Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

English in West Africa - Sierra Leone

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


Sierra Leone: 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]


The country has about 5,080,000 inhabitants (July 1995 est., see US.G.CIA 1999f, online), of which some 2% are classified as “Creoles” (Görlach 1984: 36; Der Grosse Brockhaus vol. 10 1980: 443) or “Krio.” English trading posts existed since 1651 (Der Grosse Brockhaus vol. 10 1980: 444). Sierra Leone has a certain significance in that the Creoles were the first “Western” black community (Görlach 1984: 36). The first group that were to make up this community were Blacks who had formerly worked as servants in England, and people of African descent who had come to England from across the Atlantic, where they had served in the British forces or had escaped from slavery. Their repatriation to Africa is associated with the name of Granville Sharp. This group founded Freetown in 1787. In 1792, they were joined by the Nova Scotians (former slaves who had fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and had been settled in Nova Scotia for some years). In 1800, the Maroons, militant escaped slaves from Jamaica, were deported to Sierra Leone. The largest of the groups which formed the Creole community were West African recaptives, slaves rescued from slave ships between 1807 and the 1860s, mostly of Yoruba descent. In 1808 Sierra Leone (Freetown, to be precise) was declared a British colony (Hansen 1993: 307). The territory of Sierra Leone expanded when its hinterland became a British protectorate in 1896; Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961 (Der Grosse Brockhaus vol. 10 1980: 444).

As the first “Western” black community in West Africa, the Creoles of Sierra Leone had an impetus upon other West African settlements. The Creoles were an educated Christian elite, who exerted influence upon the other English settlements along the coast. There, they functioned as teachers, traders, and missionaries (see Spencer 1971a: 16f.; Fyfe 1974: 47-52; Todd 1982b: 284). Krio, the creole language that developed in Sierra Leone, was of primary importance in the extension of Pidgin in West Africa. “But the impact of Sierra Leone on West Africa as a whole was perhaps more in the spread of the English language than of Krio” (Mazrui 1975: 41). A concrete contribution to this spread “came to be centred on Fourah Bay College, established in 1827 as virtually the first modern institution of higher learning in sub-Saharan Africa. Year after year the College sent out Africans to propagate the Gospel and to spread liberal education in the English language in different parts of Western Africa” (Mazrui 1975: 42; also see Fyfe 1974: 47-52; Horton 1983). Members of the educated class were described as speaking “English with the accent and accuracy of well-educated English people” (T. Jones n.d. [1921?]: 98).

English is the official language of Sierra Leone. As in the case of Gambian English, little has been published on the particular variety of English spoken there, except for cursory treatments by Pemagbi (1989) and Conteh-Morgan (1997), and some initial findings on its phonology by Simo Bobda (2000) and Simo Bobda, Wolf, and Peter (1999). Without doubt, Krio is by far the most important language in Sierra Leone as it is used in practically all domains of public life, and the negative attitude towards it has diminished (see Ehret 1997: 186). According to SIL (1996-99f, online), 10% of the population are L1 speakers and 95% of the remainder are L2 speakers of Krio. 21 other languages besides English and Krio are listed in the Ethnologue, the major ones include Kono, Kuranko, Limba, Mende (the principal indigenous languages in the south), and Themne (the principal indigenous language in the north) (see SIL 1996-99f, online; US.G.CIA 1999f, online).


Speech sample Sierra Leonean English