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Aloysius Ngefac (Yaounde/Cameroon)
Linguistic Variants as Signals of Social Hierarchy: The Ambiguous Situation of Cameroon
This paper studies the correlation between social hierarchy and linguistic variables in Cameroon, a New English Context. Given that Cameroon and the Western world do not share the same linguistic and socio-economic realities, the pattern of correlation between social hierarchy and linguistic variables established in this paper tends to contradict what has been reported in previous studies conducted in the Western world (e.g. Labov 1966; Trudgill 1972, 1974a, 1974b and Macaulay 1976, 1977). It is therefore predicted that a future investigation that will study the correlation between the acrolectal features of Cameroon English (as opposed to native English features) and a model of social structure that reflects the Cameroonian context, like the one proposed in this paper, will obtain results that may strikingly reflect what was reported in Labov’s (1966) insightful theory.
In Labov’s (1966) theory and in similar studies conducted in the Western World (e.g. Trudgill 1972, 1974a, 1974b, and Macaulay 1976, 1977), there is a unanimous view that the choice of prestige or standard linguistic features significantly depends on a speaker’s social status. In spite of the plausibility of this theory in native English industrialized contexts, it is hypothesized and claimed in this paper that the theory is likely not to transcend the frontiers of Cameroon, if the investigation that results in such a theory is not adapted to her socio-economic, cultural and linguistic realities, given that the Western world and a New English Context, such as Cameroon, do not share the same realities. This paper has a three-fold objective. First, it is to demonstrate that in an attempt to study the correlation between social hierarchy and linguistic variables in Cameroon, if Cameroon English speakers are evaluated in terms of their approximation of native English phonological features (as opposed to Cameroon English features), the investigation will yield results that sharply contrast with what has been reported in previous studies carried out in the Western World (e.g. Labov 1966, Trudgill 1972, 1974a, 1974b and Macaulay 1976, 1977). Second, it is to show that in Cameroon an attempt to correlate phonological features with a model of social structure that relies principally on occupational status (as is the case in the Western world notion of social class upon which Labov’s (1966) theory was constructed) is likely to yield a pattern of correlation that contradicts what has been reported in the Western world. Third, a model of social structure for Cameroon will be proposed, and this model relies on educational attainment, and not on occupational status, as is the case in the Western world notion of social class.
2. The linguistic and socio-economic realities of Cameroon
Cameroon, unlike the Western world, displays a heavy multilingual landscape, where, besides French and English as the two official languages of the country and Pidgin English as the lingua franca, there are approximately 248 indigenous languages. In such a complex linguistic context, the teaching and promotion of native English features, especially at the phonological level, as is officially recommended in Cameroon, tends to be creating no significant impact. This is seen in the fact that standard native English features are conspicuously lacking in the speech of most educated speakers of English. In Ngefac’s (2003) investigation, one of the tasks was to study the correlation between level of education and linguistic variables in Cameroon. The speech of 100 secondary school students (S), 100 undergraduate students (U) and 100 postgraduate students (P) was studied. The 300 informants who made up the sample were evaluated in terms of their ability to articulate some segmental and supra-segmental features of Received Pronunciation (RP), the accent which is promoted in the Cameroonian classrooms.
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The following table presents the numerous linguistic items that did not show any substantial correlation with level of education:
The above table shows that level of education has little or no influence in the choice of Received Pronunciation features. In the articulation of some of the linguistic items, all the informants, irrespective of level of education, produced the Cameroon English variants.
In spite of the government’s insistence that a native English model should be the target in an EFL and ESL classroom in Cameroon, everybody in Cameroon does not see native English features as prestige linguistic features. Some people even associate such features with stigma. It is not surprising that Mbangwana (1987) reports that Cameroonians who approximate native English features are looked upon with contempt rather than admiration. This implies that native English features are not necessarily seen in Cameroon as prestige linguistic variants and there is a general lack of enthusiasm among Cameroonians to target a variety of English that seems to be a far-fetched phenomenon. In this situation, if native English features, which are officially promoted in the Cameroonian classroom, are not considered in Cameroon by a majority of speakers as prestige linguistic features, can those who are socially superior strive to target such linguistic features? An answer to this question will be attempted in (3) below.
Every society has a given socio-economic reality that may not be observable in another set-up. In an attempt to evaluate the Labovian theory in a place like Cameroon, one may not equate occupational status to social status, as is the case in the notion of social class upon which Labov’s (1966) theory was constructed. The notion of social class, which neatly reflects the Western society, tends to be quite foreign in Cameroon. In fact, such expressions as “upper middle class”, “middle middle class”, “lower middle class”, “upper working class”, “middle working class” and “lower working class” are not often used to qualify speakers with different social statuses. Instead, we seem to have what Jibril (1982) refers to as socio-economic groupings–a pyramid-based social structure that identifies the residual mass at the bottom of the pyramid; the sub-elite at the middle of the pyramid and the elite at the top of the pyramid. This pyramid-based model of social structure does not equally appear to be convincing in reflecting the social structure of Cameroon, given that it does not provide clear-cut parameters that are considered in placing speakers at the different rungs of the social ladder.
In order to appreciate the workability of the Labovian theory in Cameroon, one needs a realistic social structure that reflects the Cameroonian society. In such a model of social structure, constructed to be a reflection of the social situation of Cameroon, occupation should not be the touchstone upon which the model is based, as is the case in the Western world social class structure which is, anyway, wonderfully convincing in the Western world. As a further remark, wealth should not be considered a major determinant in the construction of such a model, especially if the model is expected to have a significant correlation with linguistic variables.
A number of reasons account for such a position. First, most African communities are characterised by nepotism, (military) dictatorship, and favouritism, inter alia. In such an atmosphere, there is a high tendency for people to find themselves in occupational positions such as directors and managers of big corporations when they do not have the necessary educational qualifications to be in those positions. Their being in such positions of power is merely a function of the type of relationship they share with decision-makers. In most cases, admission into any respectful position, like that of a manager of a big corporation, depends on whether one is a cousin or a brother of a decision-maker or on whether one is an active militant of the political party of the decision-maker. In such a situation where occupation, in most cases, is not a function of educational attainment, there can be no hope to obtain any significant correlation between linguistic variables and a social structure that is based on the occupation of the speaker.
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Second, it is common to find many people in Third World contexts where the New Englishes are used with a very high educational attainment who are jobless and do not even hope to obtain any meaningful jobs in the nearest future. This may be the result of the fact that they do not have godfathers, as is often said, who can facilitate their attempts to obtain jobs that match with their educational attainment. As a result, they involve themselves in all types of odd jobs that one can imagine. Relying on the model of social class structure (which depends principally on occupational status) to stratify such people, they will not have any social advantage better than Labov’s lower working class blue-collar workers like plumbers, electricians, baby-sitters and cabinet makers, and any attempt to correlate the linguistic features of such people who have attained a high level of education, but earn a living by virtue of their physical strength and not by virtue of their intellectual capability, a pattern very different from the one reported by Labov (1966) will be obtained. Such a result will show to what extent the credibility of Labov’s insightful theory (which relies on the model of social class) cannot fully be applicable in a place like Cameroon if one relies on the model of social class to stratify speakers.
Wealth, like occupation, is equally considered in this paper as a non-essential factor in the construction of a model of social structure for Cameroon, especially if the model is expected to correlate with linguistic variables in the same way as reported in Labov’s 1966 study. Interestingly, there is a massive presence in Cameroon, and probably in other African countries, of what one may most adequately describe as “ambiguous individuals”. These are rich illiterate citizens whose financial status comfortably places them on the chairs of socially superior citizens, but who are at the same time guilty of an inferiority complex because of their deficiency in ‘educated speech’. If such people who are very wealthy, but may not have received any significant formal education, are placed at the top of the pyramid or classified as upper middle class because of their wealth, one will obviously obtain no significant correlation between their social position and their linguistic resources, especially if the target is ‘educated speech’.
3. Social Status in correlation with linguistic variables in Cameroon
Having shown how such factors as occupation and wealth are misleading in the construction of a social structure for Cameroon, let’s turn our attention to a practical attempt that has been made in this New English context to rely strictly on the model of social class (the model upon which Labov’s 1966 investigation was carried out) to evaluate the workability of the Labovian theory. In an earlier investigation (Ngefac 1997), the speech of some Anglophone students in the town of Yaounde was studied. The students were between the ages of 12 and 18. They were all speakers of English as a second language. Besides their knowledge of French and English, the students testified that they either had a partial or a good knowledge of their indigenous maternal language. Some of them equally claimed that Pidgin English is one of the media through which they communicate in informal contexts.
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The 30 informants who made up the sample were categorised into high status speakers (HSs) and low status speakers (LSs). HSs and LSs correspond fairly to Labov’s middle class and working class groups respectively. The categorisation of the subjects into the two groups depended on such factors as the occupational status and the place of residence of the parents of the informants. As concerns occupation, a higher status was attributed to children of top-ranking politicians, directors of big corporations and other civil servants who occupied influential positions. On the other hand, children of not well to do parents, who were either farmers in their respective villages or were involved only in mean jobs in their respective towns, were associated with low status. As concerns the place of residence of the parents of the subjects, a residential quarter like Bastos (a quarter highly admired in Yaounde) was assumed to be the quarter of socially superior citizens and Briquetterie (a quarter assumed to be the quarter of socially inferior citizens) was considered to be the quarter of the so-called LSs.
The subjects from the two social groups were submitted to the reading of a series of carefully designed sentences, containing 48 targeted phonological features. The following table presents the results of the two pseudo-social groups in the articulation of some phonological features, randomly chosen from Ngefac (1997:table 6).
As the table shows, none of the pseudo-social groups tends to have any striking advantage over the group at the other end of social continuum in the articulation of the underlined segments of the words. Interestingly, the group assumed to be socially inferior appears to have an edge over the group at the other end of the social continuum (assumed in the study) in the articulation of the underlined features of such words as “country”, “president”, “chairs” and “debt”. This advantage, which appears to characterise the speech of LSs, is, however, not very striking. On the whole, there was no significant correlation between the two social groups and their linguistic performance.
These findings have a number of implications. First, the fact that RP features tend to be quite lacking in the speech of the informants suggests that the promotion of a native English accent in Cameroon is yielding little or no fruits and, as a consequence, typical Cameroon English features, which have become the unavoidable companion of most Cameroonian speakers of English, should be standardised and promoted. Second, the absence of any striking correlation between linguistic variables and a social structure that does not reflect the Cameroonian society shows that the plausibility of the Labovian theory in Cameroon significantly depends on the social structure upon which the investigation is carried out. It can therefore be stipulated that Labov’s theory is likely to be plausible in Cameroon if and only if the investigation is based on the a realistic model of social structure and if the informants are evaluated in terms of their approximation of standard(?) features of Cameroon English .
4. A model of social structure for Cameroon
A model of social structure that is likely to reflect the realities of Cameroon should rely on educational attainment to stratify society, and not on occupational status, especially if the model is expected to show a remarkable correlation with linguistic variables as reported in Labov’s theory. It should be noted that education is seen in Cameroon as a very important source of power. In Cameroon, those who have attained a certain level of education command respect and dignity, irrespective of whether they are employed or not. The idiom “knowledge is power”, frequently used by most Cameroonians, is often used to defend the view that education significantly determines one’s position in society. This implies that in Cameroon a model of social structure, which is educationally determined, is likely to be seen by a good number of Cameroonians as a model that realistically reflects their community. It is not surprising that Cameroonians always tend to make a conscious effort to know the level of education of any body who is appointed to a serious post of responsibility. In the case where the person’s position does not reflect his or her level of education, he or she is always looked upon with disrespect.
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The educationally based model of social strucure proposed in this paper segments the Cameroonian society into six hierarchically social ranks, captured in the following schema:
As shown on the schema above, an attempt has been made to categorise the Cameroonian society into six hierarchically different social ranks: distinguished citizens, category 'A' citizens, category 'B' citizens, category 'C' citizens, category 'D' citizens and non-lliterate citizens. The arrows on the left hand side of the schema present the social ranks in descending order of hierarchy and those on the right hand side present them in ascending order.
The social rank with the highest status is known as a distinguished citizen. To be considered a distinguished citizen, one needs to have a doctoral degree, an equivalent or any other university qualification that is equivalent to a terminal degree. It should be noted that in this model of social stricture, one may be a secretary of state or a director, but may not be considered a distinguished citizen, if he or she does not have a terminal degree or an equivalent. Similarly, a person’s wealth does not qualify him or her to be a distinguished citizen. In the same light, a person who has no job at all, or is simply involved in mean jobs that do not match with his or her qualification, may still enjoy the status of a distinguished citizen if he or she has a doctoral degree or its equivalent. In this case, one can either be a privileged distinguished citizen or a deprived distinguished citizen. The former is one whose occupational status reflects his or her level of education and the latter is one who has no job at all, or is involved only in mean jobs, in spite of a level of education that qualifies him or her to be a distinguished citizen.
The next social rank, in descending order of status, is what is referred to in the model as a category `A´ citizen. To be a category `A´ citizen, one is expected to have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree, an equivalent or a Master’s degree. A postgraduate diploma/certificate or an equivalent can serve as a good complement. As in the case of a distinguished citizen, one can either be a privileged or a deprived category `A´ citizen, depending on whether his or her occupational status reflects his/her level of education. All the workers who are classified in the civil service of Cameroon as categories A1 and A2 workers and who have a minimum of a First-Degree or an equivalent are privileged category `A´ citizens and those who have a minimum of a First-Degree and have no jobs are deprived category `A´ citizens.
A category `B´ citizen is the social rank directly below that of a category `A´ citizen. To be classified as a category `B´ citizen, one needs to have a minimum of a General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level, a Baccalauréat (for French-speaking Cameroonians) or an equivalent. One can either be a privileged category B citizen (if he or she is involved in a job that matches with his or her level of education) or a deprived category `B´ citizen (if his or her level of education is not reflected in his or her job). Cameroonian civil servants who are classified as categories B1 and B2 workers and who have a minimum of the GCE Advanced Level or Baccalauréat or an equivalent are necessarily privileged category `B´ citizens. Those who have the academic qualification of privileged category `B´ citizens and do not have any jobs at all, or are involved only in mean jobs that do not reflect their level of education, are deprived category `B´ citizens.
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In descending order of status, the rank after that of a category `B´ citizen is that of category `C´ citizen. The minimum qualification for one to have the status of a category `C´ citizen is the GCE Ordinary Level or the BEPC (for French-speaking Cameroonians) or an equivalent. Cameroonian civil servants who are classified as category C workers and who have the GCE Ordinary Level, the BEPC or an equivalent are privileged category `C´ citizens. Those that have the same qualification, but tend to be jobless are deprived category `C´ citizens.
The next social rank is known as a category `D´ citizen. The academic qualification needed for one to be considered a category `D´ citizen is the First School Leaving Certificate (FSLC) for Anglophones and “Certicat d’Etudes Primaire et Elementaire” (CEPE) for Francophones. Like the social ranks presented above, one can either be a privileged or a deprived category `D´ citizen, depending on whether his or her level of education is reflected in his or her job.
The last social rank in this model is referred to as non-literate citizens. One can have the rank of a non-literate citizen if he or she has never received any formal education.
What makes this model of social structure different from previous models is the way each of the social ranks is defined. In the social class system, one’s occupation is the main determinant of social class membership. But in the model presented above, level of education is the principal criterion used to determine the social rank of a person. One’s occupation only determines whether he or she is a privileged or a deprived citizen of the social rank in which his or her level of education qualifies him or her to be. In the same light, a person with a certain occupational status, say, a manager of a public firm or a director of a corporation is not necessarily a distinguished citizen, at least in the context of this model, if he or she does not have the educational qualification that qualifies him or her for the rank. If such a person with a very high occupational status simply has the GCE Advanced level or any equivalent certificate, he or she is (regrettably) seen from the context of this model as a category `B´ citizen, irrespective of his or her high occupational position.
The model of social structure proposed in this paper is also very different from the pyramid-based social structure. Besides the fact that the pyramid-based model does not clearly state what should qualify a person to be placed on each of the social positions of the pyramid, it tends to assume that a person’s economic power or wealth determines his or her social position. Wealth could be a very reliable criterion if the model is not expected to correlate significantly with ‘educated speech’. But a model that is expected to correlate considerably with linguistic variables, like the one proposed in this paper, should not consider wealth as an indispensable factor. Wealth is relevant in this model only at the level of determining whether one is a privileged or a deprived citizen of a given social rank. If the person is very wealthy, he or she is considered to be a privileged citizen of the social rank determined by his or her level of education.
It should be reiterated that the social structure proposed in this paper is not intended to be the source of social stratification in Cameroon. Social stratification has always existed in Cameroon, though sometimes difficult to notice. The aim of the model is to establish the type of social structure that can correlate significantly with linguistic variables. With such a model of social structure, which relies mainly on educational attainment, future Cameroonian researchers can embark on an investigation to establish the correlation between a speaker’s status and linguistic variables. If Ngefac’s (1997) study did not succeed in establishing any striking correlation between a speaker’s status and linguistic variables similar to the one reported in Labov’s famous theory, it is because the investigation relied on the Western world’s model of social structure, though it was a conscious attempt to test the workability of such a model and the theory in a context like Cameroon. Without a model of social structure, like the one proposed in this paper, which reflects the social realities of Cameroon, any investigation to establish the correlation between a speaker’s status and linguistic variables may not yield any remarkable results.
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In conclusion, it can be maintained that the Labovian theory can transcend the frontiers of a New English context, such as Cameroon, if and only if the investigation is adapted to the linguistic and socio-economic realities of Cameroon. In other words, an attempt to correlate linguistic variables and social hierarchy in Cameroon can yield significant results if the informants are evaluated according to their approximation of the acrolectal features of Cameroon English features (as oposed to typical native English features) and if the investigation is based on a model of social structure that realistically reflects the Cameroonian context. It should therefore be pointed out that if Cameroonians welcome this model of social structure as a model that realistically reflects their community, future Cameroonian sociolinguists can rely on the model to study the correlation between social hierarchy and linguistic variables. It can therefore be predicted in this study that the famous Labovian theory is likely to observable in a New English Context, such as Cameroon, if Camerron English speakers are evaluated in terms of their approximation of educated Cameroon English features (as opposed to native English features) and if the investigation is based on a social structure that realistically reflects the Cameroonian society, like the one presented above.
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