Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

English in West Africa - Liberia

A Research Project at the Department of Linguistics
Institute of English and American Studies
Humboldt University, Berlin


Liberia: Brief Introduction


Extract from: Wolf, Hans-Georg (2001). English in Cameroon. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 85. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
[see this volume for the references given]


Directly adjacent to Sierra Leone is Liberia, which has a special status among the West African anglophone countries. About 5% of its around 2,770,000 inhabitants (July 1998 est., see US.G.CIA 1999d, online) are descendants from American black expatriates, the so-called Americo-Liberians. Liberia goes back to the initiative of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was formed in 1817 (and dissolved in 1964) with the purpose of repatriating freed slaves from the US; for that aim, it purchased a tract of land in Africa in 1821. By 1860, some 15,000 Blacks had been colonized, “after which time the Society functioned chiefly as trustee for the settlement it had helped to create” (T. Johnson 1966: 26; for more information on the ACS, see Fyfe 1974: 52-55; and Library of Congress (n.d.), online). Liberia’s independence was proclaimed in 1847, which was recognized by the European powers in 1848/49, and by the US in 1862 (Der Grosse Brockhaus vol. 7 1979: 131; see Bowen Jones 1974, for a detailed history of Liberia). The fact that Liberia was the first modern independent state in Africa (discounting the Free States in South Africa) made it a symbol of African nationalism (see Mazrui 1975: 42f.).

Like the Creoles in Sierra Leone, the Liberian expatriates ruled and dominated the country. Görlach (1984: 38) describes their attitude as follows: Of the about 200,000 free Blacks in ante-bellum America, only a small minority opted for Africa, and those who did carried with them American ways of life, including the language and concept of racial differences; they also felt much superior to their wild and uncivilized African brothers, and the leading group preserved this distance well into the 20th century. When Liberia became an independent republic, its motto significantly excluded Africans: ‘The love of liberty brought us here!’

This division within the Liberian society was a major cause of the military coup in 1980, which was directed against the ruling class of the Americo-Liberians.

Linguistically, Liberia stands out from the other anglophone countries in Africa in that it is the only black African state where English is spoken as a mother tongue by a major part of the population (by 20 %, according to US.G.CIA 1999d, online). English is the official language of Liberia, and because of the country’s history and political ties to the US, it is modeled on American English, and not, as originally was the case in the other English-speaking countries, on English English. Hancock (1974) identified 6 different varieties of Liberian English: Standard Liberian English, Vernacular Liberian English, Nonnative Vernacular Liberian English, Liberian Pidgin English, Soldier English, and Kru Pidgin English. Yet it is questionable whether these distinctions really hold. Hancock (1974: 225) himself has cautioned that “it would be inaccurate to regard them as discrete forms with clearly definable boundaries. Each exerts more or less influence upon the others, with the normalizing effect of standard English evident in all of them.” The same is said by Breitborde (1998: 57), who further states that “the identification of particular forms of English is made difficult by the effects of the prestige of English speaking ability: people speak the ‘best’ English possible.” The “best” English most likely has an American phonology, and Liberians pride themselves on the belief they would pass as Americans (see Breitborde 1998: 59).

SIL (1996-99d, online) has 34 languages for Liberia altogether, including entries for (Liberian Standard) English and Liberian (Pidgin) English. Of these languages, Loma, Kpelle, Klao, Kisi, Dan, Bassa, and Bandi are listed with more than 100,000 speakers.


Speech sample Liberian English