The language’s names

Many languages in the world have different names depending on who is talking about the language. For instance, German speakers call their language deutsch, while English speakers refer to it as German, and French speakers call it “allemand”. We find a similar situation in Cameroon among the western-most “Pygmy” hunter-gatherer group of Central Africa whose language is called Gyeli or Kola. The speakers in the northern part of the language zone call their language Kola, speakers in the central and southern part call it Gyeli, but it is nevertheless considered being the same language. Accordingly, the speakers call themselves Bagyeli in the center and south, and Bakola in the north. The preceding Ba– is a typical prefix found in Bantu languages and indicates humanness and plural at the same time. So, when we talk about Gyeli/Kola, we talk about the language. When we talk about Bagyeli/Bakola, we talk about the people.


Nampundi Marceline from Bibira died in November 2011 (photo taken by Nadine Borchardt, May 2011)

In addition to how speakers call themselves and their language, members of different ethnic groups and other linguists have many spelling variants such as Gyele, Bajele, Bogyiel, and Bagieli. So if you come across these variants, don’t be confused. Often, when members of neighboring Bantu farmer groups talk about the Bagyeli/Bakola, they call them pygmées, “Pygmies”. It seems to be a convenient cover term for short-sized hunter-gatherers in Central Africa, and people usually associate more with this term than with Bagyeli or Bakola. We will, however, not use this term for several reasons. First off, the term “Pygmy” generally has a pejorative connotation (though it is certainly not always implied by the Bantu farmer neighbors who use it). Second, it implicates a certain homogeneity among such Central African forest foragers which is, in all reality, not existent. So-called “Pygmy” groups differ considerably in terms of language, contact with their farming neighbors, settlement patterns, and hunting techniques, just to mention a few.

Language classification

Linguists classify the languages of the world into different language families, according to how they are related to one another genealogically. In Europe, for instance, we find the big language family of Indo-European languages. Within this family, there are subfamilies such as Germanic languages (e.g. English, Swedish, and Dutch) and Roman languages (e.g. French, Italian, and Portuguese). The same holds true for Africa. With about 2000 languages out of the about 7000 world languages, the African continent is linguistically very rich and diverse. In Cameroon alone, about 270 languages are spoken. They mostly belong to the big language family of Niger-Congo languages. With about 500 members, the Bantu languages form the biggest subfamily of the Niger-Congo languages and, at the same time, cover a vast territory stretching from the border of Nigeria and Cameroon all the way to east and south Africa. Probably the most famous member of the Bantu languages is Swahili, a language spoken in Tanzania, Kenya and in parts of other surrounding countries. Even though Swahili is spoken thousands of kilometers away, many similarities to the Bantu languages in Cameroon can still be observed.

Bantuists – linguists who are working on Bantu languages – have further classified the Bantu languages in groups giving these groups a capital letter from A through S, as shown in the map on the classification of Bantu languages. Within each group, there are yet smaller groups which form groups of decimal numbers. So, in group A, for instance, there are groups such as A10, A20, A30, and so on, through to A90.


Classification of Bantu languages (taken from


Gyeli/Kola is a Bantu language of the A80 (Makaa-Njem) group (Gordon 2005, Guthrie 1971:33). Estimations of the population of Gyeli speakers vary from 2,200 (Renaud 1976 :28) to 5,000 (Ngima 2001:215). The Gyeli/Kola speakers, however, are not ethnically Bantu. As discussed above, they are forest foragers who have lived in symbiosis with sedentary Bantu farmer communities over a long period of time. The Gyeli/Kola language as it is now spoken is very closely related to Kwasio (also A80), which is the language of their former patrons.


Language contact and dialects

Gyeli/Kola is in contact with a multitude of different languages spoken by sedentary Bantu farmers. In the map below, these languages are represented by capital letters and include Bakoko, Basaa, Ewondo, Bulu, Fang, Yassa, Batanga, and Kwasio with its dialects Mabi and Ngumba. All of these languages also belong to the Bantu A group, though to different subgroups (A30, A40, A60, A70, and A80). This does not mean that each and every single Gyeli/Kola speaker is in contact with all of these languages, since the language zone is so large, about 12.500 km2 . Rather, Gyeli/Kola speakers are in contact with usually one main contact language.

