Africans are reshaping French one rap and joke at a time

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Abidjan, Ivory Coast: French, by most estimates the world’s fifth most spoken language, is changing – perhaps not in the gilded hallways of its guardian institution in Paris, but on a rooftop in Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast.

There, one afternoon, a 19-year-old rapper who goes by the stage name “Marla” rehearses her upcoming show, surrounded by friends and empty soft-drink bottles. Her words are mostly French, but the Ivorian slang and English words that she mixes in make a new language.

Students perform at the Hip Hop Academie, a youth program founded by a rapper, in Les Ulis, a suburb of Paris, where participants mix French and foreign languages.Credit: Hannah Reyes Morales/The New York Times

To speak only French, “c’est zogo” – “it’s uncool,” says Marla, combining a French word with Ivorian slang. But playing with words and languages, says Marla, whose real name is Mariam Dosso, is “choco”, an abbreviation for chocolate meaning sweet or stylish.

A growing number of words and expressions from Africa are infusing the French language, spurred by booming populations of young people in West and Central Africa.

More than 60 per cent of those who speak French daily now live in Africa, and 80 per cent of children studying in French are in Africa. There are as many French speakers in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as in Paris.

Through social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, they are literally spreading the word, reshaping the French language from countries that were once colonised by France.

“We’ve tried to rap in pure French, but nobody was listening to us,” said Jean Patrick Niambé, known as Dofy, a 24-year-old Ivorian hip-hop artist listening to Marla on the rooftop. “So we create words from our own realities, and then they spread.”

Jean Patrick Niambe, a hip-hop artist known as Dofy who often composes in Nouchi, a slang once crafted by petty criminals, records a new song in a studio in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.Credit: Arlette Bashizi/The New York Times

Walking down the streets of Paris or its suburbs, you can hear people use the word “enjailler” to mean “having fun”. But the word originally came from Abidjan to describe how adrenaline-seeking young Ivorians jumped on and off buses racing through the streets in the 1980s.

The youth population in Africa is surging while the rest of the world greys. Demographers predict that by 2060, up to 85 per cent of French speakers will live on the African continent. That’s nearly the reverse of the 1960s, when 90 per cent of French speakers lived in European and other Western countries.

“French flourishes every day in Africa,” said Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a renowned Senegalese professor of philosophy and French at Columbia University. “This creolised French finds its way in the books we read, the sketches we watch on television, the songs we listen to.”

The standup comedian Jacques Silvere Bah, known as Le Magnific, plays with French and African words and accents at a humour festival in Abidjan.Credit: Arlette Bashizi/The New York Times

Nearly half of the countries in Africa were at one time French colonies or protectorates, and most of them use French as their official language.

But France has faced growing resentment in recent years for both its colonial legacy and continuing influence. Some countries have evicted French ambassadors and troops, while others target the French language itself. Some West African novelists write in local languages as an act of artistic resistance. The ruling junta in Mali has stripped French of its official status, and a similar move is underway in Burkina Faso.

The backlash has not gone unnoticed in France, where the evolution of the language provokes debate, if not angst, among some intellectuals. French President Emmanuel Macron said in a 2019 speech: “France must take pride in being essentially one country among others that learns, speaks, writes in French”.

The Language Laboratory

In the sprawling Adjamé market in Abidjan, there are thousands of small stalls selling electronics, clothes, counterfeit medicine and food. The market is a perfect lab in which to study Nouchi, a slang once crafted by petty criminals, but which has taken over the country in under four decades.

Some former members of Abidjan’s gangs, who helped invent Nouchi, work as guards patrolling the market’s alleys, where “jassa men” – young hustlers – sell goods to make ends meet. It is here that new expressions are born and die every day.

Germain-Arsene Kadi, a professor of literature who has written a dictionary of Nouchi, thumbs through a book at a street bookstore in the Adjame market where he still goes to discover new words, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.Credit: Arlette Bashizi/The New York Times

Germain-Arsène Kadi, a professor of literature at the Alassane Ouattara University in Ivory Coast, walked deep into the market one morning carrying with him the Nouchi dictionary he wrote.

At a maquis, a street restaurant with plastic tables and chairs, the owner gathered a few jassa men in their corner, or “soï” to throw out their favourite words while they drank Vody, a mix of vodka and energy drink.

“They’re going to hit you,” the owner said in French, which alarmed me until they explained that the French verb for hit, “frapper”, had the opposite meaning there: those jassa men would treat us well — which they did, throwing out dozens of words and expressions unknown to me in a few minutes.

Kadi frantically scribbled down new words on a notepad, saying repeatedly, “One more for the dictionary”.

It’s nearly impossible to know which word crafted on the streets of Abidjan might spread, travel or even survive.

“Go”, meaning girlfriend in Ivory Coast, was entered into the well-known French dictionary Le Robert this year.

In Abidjan this year, people began to call a boyfriend “mon pain” – French for my bread. Improvisations soon proliferated: “pain choco” is a cute boyfriend. A sugary bread, a sweet one. A bread just out of the oven is a hot partner.

