The Liberian language has a unique history that dates back to the early 19th century, when the Republic of Liberia was founded by freed African-American slaves. Throughout the 1800s, Liberia served as the destination of resettlement for freed slaves, who brought the English language to their new homeland. The Liberian language soon evolved, developing distinct differences from Standard English thanks to the West African and French linguistic influences it came into contact with in Liberia.
Since Liberia’s official founding in 1824, English has maintained its status as the most prominent language in the country. English serves as the official Liberian language, and an estimated 3 million people speak the form of pidgin English known as Liberian Kreyol language or Liberian Pidgin English.
The Founding of Liberia: Resettlement of Freed American Slaves
In 1816 the American Colonization Society, an organization designed to aid in the resettlement of freed African-American slaves, was established. The organization initially attempted to resettle freed American slaves in Sierra Leone; however, this endeavor proved unsuccessful. Six years later, native African rulers gave US representatives an area of land along the Cape of Mesurado. This area would become Liberia.
The freed African-American slaves who migrated to Liberia from the United States are largely credited with the founding of Liberia. Known as Americo-Liberians, the history of this group and the role they played in the early history of the country are intriguing.
Development of Liberian Pidgin English (Liberian Kreyol)
The unique form of English spoken in Liberia, known as Liberian Pidgin English or Liberian Kreyol language, was developed among the population of Americo-Liberians, the freed slaves who migrated to Liberia from the United States in the 19th century.
Based primarily on the English language that these freed slaves spoke in the United States, Liberian Kreyol evolved from standard English as it adopted words from the French and nearby West African languages. Although English is the country’s official language and the Americo-Liberians have controlled Liberia’s government for the majority of the country’s history, only about one-fifth of Liberia’s residents claim Liberian Kreyol language as their native tongue.
Early History of Liberia
The first Americo-Liberians to settle the new land are thought to have arrived in the early 1820s. In 1824, the US agent for the newly founded society, Ralph Randolph Gurley, christened the new colony “Liberia.” Gurley also labeled the settlement concentrated at Cape Mesurado “Monrovia” – today, the capital of Liberia.
In 1931, Liberia was rocked by scandal when the League of Nations reported that Americo-Liberian migrants were using the native African populations of the area for forced labor – essentially enslaving them. The scandal that ensued prompted the Liberian government to rid the country of all forced-labor practices. Although forced labor was successfully abolished by 1936, the native Africans residing in Liberia were still seen as second-class. For example, they were not given voting rights.
Liberia as an Independent Republic
The majority of Americo-Liberians arrived before 1865, after which point the waves of migration became increasingly intermittent. Due to conflict between the new colony and the United States, the Americo-Liberian colonists were soon awarded almost complete control of the government.
In 1847, Liberia became a fully independent republic. A Liberian constitution, modeled on that of the United States, was established the same year and Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a black man, became the newly independent country’s first official president.
The Liberian Civil War
Americo-Liberians controlled the Liberian government until 1980, when the government was overthrown by a military coup. In 1989, a violent Civil War erupted, incited by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a dissident rebel group that included an army of approximately 10,000 men.
In the early 1990s, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a peacekeeping force into Liberia in an attempt to establish peace in the area. However the war continued until 1996, killing a total of about 150,000 people and displacing an estimated 1 million.
Monrovia: Capital of Liberia
Since its founding in 1822, the Americo-Liberian colony of Monrovia has served as the commercial and cultural center of Liberia. Today, Monrovia is the capital of Liberia and the country’s largest city. An interesting aspect of the city is its old style of architecture, which resembles the pre-Civil War architecture of the southern United States. Although such older buildings are gradually giving way to more modern architecture, such old styles still serve as a reminder of the roots of Liberia’s founders.
The People of Modern Liberia
Today three major groups of people can be identified within the country of Liberia. The largest group is comprised of those indigenous people who migrated from Sudan as far back as the Middle Ages. A second major group is comprised of African-American immigrants from the United States (sometimes referred to as Americo-Liberians) and their descendents.
Finally, the third group consists of immigrants from the West Indies. A number of other smaller minority groups include various immigrants from other nearby African countries, most of who migrated to Liberia during the time of European colonial rule in Africa.
Liberian Languages Today
Although English is the official Liberian language, the form of pidgin English native to the country (known as Liberian Pidgin English or Liberian Kreyol language) is spoken by approximately only 20 percent of the population. The majority of Liberia’s residents fall into major linguistic categories: the Mande, Kwa and Mel, all of which belong to the Niger-Congo family of African languages.
For the most part, these groups are divided along geographical lines. Mande language speakers are found primarily in the northwest and central areas of Liberia, Kwa speakers are found primarily in the south, and the Mel language speakers are along the northern border and northwest coast.
It is important to note that language groups are not necessarily aligned with ethnic identity. For example, Mande language speakers include a number of ethnic groups such as the Vai, Kpelle and Loma peoples. In addition to these three major linguistic groups, Liberia is home to approximately two dozen other languages.
Liberian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Liberian Pidgin English
Language Family: Pidgin, English based, Atlantic.
Spoken by Approximately 3,000,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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