The Gyeli/Kola speakers are currently shifting to the languages they are most closely in contact with. In the course of this language shift, different Gyeli/Kola dialects emerge. Already in 1976, Renaud (1976) reported of two dialects for the language:  “Bajele” which was closely associated with Kwasio, and “Bakola” which was closely associated with Basaa (A40).  As the Bagyeli/Bakola have become more sedentary since then and have entered into even closer relationships with other farming communities, the dialectal situation has become more complex. The Gyeli/Kola language is fragmenting as different communities of speakers borrow extensively from different neighboring languages, such as Kwasio (A8), Basaa (A40), Bakoko (A40), Yassa (A20), Ewondo (A60), and Bulu (A70).

In our project, we mainly investigate three of these dialects. Emmanuel Ngué Um, being a native Basaa speaker, works in the northern region which is in contact with Basaa, represented in grey on the map. The village, he is mainly working in, is called Lepdjom. Daniel Duke who has extensively worked on Kwasio (blueish shade) over the last years, investigates the Gyeli dialect in the Kwasio contact region around Lolodorf and along the coast, mainly in the village Bibira. Nadine Borchardt is in charge of the Gyeli variety in the Bulu contact area, represented by the red shade. “Her” village is called Ngolo. The two blue dots represent Bantu farmers’ villages where the linguists occasionally collect data for comparison with Gyeli/Kola.


Map of the Gyeli/Kola area and its neighboring languages (by Nadine Borchardt, May 2012)

Language endangerment

Gyeli/Kola is a highly endangered language. There are two factors that reinforce its endangerment. The first one concerns the social status of the Bagyeli/Bakola among their neighbors and within the Cameroonian society. The Bagyeli/Bakola report that they are discriminated against by the farming populations because of their “primitive” lifestyle as hunter-gatherers, as it is perceived by the farmers, their poverty, and lack of education. These negative aspects are also attributed to the language. Thus, the language is used strictly for in-group communication and usually not spoken in public when outsiders are present (Duke, personal experience). When asked what language they speak, the Bagyeli/Bakola name the language of the villagers. They often even deny that they have a separate language of their own (Duke, personal experience). Bagyeli/Bakola have reported preferring to speak Kwasio when addressing outsiders (Ngima 2001:218).

The second factor concerns the Bagyeli’s/Bakola’s decreasing ability to continue their traditional lifestyle. Due to massive changes in their environment such as the construction of the biggest port in Central Africa, deforestation, expansion of palm oil plantations and the construction of more and more roads, the animals that the Bagyeli/Bakola depend on, disappear. As a result, they are forced to change their subsistence strategy, become sedentary and adapt more and more to a farming lifestyle. In the course of these changes, the Bagyeli/Bakola adapt to their neighbors who are already farmers and have more prestige than the hunter-gatherers, and shift to their languages.



The construction of the port has a big impact on some of the Gyeli villages. The village Bibira was relocated in spring 2012 to make way for the construction site. Before the relocation, the Bagyeli in Bibira lived right next to the road where trucks were passing every few minutes for many months. Their “new” Bibira consists of three wooden houses the Bagyeli are very proud of on a patch of former rain forest.  The Bibira inhabitants report, however, that skin diseases have become more of a problem since they left the forest. They also worry that they will be relocated soon again because their new village is only temporary – the government has not yet found a permanent place for them.

Children in Bibira with a sign warning of the ongoing construction works of the port (photo by Nadine Borchardt, May 2011)


The “old” Bibira, before the relocation of the village (photo by Nadine Borchardt, May 2010)


Christopher Lorenz filming the construction site of the port in 2011 (photo by Nadine Borchardt, May 2011)


The “new” Bibira, still close to the port and only a temporary settlement (photo by Nadine Borchardt, July 2012)



Gordon. 2005. Ethnologue, the Languages of the World. Dallas: SIL

Guthrie, Malcolm. 1971. Comparative Bantu. An introduction to the comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages, Part 1, vol. 2 : an outline of Bantu history. Farnborough, U.K.: Gregg International Publishers Ltd.

Ngima Mawoung, Godefroy. 2001. “The relationship between the Bakola and the Bantu people of the coastal region of Cameroon and their perception of commercial forest exploitation,”  African Study Monographs. Suppl. 26 :  209-235.

Renaud, Patrick. 1976. Le Bajele: phonologie, morphologie nominale. Les dossiers de L’ALCAM. Vols. 1 and 2. Yaounde: ONAREST, Institue des Sciences Humaines.