawa. Documentation followed best practice procedures as developed by the EMELD initiative, and will be situated in context of the linguistic and cultural ecology of the region.

The project was directed by Dr David Zeitlyn from the Anthropology Department, University of Kent, and it brought the Canadian linguist Bruce Connell to Kent. Dr Connell is an acknowledged expert in endangered languages, especially in Africa, and an authority on the langugaes of the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland.
In November 2006 Dr Connell was awarded the Silver Jubilee award for his work on and the support for the development of Nigerian languages by the Linguistic Association of Nigeria.

An article "Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act" by Tony Tysome was published in The Times Higher Education Supplement on Friday, 20 October 2006. This was critical of what it characterised as the Indiana Jones attitudes of some linguists working on endangered languages.
We wrote a response which appeared on Friday, 27 October 2006, as follows:

The story "Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act" (October 20) does little more than trivialise the issue of language endangerment. The preservation of linguistic diversity is important. It is not merely a question of "documenting dying languages". Linguistic diversity, cultural diversity and biodiversity are all interlinked; loss of a language inevitably leads to a diminishment of the world's cultural heritage, as has been recognised by Unesco with whom we worked in Cameroon. Far from being an endeavour in which individuals can play the hero, endangered language work is a painstaking venture, always collaborative, and resulting in little tangible reward for the linguists. Bruce Connell and David Zeitlyn. University of Kent, Canterbury

Since our letter was shortened in the editorial process we append our original text below
The issue of language endangerment is raised in Tony Tysome's "Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act" (THES October 20 2006). While the attention given to the question of language endangerment is welcome (at least on the principle that 'any publicity is good publicity'), we feel Tysome's article does little more than trivialize the matter. Language endangerment, or to put it in slightly different perspective, the preservation of linguistic diversity, is important. It is not merely a question of 'documenting dying languages for the sake of research' (although this in itself is a valid and valuable endeavour). Linguistic diversity, cultural diversity and biodiversity are all interlinked; loss of linguistic inevitably leads to a diminishment of the world's cultural heritage and consequently its biodiversity. Having worked with and among endangered and minority languages and their speakers collectively and individually for over 20 years in various parts of Africa, we can say with some confidence that few if any scholars involved with endangered languages and cultures have grand pretentions as to their work, and few if any consider themselves to be 'heroic'. To the contrary, in contemporary linguistics the fieldwork involved in the documentation of an endangered language is just about as unglamorous and as lacking in prestige as it gets.
The intimate relation between language and culture and the importance of maintaining diversity in both is increasingly accepted. UNESCO has recognized this, and through its Intangible Heritage Unit, has established an Endangered Languages Program. Under its auspices, we collaborate with linguists and other local scholars in Cameroon to work toward the establishment of programs in that country to preserve its linguistic heritage. Far from being an endeavour in which particular individuals can play the role of hero, endangered language work, if it is to be successful, is always a collaborative venture involving painstaking work and resulting in little tangible reward. If Professor Matras finds he has colleagues who 'have adopted a pretentious attitude', we can only suggest that this has nothing to do with language endangerment. Such people are to be found in all academic disciplines and indeed in all walks of life.

Data from this project is being archived at SOAS at their Endangered Language Archive (ELAR)

Related PhDs

From September 2006 3 PhD students worked on the project.

The general topics of the PhDs cover the following:

The Cultural Ecology of Language Loss


Linguistic documentation of endangered languages

The PhD projects were planned as an integral part of the overall project. They aimed to understand and describe some of the broader cultural factors that mitigate for and against linguistic survival in the Cameroon / Nigerian borderlands where the project is focussed. The students undertook their field work at the same time that Connell and Zeitlyn made making fieldtrips as part of this project so supervision extended from Kent to the field. This permited a degree of flexibility in this aspect of the project, so that decisions could be made in the field in response to the combination of local circumstances, the interests of the students, and the overall aims of this project. The students worked on the cultures of language use among Wawa and Njanga in Cameroon. On the basis of initial work undertaken by Connell these will provide a powerful contrast between still viable but threatened and almost extinct languages. A series of studies of attitudes to the different languages spoken in a Wawa village and at Mbonjanga provided some of the empirical core of the PhDs.

