Bubia and Isubu are two Bantu languages belonging to the Benue-Congo family. The internal classification of the Bantu sub-family is based on Guthrie’s (1976-71) reference system, where both languages are grouped in A20 (“Duala Group”), Bubia being A221 and Isubu being A23 (modified by Maho 2003):
A20 Douala Group
A21 Mboko, Bomboko
A22 Kpe, Bakwiri
A23 Su, Isubu, Bimbia
A25 Oli, Ewodi, Wuri
A27 Limba, Mulimba, Malimba
The diachronic relations between the languages of group A20 is still to clarify. One aspect of the language history of the area under study is its complex migration history. For example, the Bubia-speaking groups of mainland Cameroon were originally whalers, with strong ties to the Bubi on Fernando Poo. They were originally settled on an inland close to the Cameroon coast and later settled on the mainland in the location where they are found today. The Isubu, on the other hand, claim a Douala origin. According to their history, the founder of Bimbia moved along the coast following the seasons of the fish and decided to settle in what is today Bimbia.
As sea-nomadic fishermen, coastal Bantu groups migrated over considerable distances and may have been exposed to diverse contact situations over the centuries. The emergence of minority languages such as Bubia and Isubu, and their association to distinct group-identities is not yet properly understood.
In addition to the migration history of the area, prestige relations between the languages would have changed throughout history, so that former contact situations are not necessarily reflected by the present situation. For example, the Isubu are said to have had greater influence along the coast, for examples as traders and middlemen with the first Europeans that came to the Cameroonian coast, than they have today (Ardener 1956). The present linguistic praxis reflects some of the problems of the genetic internal classification of the Bantu languages in the research area. As Duala and Mokpe are quite dominant in the region, many speakers of Bubia or Isubu are fluent in Mokpe and Duala, a fluency that may result in numerous convergence phenomena.
Apart from the translation of portions of the Bible between 1843 and 1852 by the missionary Joseph Merrick, and a grammar (1852) and a dictionary (1854) by another missionary, Alfred Saker (Ihims 2003) for Isubu, the languages have no well-documented, transcribed, translated, and analyzed materials. There are no historical and contemporary language materials such as comprehensive grammars and dictionaries, extensive texts, constant flow of language materials, abundant annotated high-quality audio and video recordings. The descriptive situation makes any (re)construction of the social history of Bubia and Isubu, and their respective linguistic affiliations extremely difficult.
Language endangerment and language policies
Intergenerational language transmission
Isubu is used on a daily basis by the adults who are able to speak it within Bimbia. But the number of people living in Bimbia today is rather low. Many people left the village to live in nearby towns like Limbe, Buea, Kumba or Douala, but also further away, usually in search for work. As a consequence many children are born outside the village and intermarriages with people from other groups are common. Even many Isubu speakers living in Bimbia today lived and worked outside the area before they decided to return. Moreover, many immigrants from other areas, for example Nigeria, settled in Bimbia, so that the place has a rather mixed population today. While some of the settlers have become skilful fishermen alongside the Isu man, other settlers have established themselves as farmers in an area known as “Chop Farm”, located up the hill further inland.
As a result, Isubu is frequently mixed with Pidgin English and other languages. Most of the children do not speak Isubu, although they might understand it. The same is true for many of the youths and even adults. Others claim to be not completely fluent in the language.
Recent studies on the sociolinguistics of the South-West Province revealed that young generations of children living in that region (as well as in the North-West Province) are no longer speaking their home language, but rather Cameroon English, or “Kamtok”, which has become a lingua franca of the whole region. In Limbe, one of the big towns of the South-West Region close to where Bubia and Isu are spoken, 9% and 30% of young Cameroonians have English and Pidgin English respectively, as their mother tongue (Alobwede 1998).
Absolute number of speakers
The absolute numbers of speakers for Bubia (600) and Isubu (800) is very low. These figures are not even actual and do not reflect the present reality. They were advanced in 1977 by Voegelin and Voegelin, and in 1982 by SIL respectively. Obviously, 31 years after, the demographic situation might have changed drastically. Akum (2011) (unpublished MA Thesis) estimates the number of Bimbia natives at 33 for the three villages (Bona Ngombe, Bona Bile and Dikolo) with 66% of them speaking the language. These weak numbers render the populations speaking these languages less cohesive and extremely vulnerable.
Since many speakers live outside Bimbia, it is difficult to give any concrete number of speakers of the Isubu language. Moreover, the proficiency many speakers still have in their language is difficult to estimate as well.
Loss of existing language domains
With the massive rural exodus that empty the villages, with the great influences of the lingua franca and languages of larger group neighbours, the domains of use of these two languages are considerably reduced.
The languages are solely used by adults for everyday communication within the village or in very specific ceremonies like naming, “born house” (i.e. child presentation to one’s community), chief crowning, burials, death celebration, etc. They are not regularly used when speaking to the younger generation, who frequently understand but do not speak the language. When asked what language they speak, many youths testify that they do not know their language, but rather speak English, Pidgin English or other languages.
In the villages, the remaining speakers do not have the chance to be in contact with new media (e.g. internet), and local broadcast stations use either Pidgin English or Mokpe. The village schools use English. In other words, these languages have absolutely no chance to strengthen through the contact with new domains and settings, especially in the official domains.
Governmental and Institutional language attitudes and policies
Education, whether formal or non-formal, is not conducted in these languages. Such an issue is not even a topic as the governmental policy, for decades, was to promote the exoglossic languages bilingualism. There are no pedagogical materials available.
Although clearly stipulated in the Cameroonian constitution that local languages and cultures should be promoted (art. 3, paragraph 2 of section 1), the preoccupation, for long was to ensure that every Cameroonian speaks, understands and writes the two official languages, French and English. A lot of means were deployed to achieve that objective, and nothing to promote the national languages. However, a recent text from the Ministry of Culture indicates that actions need to be taken to safeguard the cultures and languages of minorities. On his side, the Minister of Higher Education now encourages and recommends the creation of university departments for Cameroonian languages. The Ministry of Research and Scientific Innovation echoed that attitude. Individuals, private, national and international organisations are increasingly encouraged to work on them, but their real place in the language policy of the country is still to be determined.
Community members’ attitudes toward their own languages
Taken as a whole, the attitudes of the community members towards Bubia and Isubu are negative. However, adults are very sad about the situation and would have loved it to be different. Consequently, they are open to solutions that will remedy the situation and offer collaboration to any attempt to safeguard their linguistic patrimony. Obviously, they attach considerable value to their cultural heritage, but the trend is too strong and they feel that they cannot resist the influence of Kamtok, Mokpe and the two official languages: to succeed in the metropolises, one needs French and English.