Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

English in West Africa - Brief outline of the research project

The information further below on this web page is outdated. However, it might be useful to the reader to see where and how we started off our research project on West African English (WAE) more than twenty years ago.

Information on our recent research results on WAE and other varieties of English can be obtained from our lists of publications:

If you are interested in how English is embedded in Africa's multilingualism and how it conceptualises items from the African settings, you can take a look at the website of the LAUD 2023 conference organised by Professor Polzenhagen's team.


Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Wolf (Potsdam)
Dr. Lothar Peter
Prof. Dr. Frank Polzenhagen (Landau)
Cooperation with Professor Herbert Igboanusi (University of Ibadan)


Context and theoretical objectives

In the recent literature, we observe a highly critical, and often negative, view of the socio-cultural role and function of the English language in postcolonial contexts. Within the so-called "linguistic human rights movement", most prominently in the publications by Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson, and within the ecolinguistic approach, in particular in Mühlhäusler's writings, English is taken to be a threat to the indigenous cultures and languages. It is considered as alien and detrimental to the region, as most bluntly expressed by labels like "killer language" and "linguistic genocide". One theoretical objective of the research project is to counter such reproaches to the English language. They fail to notice or quarrel with the fact that the respective varieties, English-based pidgins and creoles included, have achieved a stable sociolinguistic, functional and cultural basis. These varieties are part of the linguistic potential of a considerable amount of speakers in the region. And, most importantly, the English language has undergone and constantly undergoes a process of adaptation to the respective setting, a process known in the literature as contextualisation or related notions like indigenisation and Africanisation. The results of that process are manifest in the respective varieties and open to description and analysis, on the levels of grammar, pronunciation and lexis. The second theoretical objective is to advance the systematic description of the varieties in question. This includes questions of language typology (e.g. systematic differences between the "New Englishes" in the region and the established native varieties, interference of indigenous languages and the pidgins/creoles of the region, peculiarities in the aspectual and modal system of the varieties in question) and of standardisation (a process which is especially advanced in the case of Nigeria). The project focuses on the collection and description of lexical peculiarities and, to some degree, specific phonetic and phonological features of the English spoken in the six anglophone West African countries: Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria. The immediate objective is the compilation of the first comprehensive and comparative dictionary of the respective varieties.


However, only two of the six countries have received a relatively detailed treatment, Nigeria and Cameroon. Especially in the field of lexis, data and descriptive work on the four other countries are, so far, largely missing. Furthermore, the studies available are not explicitly comparative. Generally, their findings relate to one particular country only and they do not determine whether the lexical items identified in the respective variety may be found elsewhere in the region as well. Our approach is comparative, i.e. the lexical items are systematically checked for occurrences in any of the varieties covered by the project. The dictionary in preparation will thus have an exclusive orientation: it will provide items that are either used exclusively in particular countries of the region or are typical of the respective varieties. Its scope is the stock of lexical material that is not part of the so-called "common core" of English. Furthermore, our orientation is synchronic and descriptive.

Our data are taken from various sources, in particular from the internet (from online journals and newspapers, newsgroups), from print media (West African literature, newspapers, reports), and from interviews conducted with speakers of West African English in the course of the project. A major component of the research project is the compilation of computer corpora of the respective varieties, i.e. suitable and reliable material is collected and prepared for electronic data analysis. So far, the only comprehensive corpus of a West African variety of English outside our project is the CEC (Corpus of English in Cameroon) compiled at the University of Yaounde for the ICE (International Corpus of English) project. In the course of our research project, the following additional country-specific corpora have been compiled:


    • Corpus Nigeria (134 221 tokens)
    • Corpus Calixthe (964 585 tokens)
    • Corpus Liberia (74 794 tokens)
    • Corpus Ghana (135 272 tokens)



In addition to these country-specific corpora we draw on a number of thematic text corpora compiled within the frame of the project. The CEC and our own corpora are systematically exploited as sources of lexical data, with the help of WordSmith (click here for a brief description of the program).