At a church in Abidjan earlier this year, the congregation burst out laughing, several worshippers told me, when the priest preached that people should share their bread with their brethren.

The expression has spread like a meme on social media, reaching neighbouring Burkina Faso and Congo, thousands of kilometres away. It hasn’t reached France yet. But Ivorians like to joke about which expressions French people will pick up, often years, if not decades, later.

“If French becomes more mixed, then visions of the world it carries will change,” said Josué Guébo, an Ivorian poet and philosopher. “And if Africa influences French from a linguistic point of view, it will likely influence it from an ideological one.”

Painful Past, Uncertain Future

Le Magnific – the stage name for Jacques Silvère Bah – is one of Ivory Coast’s most famous stand-up comedians, renowned for his plays on words and imitations of West African accents.

But as a young boy learning French in school, he was forbidden to speak Wobé, his own language, he said. His French was initially so poor, he was reduced to communicating with gestures on the playground.

“We had to learn fast, and in a painful way,” said Silvère, 45, one afternoon before he took the stage at a stand-up comedy festival in Abidjan.

Across French-speaking West and Central African countries, French is seldom used at home and is rarely the first language, instead restricted to school, work, business or administration.

According to a survey released last year by the French Organisation of the Francophonie, the primary organisation for promoting French language and culture, 77 per cent of respondents in Africa described French as the “language of the coloniser”. About 57 per cent said it was an imposed language.

Sometimes the methods of imposing it were brutal, scholars say. At school in many French colonies, children speaking in their mother tongue were beaten or forced to wear an object around their necks known as a “symbol” – often a smelly object or an animal bone.

Still, many African countries adopted French as their official language when they gained independence, in part to cement their national identities. Some even kept the “symbol” in place at school.

At the festival, Le Magnific and other stand-up comedians threw jibes in French and ridiculed one another’s accents, drawing laughter from the audience. It mattered little if a few words were lost in translation.

“What makes our humour Pan-African is the French language,” said the festival’s organiser, Mohamed Mustapha, known across West Africa by his stage name, Mamane. A stand-up comedian from Niger, Mamane has a daily comedy program listened to by millions around the world on Radio France Internationale.

“It’s about survival, if we want to resist against Nollywood,” he said, referring to Nigeria’s film industry, “and English-produced content”.

Today, more than one-third of Ivorians speak French, according to the International Organisation of the Francophonie. In Tunisia and Congo – the world’s largest French-speaking country – it is more than half.

But in many Francophone countries, governments struggle to hire enough French-speaking teachers.

“African children are still learning in French in extremely difficult conditions,” said Francine Quéméner, a program specialist in charge of language policies at the International Organisation of the Francophonie. “They must learn to count, write, read in a language they don’t fully grasp, with teachers who themselves don’t always feel secure speaking French.”

Still, Quéméner said French had long escaped France’s control.

“French is an African language and belongs to Africans,” she said. “The decentralisation of the French language is a reality.”

France notices

At the Hip Hop Académie, a youth program founded by rapper Grödash in a Paris suburb, teens and children scribbled lyrics on notepads, following instructions to mix French and foreign languages.

Coumba Soumaré Camara, 9, tried out a few words from the mother tongues of her Mauritanian and Senegalese parents. She ended her couplet with “t’es magna” – you’re mean – combining French syntax and an expression from Mauritania.

Hip-hop, now dominating the French music industry, is injecting new words, phrases and concepts from Africa into France’s suburbs and cities.

One of the world’s most famous French-speaking pop singers is Aya Nakamura, originally from Mali. Many of the most streamed hip-hop artists are of Moroccan, Algerian, Congolese or Ivorian origins.

“Countless artists have democratised French music with African slang,” said Elvis Adidiema, a Congolese music executive with Sony Music Entertainment. “The French public, from all backgrounds, has become accustomed to those sounds.”

Dany Laferriere, a Haitian-Canadian writer and the only black member of the French Academy, the 17th century institution that publishes an official dictionary of the French language, in the academy’s halls in Paris.Credit: Hannah Reyes Morales/The New York Times

But some in France are slow to embrace change. Members of the French Academy, the 17th-century institution that publishes an official dictionary of the French language, have been working on the same edition for the past 40 years.

On a recent evening Dany Laferrière, a Haitian-Canadian novelist and the only Black member of the academy, walked the gilded corridors of the Academy’s building, on the Left Bank of the Seine River. He and his fellow academicians were reviewing whether to add to the dictionary the word “yeah”, which appeared in French in the 1960s.

Laferrière acknowledged that the Academy might need to modernise by incorporating entire dictionaries from Belgian, Senegalese, or Ivorian French.

“French is about to make a big leap, and she’s wondering how it’s going to go,” Laferrière said of the French language. “But she’s excited about where she’s headed.”

He paused, stared at the Seine through the window, and corrected himself.

“They, not she. They are now multiple versions of French that speak for themselves. And that is the greatest proof of its vitality.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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