The students developed and collected a representative corpus of language material for the documentation of Wawa and Njanga and organized this material in an archivable documentation. Data collection was done at Mbondjanga and Oumiare, a Wawa village. These two languages are at different stages with respect to endangerment and attrition, which posed the problem of determining what is representative in each case.

Project PhD students

Working in Oumiare

Sascha Griffiths Contact: sgriffit at cit-ec dot uni-bielefeld dot de


Griffiths, S. S., & Robson, L. (2010). Cultural Ecologies of Endangered Languages: The Cases of Wawa and Kwanja. Anthropological Linguistics, 52(2), 217 - 238. DOI: 10.1353/anl.2010.0013
Thomae, M., Zeitlyn, D., Griffiths, S. S., Van Vugt, M. (under review). Intergroup contact and rice allocation via a modified dictator game in rural Cameroon. Field Methods.

Marieke Martin

Marieke started her studies with a BA in Modern Languages and Cultural Mediation at the University of Southern Denmark in 2000.
After her degree she worked for a month for the Gesellschaft fuer Bedrohte Sprachen (Society of Endangered Languages) in Cologne before she then went on and completed a MA in Euroculture in Groningen, The Netherlands.
In her thesis she focussed on the influences of market forces on European minority languages, with Frisian and Irish as case studies.
In 2004-2005 Marieke completed her MA in Language Documentation and Description at SOAS and wrote her thesis on the properties of vowels in Dida, a language spoken in Ivory Coast. In 2006 she started her PhD at UKC with the goal to produce a broad documentation of Wawa, a Mambiloid language spoken in Cameroon.
contact: mm330 at kent dot ac dot uk