Data presentation and dictionary design

The lexical items are entered in a MultiTerm data base which specifies a set a descriptive parameters. Ideally, the following information are provided by an entry:

- meaning / definition
- country and regional label
- spelling and spelling variants
- pronunciation and pronunciation variants
- other formal peculiarities (e.g. word formation)
- etymology and source language
- patterns of usage (e.g. collocations) and stylistic level
- related words (semantically, culturally), accessible via hyperlinks


Furthermore, the entry provides the source type (e.g. internet, personal communication, fiction) and an authentic text example.

The following screenshots from the entry 'Congoes' in Liberian English and related lexical items give an example of the design of the data base. They are also an illustration of the notion of contextualisation, i.e. the process of adaptation to the respective setting. (Note that the entries are not in their final state).











In a further step, the information in the data base is transformed into the final dictionary entry. At the present stage, the data base comprises some 6000 lexical units. Further items are prepared for analysis.



Related academic activities

Fieldwork: Two-week fieldwork was conducted in Gambia (2000) and Cameroon (2001).

International co-operation: There are close contacts to scholars at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of Yaounde, Cameroon.

Publications and related academic work: A collection of articles on African Varieties of English edited by members of the research group is published as:

  • Lucko, Peter; Peter, Lothar & Wolf, Hans-Georg (eds.) (2003): Studies in African Varieties of English. Frankfurt (Main) - Berlin: Peter Lang


The volume has the following contents:


  • Hans-Georg Wolf
    The Contextualization of Common Core Terms in West African English: Evidence from Computer Corpora
  • Francis O. Egbokhare
    The Story of a Language: Nigerian Pidgin in Spatiotemporal, Social and Linguistic Context
  • Efurosibina Adegbija
    Idiomatic Variation in Nigerian English
  • Herbert Igboanusi
    Semantic Dislocation in Nigerian English
  • Hans-Georg Wolf and Herbert Igboanusi
    A Preliminary Comparison of some Lexical Items in Nigerian English and Cameroon English
  • Anne Schröder
    Aspect in Cameroon Pidgin English
  • Augustin Simo Bobda and Hans-Georg Wolf
    Pidgin English in Cameroon in the New Millennium
  • Lothar Peter and Hans-Georg Wolf
    Aku in The Gambia: Terminological Problems, Functional Distribution and Popular Attitude
  • Lothar Peter
    English in Sudan
  • Peter Lucko
    Is English a "Killer Language"?


Accompanying and related research by members of the project are published as:


  • Wolf, Hans-Georg (2001): English in Cameroon. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 85. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Simo Bobda, Augustin & Wolf, Hans-Georg (2001): "The African cultural model of community in English language instruction in Cameroon: The need for more systematicity." In Pütz, Martin, Niemeier, Susanne, Dirven, René (eds.). Applied cognitive linguistics II: language pedagogy. Cognitive Linguistics Research 19.2. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Peter, Lothar, Simo Bobda, Augustin & Wolf, Hans-Georg (fc.): "An account of lexical and phonetic peculiarities of Gambian English".


Further studies drawing on the research project are in preparation, e.g. a Ph.D. thesis (F. Polzenhagen) investigating cognitive-semantic aspects of cultural models in African varieties of English.

Parts of the data compiled in the research project were presented and discussed in the following conference papers:


    • Wolf, Hans-Georg: Religion and traditional belief in (West) African English.(Lead paper). Sociology of language & religion international colloquium: University of Surrey, Roehampton, June 20-22, 2002.
    • Polzenhagen, Frank & Wolf, Hans-Georg: A Cognitive-Linguistic Account of Cultural Models: Expressions of Witchcraft, Magical Leadership and Corruption in African Varieties of English. 35th Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea: University of Potsdam, July 22-25, 2002.


  • Wolf, Hans-Georg & Frank Polzenhagen: The Pragmatics of Intercultural Communication: Some Critical Reflections, Arguments against Functionalist Reductionism, and Exemplary Meaning-oriented Interpretations. Paper at the 8th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference 'Cognitive Linguistics, Functionalism, Discourse Studies: Common Ground and New Directions', July 20-25, 2003, University of La Rioja, Spain.