Sierra Leonean Creole or Krio is the lingua franca and the de facto national language spoken throughout the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Krio is spoken by 97% of Sierra Leone’s population and unites the different ethnic groups in the country, especially in their trade and social interaction with each other. Krio is the primary language of communication among Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad. The language is native to the Sierra Leone Creole people or Krios, (a community of about 300,000 descendants of freed slaves from the West Indies, United States andGreat Britain), and is spoken as a second language by millions of other Sierra Leoneans belonging to the country’s indigenous tribes. English is Sierra Leone’s official language, while Krio, despite its common use throughout the country, has no official status.
The Krio language is an offshoot of the languages and variations of English brought by the Nova Scotian Settlers from North America, Maroons from Jamaica, and the numerous liberated African slaves who settled in Sierra Leone.
All freed slaves—the Jamaican Maroons, African Americans, and Liberated Africans—influenced Krio, but the Jamaican Maroons, Igbo and Yoruba Liberated Africans were the most influential. It seems probable that the basic grammatical structure and vowel system of Krio is an offshoot of Jamaican Maroon Creolespoken by the Maroons, there are well-documented and important direct historical connections between Jamaica and Sierra Leone. The language was also influenced by African American Vernacular English while the majority of the African words in Krio come from the Yoruba and Igbo languages.
Krio is distinct from a pidgin as it is a language in its own right, with fixed grammatical structures and rules. Krio also draws from other European languages, likePortuguese and French, e.g. the Krio word gentri/gentree, which means wealth or to acquire wealth, is derived from the Old French word «gentry,» and the Krio wordpikin, which means child, indirectly comes from the Portuguese word «pequeno».
One theory suggests the early roots of Krio go back to the Atlantic slave trade era in the 17th and 18th centuries when an English-based «pidgin» language (West African Pidgin English, also called Guinea Coast Creole English) arose to facilitate the coastal trade between Europeans and Africans. This early pidgin later became the lingua franca of regional trade among West Africans themselves and likely spread up the river systems to the African interior. After the founding of Freetown, this preexisting pidgin was incorporated into the speech of the various groups of freed slaves landed in Sierra Leone between 1787 and about 1855. The pidgin gradually evolved to become a stable language, the native language of descendants of the freed slaves (which are now a distinct ethnic and cultural group, the Creoles), and the lingua franca of Sierra Leone.
Krio usage in Sierra Leone
Most ethnic and cultural Creoles live in and around Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and their community accounts for about 3% to 6% of Sierra Leone’s total population (Freetown is the province where the return slaves from London and Nova Scotia settled). However, because of their cultural influence in Sierra Leone — especially during the period of colonial rule — their language is used as the lingua franca among all the ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Many Mendes, Temnes, and Limbas grow up in the interior of the country speaking both their native languages and Krio. Some children born in Freetown to parents who are not ethnic Creoles grow up speaking Krio and only Krio as their mother tongue language.
Krio speakers abroad
The Creole people acted as traders and missionaries in other parts of West Africa during the 19th century, and as a result there are also Krio-speaking communities in The Gambia, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea. As a result of Sierra Leone Creole migratory patterns, in the Gambia the Creole or Aku community speak a dialect that is very similar to Krio in Sierra Leone. A small number of liberated Africans returned to the land of their origins, such as the Saros of Nigeria who not only took their Western names with them but also Krio words like sabi which was installed into Nigerian Pidgin English.
During the period of colonial rule, Sierra Leoneans (particularly among the upper class) were discouraged from speaking Krio; but after independence from the United Kingdom in 1961, writers and educators began promoting its use. In the 1960s, Thomas Decker translated some of Shakespeare’s plays into Krio, and composed original poetry in the language. In the 1980s the New Testament was translated into Krio. Beginning with the involvement of Lutheran Bible Translators,Krio-language translations of the New Testament and Bible were published in 1986 and 2013.
While English is Sierra Leone’s official language, the Ministry of Education began using Krio as the medium of instruction in some primary schools in Freetown in the 1990s. Radio stations now broadcast a wide variety of programs in Krio. Sierra Leonean politicians also routinely give public speeches in the language.
Krio is an English-based creole from which descend Nigerian Pidgin English and Cameroonian Pidgin English and Pichinglis. It is also similar to English-based creole languages spoken in the Americas, especially the Gullah language, Jamaican Patois (Jamaican Creole), and Belizean Creole but it has its own distinctive character. It also shares some linguistic similarities with non-English creoles, such as the French-based creole languages in the Caribbean.
The suffix «-dèm» is used to mark the plural, as well as the genitive plural e.g. «uman» («woman»).
Verbs do not conjugate according to person or number, but reflect their tense. Tense, aspect and mood are marked by one or more tense or aspect markers. The tense markers are ‘bin’ for the past tense and ‘go’ for the future, the absence of either shows the present tense. Aspect is shown by ‘dòn’ for perfective and ‘de’ for imperfective. Infinitive is marked by ‘fòr’ and conditional by a combination of ‘bin’ and ‘go’. Tendency is marked by ‘kin’ and ‘nòbar’. The verbal paradigm is as follows.
The hortative is marked by ‘lè’ e.g. ‘lè wi go, lè wi tòk’ and the optative by ‘mè’ e.g. ‘mè yu Kingmara kam, mè yu Will bi duo’
The following interrogatives can be used:
In addition, like many other Creoles, a question can be asked simply by intonation. E.g. Yu de go?: ‘Are you going’ vs yu de go: ‘you are going.’ Additionally the question particles ‘ènti’ and ‘nòoso’ can be used at the start or end of the phrase respectively.
There is no distinction between masculine and feminine in any person and, unlike Standard English, there is a 2nd person plural form. However, there are the hints of nominative, accusative and genitive cases.
Krio uses the Latin script but without Qq and Xx and with three additional letters from the African reference alphabet, Ɛɛ (open E), Ŋŋ (eng), and Ɔɔ (open O). Threetones can be distinguished in Krio and are sometimes marked with grave (à), acute (á), and circumflex (â) accents over the vowels for low, high, and falling tones respectively but these accents are not employed in normal usage. An alternative orthography with Latin letters only has been devised by Thomas Decker.
The complete alphabet with digraphs follows with Decker’s orthography in parentheses:
Below is a sample of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Krio:
Below are some sample sentences in Krio:
Krio is used (incorrectly) early in the 2006 film Blood Diamond between Danny Archer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and a character named Commander Zero.
It can also be heard in the music video for «Diamonds from Sierra Leone», a song by American rapper Kanye West.
In 2007, work was completed on an unsanctioned, dubbed Krio version of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth. The dubs were recorded by a team of over 14 native Krio speakers, over a period of 9 months in the Lungi region of Sierra Leone. The film aired on ABC-TV and a limited run of 300 copies were produced, which were mostly sold in Lungi and Freetown.
The first feature-length documentary entirely spoken in Krio is Boris Gerrets’ film Shado’man (2014). It was shot in Freetown at night with a group of homeless disabled people. The film premiered at the IDFA documentary festival in Amsterdam and was seen in festivals around the world including FESPACO, the biannual Pan-African film festival in Ouagadougou.
Peter Grant, the protagonist of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, is the London-born son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone. While speaking English with other characters, he speaks Krio with his mother. Aaronovitch includes some such conversations in his text, leaving the reader to puzzle out what was said.
Published - August 2016
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