Kolokwa: Liberianizing English

UNMIL Photo/Staton Winter: A young Liberian woman puts a flag of Liberia in her hair. The youth account for almost two-thirds of the country's population

Dr. John Singler

In the twenty-first century, people have begun talking about Kolokwa. We could say that in Liberia there are two kinds of English—Standard English and Kolokwa. Standard English is “book English,” the language of oratory and newsreaders and liturgy. Standard English is the target for instruction in school, especially secondary school and beyond.  The name Kolokwa represents a local pronunciation of “colloquial,” a term that refers to everyday, ordinary, familiar conversation. When people say “Kolokwa,” they are referring to everyday Liberian conversation. As such, Kolokwa is uniquely Liberian. 

Something new or something old?

Is Kolokwa something new, or is it old?  Language is always changing, and there are always new words. The term Kolokwa may be new, but Kolokwa is old, very old. Moreover, the evolution of its grammar encapsulates Liberia’s history and heritage. 

Kolokwa’s use stretches back 300 years and more.  Here is a passage describing trading off the coast of Settra Kru in 1726:

“We anchor’d before the Town in Sixteen Fathom Water. We had scarce lain there an Hour before a Canoe came off to us, and we ask'd one of the Fellows, who spoke a little English, if they had any Goats, Hogs, or Hens ashoar? And he answer’d us after his Way, that they had too much Goats, too much Hogs and Hens.” 

This shows that the use of “too much” rather than Standard English “many, a lot of” is old. 

In 1836, the Liberia Herald quoted a boastful Mandingo chief: “I get plenty oomon (women): ebery time I send all my friend, I say here you wife.” In this passage, it is the use of “plenty” in front of a noun that is non-standard, and so is “here you wife” in place of “here is your wife.”

Modern Kolokwa is rich with features that emerged all along the West African coast long ago like “soso” (“soso dusty road”), “pass” (“that man know history for Liberia pass youself”), “dem” (“them”) after a noun to signal plural number (“our friend dem”), and many, many more.

When the Settlers came, they brought other features that entered Kolokwa. Standard English has a single form for second-person singular and second-person plural pronouns, “you.” African languages distinguish between singular and plural, Sierra Leone Krio and Naija (Nigerian Pidgin) use “you” for the singular and “una” for the plural. In contrast, Kolokwa uses the Settler form “yall” (often spelled “your”) for the plural. Even though the Settlers brought “yall” to Liberia, its distribution is West African. By this I mean that, when taking leave of a group, one says, “Yall excuse,” not just “Excuse.” When using an imperative to more than one person,  one says, “Yall have seat,” not just “Have seat.”

Another Settler form that has entered Kolokwa is the auxiliary verb “dor,” as in “They dor call my sister Beatrice.”

In addition to general West African features that show up in Kolokwa and Kolokwa features that the Settlers brought with them, there are features unique to Kolokwa that have emerged over its history. This is obviously the case with words that come from other Liberian languages, like “musu” and “jafay” from Vai, “kwi” from Klao (Kru), and “doka fleh” which I think comes from a Mandingo phrase that means “Try it on! Look!” Note that the meaning of “doka” has expanded, so that it is possible to talk about a “doka car” or a “doka air conditioner.”  

The Kolokwa innovations include grammatical elements like the auxiliary verb “feni” (“I feni forgetting the man name”). A construction that seems to be in the process of entering Kolokwa is the use of “business” at the end of a clause to mean “because,” as in “I was too afraid business, I didn’t go on the street.” Also, there are structures that may have been around before but are now being used much more often, like the combined use of plural “-s” and “dem”: “our friends dem.” 

There are many aspects of Kolokwa that make it uniquely Liberian, but it is pronunciation more than anything else that causes Liberian speech to stand out. This is what other West Africans talk about when they describe Liberians’ way of talking, especially the way in which Liberians drop consonants. For example, “Tell Isaac he must wait small” can be pronounced as if every word ended with its vowel: “Te’ Isaa’ he mu’ wai’ sma’.

The widespread dropping of consonants is the defining characteristic, the one that people notice, but there are other pronunciation features that also set Kolokwa apart, like pronouncing “watch” and “wash” the same, changing the “d” in “headache” or “auditor” to “l,” and so on. 

The value of Kolokwa

Kolokwa is valuable. It sets Liberians apart from everyone else on the planet. As such, it plays a crucial role in establishing a Liberian identity, and it is something that every Liberian can share.  In this way, Kolokwa is a force for national solidarity. As with every language, there is a lot of variation within Kolokwa. Not everyone speaks Kolokwa the same way, but that need not matter. The properties that are common to everyone’s Kolokwa are what establish a Liberian linguistic identity.

The recognition of Kolokwa is a bonus for teachers. In the decades before Liberians started talking about Kolokwa, they called everything “English.” You would sometimes hear terms like “Soldier English” or “Waterside English” or “Broken,” but those terms were rare. Usually, people just say “English” no matter what. There is, of course, some truth to this in that the words almost all come from English. However, not all English is the same. Before the use of the term Kolokwa became widespread, students often saw little need to study English in school. After all, they already spoke it. Distinguishing between Standard English and Kolokwa makes clear to students that their knowledge of the latter does not on its own achieve knowledge of the former. The goal of acknowledging a difference between “book English” and Kolokwa is to build on students’ knowledge of Kolokwa—not tear it down—to help them acquire a second variety. 

A final point with regard to Kolokwa is that, even though it is not Standard English, it is a complete language. There is nothing defective about it.  It should be embraced as part of one’s Liberian identity, and there is nothing defective about that.

The Author

Dr. John Singler is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at New York University. At the outset of his career, he taught at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville and then the Episcopal High School in Robertsport. While he was teaching in Liberia, he was drawn to the varieties of English spoken there and also to linguistics more generally. Related interests include other Liberian languages, particularly Klao (Kru) and Vai, and Liberian culture more generally, especially quiltmaking and Liberian cuisine.

He is the author of An Introduction to Liberian English. He has been a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar and has held grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the study of varieties of English in Liberia.