Working in Mbondjanga

Laura Robson

Research Interests

Laura Robson

Laura was a post-graduate student at the University of Kent from October 2006 to September 2010, investigating the moribund dialect of Njanga spoken by only 4-10 speakers in a small village (Mbondjanga) of the Kwanja-Mambila area of Cameroon (Adamawa Province). The larger language grouping – Kwanja – can be situated geographically on a map available at Ethnologue. Mbondjanga is a small village of around 300 inhabitants. The majority of these speak one of two Kwanja dialects: Sundani and/or Ndung. There are also other groups of people (Yamba, Mambila, Fulbe, Tikar) living in hamlets on the outskirts of the village territory. The photo below gives and impression of the village centre. The village is governed by a chief (who happens to be one of only two remaining reasonably proficient speakers of Njanga), who is assisted by officials with a range of duties and competences. The village is primarily self-sufficient: its inhabitants are farmers, although they also hunt and fish and most are involved in some commercial activities to supplement this work. The village has no electricity nor (to date) running water. More details of the social and cultural context of the villagers of Mbondjanga and their regional neighbours can be found in my thesis. The data for the thesis were collected during three field trips to Cameroon: the first in April 2007 (one month); the second August 2007 - May 2008; and the final trip September - December 2008. During each of the trips I was based at Mbondjanga village, although I also collected data in other Kwanja and non-Kwanja villages neighbouring Mbondjanga. During my write-up period I have become aware of many areas where I hope to investigate further in the future. In particular I would like to further investigate other forms of variation in Kwanja, language transmission amongst the Kwanja and the possibility of future language shift of Sundani to Ndung. The thesis which follows is the culmination of four years of work on two topics about which I am extremely passionate: language diversity and language endangerment. About 97% of the world’s population speak only about 4% of the world’s languages; and about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by around only 3% of the world’s population (Bernard 1996: 142). My interest in Language Death was borne at a 1999 when I attended the English Language A-level conference in Newcastle and listened to David Crystal. Seven years later, the linguist quoted on the first page of his 2000 book of the same name is Bruce Connell, who is now one of supervisors! Before beginning my PhD, I studied Linguistics and English Language Department at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in June 2005 with a first class degree. I also spent my third year (2003-2004) at the Universitat Autonoma in Barcelona. Topics studied include Sociolingustics, Advanced (Generative) Syntax, Stylistics, Structure of Finnish and Generative Phonology. My undergraduate dissertation looked at Language Shift amongst the Pakistani Community in Edinburgh using data collected from students at three Edinburgh universities. For the past 1-2 years I have been taking a partial break from academia and have been applying my research skills to policy – particularly in the area of migration and human rights – through a number of posts in an NGO, an international organisation and, more recently at a policy consulting company: GHK Consulting. I began working at GHK in April 2010, and since then have been leading and contributing to projects evaluating European Commission’s legislative and policy action in the Justice and Home Affairs policy areas. The main projects I work on are in service provision to the European Migration Network, in carrying Impact Assessments of EU legislation and policy (e.g. Data Protection, Tobacco Smoke in the workplace, the budget for future Home Affairs Financing, on legislation for non-European au-pairs coming to the EU). I also led on an evaluation of DG JUSTICE’s funding programme Daphne III, which provides funding to organisations within the EU who fight to prevent violence against women, young people and children. The link between my academic work and more recent work in policy is an interest in multiculturalism (inc. multilingualism) and human rights (inc. rights of minorities). While enjoying a passion for linguistics and a respect for academic approaches to research, I have much benefited from my more recent experience in producing research that has a more direct impact on policy (principally on the policy of the European Commission). As well as an interest in (and in-depth fieldwork experience in) languages of Cameroon, I also have an interest in Mayan languages, particularly KiChe, having spent eight months living there and studying the language, and having visited the country twice since (most recently in May 2011). Although it is the second biggest language (in terms of number of speakers) in Guatemala, is still threatened and greatly influenced by Spanish. I still have strong links with Guatemala and hope to carry out postdoctoral work with Guatemalan Mayan languages. Other interests outside of languages and travelling are cooking, music, dancing, gardening and walking my massive bull mastiff dog, who looks pretty similar to this. Research Interests (linguistic)

By Topic

PhD Thesis

Thesis title: Documentation of the Language Ecology of Njanga - a Moribund Language of Cameroon

This thesis was submitted in September 2010 and awarded in January 2011 by the examiners Professor Maarten Mous of Leiden University and Glenn Bowman of University of Kent.

For a copy of the thesis (in pdf format) please contact Laura at: I can also be contacted through my LinkedIn page


This thesis is a comprehensive discussion of Njanga, a moribund (highly endangered) language of Cameroon, and its associated linguistic, socio-cultural and historical ecology. The investigation incorporates a description of the richly diverse Kwanja region, a sketch grammar of Njanga and comparison with neighbouring and related languages, a description of the culture, history and society of Njanga speakers, and a discussion of why Njanga declined; the latter forms the central research question of the study.

The explanation for Njanga’s decline is primarily functional. Njanga is a dialect of Kwanja with only 4-10 remaining speakers and no remaining utility - daily nor ceremonial. Isolated to use in just one small village - Mbondjanga - Njanga’s decline was precipitated by language contact and the narrowing of Njanga’s functionality to that of a symbolic marker of a particular limited group of speakers in the village - that of the royal, ruling dynasty whose role is passed down only through patrilineal descent. Marked as such, villagers, and in particular female villagers, had low exposure to the dialect and were disinclined to learn a language which had no use to them.

Given the low functionality, Njanga has a much depleted linguistic structure. It is greatly assimilated to its sister dialect, Sundani; non-assimilated elements are principally phonological and lexical. Componential to this study is a comparison with related dialects. Through such comparison I underline the elements of Njanga that are unique.

To email David Zeitlyn please send to "david dot zeitlyn at anthro dot ox dot ac dot uk"
To email Bruce Connell please send to "bconnell at yorku dot ca"


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Created 4 Jan 2006 last modified 20 May 2011 (in celebration of Cameroon National Day) Funded by: