How Africans are changing French: one joke, one rap and one book at a time

French, by most estimates the fifth most spoken language in the world, is changing, perhaps not in the gilded halls of the Paris institution that publishes its official dictionary, but on a rooftop in Abidjan, the most large of Ivory Coast.

There, one afternoon, a 19-year-old rapper who calls herself “Marla” rehearsed her next show, surrounded by friends and empty soda bottles. Her words were mainly French, but the Ivorian slang and English words she mixed together formed a new language.

Speaking only French, “c’est zogo” – “is not right,” said Marla, whose real name is Mariam Dosso, combining a French word with Ivorian slang. But playing with words and languages, she said, is “choco,” an abbreviation for chocolate that means “sweet” or “elegant.”

An increasing number of African words and expressions are permeating the French language, driven by the rise of youth populations in West and Central Africa.

More than 60 percent of those who speak French daily now live in Africa, and 80 percent of children who study French are in Africa. There are as many French speakers in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as there are in Paris.

Through social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube, they are literally spreading the word, reshaping the French language of African countries, like Côte d’Ivoire, that were once colonized by France.

“We tried to rap in pure French, but no one was listening to us,” said Jean Patrick Niambé, known as Dofy, a 24-year-old Ivorian hip-hop artist who was listening to Marla on the rooftop. “So we create words from our own realities and then they spread.”

Walking through the streets of Paris or its suburbs, you can hear people use the word “enjailler” to mean “to have fun.” But the word originally came from Abidjan to describe how adrenaline-seeking young Ivorians in the 1980s hopped on and off buses that raced through the streets.

The youth population in Africa is increasing as the rest of the world ages. Demographers predict that by 2060, up to 85 percent of French speakers will live on the African continent. That’s almost the opposite of the 1960s, when 90 percent of French speakers lived in European and other Western countries.

“French is flourishing every day in Africa,” said Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a renowned Senegalese professor of philosophy and French at Columbia University. “This Creole French finds its way in the books we read, the sketches we see on television, the songs we listen to.”

Almost half of the countries in Africa were at one time French colonies or protectorates, and most of them use French as their official language.

But France has faced growing resentment in recent years in many of these countries both over its colonial legacy and its continued influence. Some countries have evicted French ambassadors and troops, while others attack the French language itself. Some West African novelists write in local languages ​​as an act of artistic resistance. The ruling junta in Mali has stripped France of its official status, and a similar move is underway in Burkina Faso.

The reaction has not gone unnoticed in France, where the evolution of French provokes debate, if not anguish, among some intellectuals. President Emmanuel Macron of France said in a speech 2019: “France should be proud of being essentially a country among others that learns, speaks and writes in French.”

In Abidjan’s sprawling Adjamé market, there are thousands of small stalls selling counterfeit electronics, clothing, medicine and food. The market is a perfect laboratory for studying nouchi, a slang that was once crafted by petty criminals but has taken over the country in less than four decades.

Some former Abidjan gang members, who helped invent Nouchi, now work as guards patrolling the market alleys, where “jassa men” (young scammers) sell goods to make ends meet. It is here where new expressions are born and die every day.

Germain-Arsène Kadi, a literature professor at the Alassane Ouattara University in Côte d’Ivoire, entered the market one morning carrying with him the Nouchi dictionary he had written.

At a maquis, a street restaurant with plastic tables and chairs, the owner gathered some jassa men on his corner, or “soï to blurt out their favorite words while drinking Vody, a mix of vodka and energy drink.

“They’re going to hit you,” the owner said in French, which alarmed me until it was explained to me that the French verb for “hit,” frapper, had the opposite meaning there: those jassa men would treat us well, which they did. , throwing out dozens of words and expressions unknown to me in a few minutes.

Kadi frantically scribbled new words in a notebook and repeatedly said, “One more for the dictionary.”

It is almost impossible to know what word created on the streets of Abidjan could spread, travel or even survive.

“Go”, which in Ivory Coast means “bride”, was incorporated into the well-known French dictionary The Robert this year.

This year in Abidjan, people started calling a boyfriend “mon Pain,” which in French means “my bread.” Improvisations soon proliferated: “pain choco” is a nice boyfriend. A sugary bread, a sweet one. A bread fresh from the oven is a warm companion.

At a church in Abidjan earlier this year, the congregation burst out laughing, several worshipers told me, when the priest preached that people should break bread with their brothers.

The expression has spread like a meme on social media, reaching neighboring Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of kilometers away. It hasn’t arrived in France yet. But Ivorians like to joke about what expressions the French will learn, often years, if not decades, later.

“If French blends more, then the worldviews it conveys will change,” said Josué Guébo, an Ivorian poet and philosopher. “And if Africa influences French from a linguistic point of view, it will probably do so from an ideological point of view.”

Le Magnific, the stage name of Jacques Silvère Bah, is one of the most famous comedians in the Ivory Coast, known for his wordplay and imitations of West African accents.

But as a child learning French in school, he was prohibited from speaking Wobé, his own language, he said. At first his French was so poor that he was forced to communicate with gestures on the playground.

“We had to learn quickly and painfully,” Silvère, 45, said one afternoon before taking the stage at a live comedy festival in Abidjan.

In the French-speaking countries of West and Central Africa, French is rarely used at home and is rarely the first language, but is limited to school, work, business or administration.

According to a survey published last year by the French Organization of La Francophonie, the main organization for promoting French language and culture, 77 percent of respondents in Africa described French as the “language of the colonizer.” About 57 percent said it was imposed language.

Sometimes the methods of imposing it were brutal, scholars say. In schools in many French colonies, children who spoke their native language were beaten or forced to wear an object known as a “symbol” around their necks, often a smelly object or an animal bone.

Still, many African countries adopted French as their official language when they gained independence, in part to cement their national identities. Some even kept the “symbol” at school.

At the festival, Le Magnific and other comedians made fun of each other in French and ridiculed each other’s accents, causing laughter from the audience. It didn’t matter that some words were lost in translation.

“What makes our humor pan-African is the French language,” said festival organizer Mohamed Mustapha, known throughout West Africa by his stage name, Mamane. A comedian from Niger, mamane has a daily comedy show heard by millions of people around the world on Radio France Internationale.

“It’s about survival, if we want to resist against Nollywood,” he said, referring to Nigeria’s film industry, “and content produced in English.”

Today, more than a third of Ivorians speak French, according to the International Organization of La Francophonie. In Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the largest French-speaking country in the world) it is more than half.

But in many French-speaking countries, governments struggle to hire enough French-speaking teachers.

“African children still learn French under extremely difficult conditions,” said Francine Quéméner, head of language policy at the International Organization of La Francophonie. “They must learn to count, write and read in a language they do not fully master, with teachers who do not always feel confident speaking French.”

Still, Quéméner said the Frenchman had long escaped France’s control.

“French is an African language and belongs to Africans,” he said. “The decentralization of the French language is a reality.”

At the Hip Hop Académie, a youth program founded by rapper Grödash in a Paris suburb, teenagers and children scribbled lyrics in notebooks, following instructions to mix French and foreign languages.

Coumba Soumaré Camara, 9 years old, rehearsed some words from the mother tongues of his Mauritanian and Senegalese parents. She ended her couplet with “t’es magna” (you are bad), combining French syntax and a Mauritanian expression.

Hip-hop, which now dominates the French music industry, is injecting new words, phrases and concepts from Africa into the suburbs and cities of France.

One of the most famous French-speaking pop singers in the world is Aya Nakamura, originally from Mali. Many of the most listened to hip-hop artists are of Moroccan, Algerian, Congolese or Ivorian origin.

“Countless artists have democratized French music with African slang,” said Elvis Adidiema, Congolese music executive at Sony Music Entertainment. “The French public, of all origins, has become accustomed to those sounds.”

But some in France are slow to accept the change. Members of the French Academy, the 17th-century institution that publishes an official dictionary of the French language, have been working on the same edition for the past 40 years.

On a recent afternoon, Dany Laferrière, a Haitian-Canadian novelist and the academy’s only black member, walked through the gilded halls of the Academy building on the left bank of the Seine River. He and his academic colleagues were reviewing whether to add the word “yes,” which appeared in French in the 1960s, to the dictionary.

Laferrière recognized that the Academy might need to modernize by incorporating complete dictionaries of Belgian, Senegalese or Ivorian French.

“French is about to take a big leap and she wonders how it will go,” Laferrière said of the French language. “But she’s excited about the direction she’s going to take.”

He paused, looked out the window at the Seine, and corrected himself.

“Them, not her. Currently there are multiple versions of French that speak for themselves. And that is the greatest proof of its vitality.”

Luc-Roland Kouassi contributed reporting from Abidjan and Tom Nouvian from Paris.