Archives for category: Cameroon


The workshop participants always return home with their exercise books crammed full of notes which they took during the lectures.


In most African languages, tone plays an important role in verb conjugations (e.g. ‘you eat’ vs ‘he eats’; ‘you eat’ vs ‘you ate’; ‘you ate’ vs ‘you didn’t eat’ etc). That’s why the Yaoundé workshop participants spent a lot of time writing down lists of verbs in various tenses, and discovering for themselves the patterns in their own languages. That painstaking work lays the foundation for deciding whether and how to include tone in the writing system.


Analyzing a text in a Central African language (can’t remember which one – can anybody help?). The words circled in red are ones which have two or more meanings depending which tones you pronounce them with.


A whiteboard full of examples of tonal minimal triplets (groups of words that are distinguished from each other only by tone, not by consonants or vowels) in eight different Central African and Cameroonian languages.


In discussion with Connie KL about how to write tone in Central African languages.

Here in Cameroon, I’m having a noun class holiday.

I’m helping to staff a three week orthography seminar, and am working with participants from Kabba, a Central African language. To my delight, Kabba doesn’t have noun classes.

By way of contrast, Kabiye has ten. That means that every time you include a noun in a sentence (which is quite often, let’s face it…), you have to remember which class it belongs to, and that split second choice then has a knock-on effect through the rest of the sentence. Linguists call it Agreement. It’s a nightmare and should never have been invented. Ten classes makes mere masculine and feminine in French seem like child’s play.

Come to think of it, Kabba manages to express an awful lot with very little. It has no verbal inflection, no morphophonology, no tonal processes. All of these are rife in Kabiye. I had no idea I’d been working on a complex language all these years.

I recommend the Moulin de France, a good pizza restaurant in downtown Yaoundé. It has an boulangerie and ice cream parlor to rival anything in Togo. The prices more than double what we pay in Lomé, but are still much cheaper than Paris.

There is a half-decent piano here on the SIL centre in Yaoundé, so I have downloaded some sheet music from the endlessly wonderful Petrucci Music Library.

I have decided to practice Schubert’s Eb Impromptu (op. 90, no. 2) for thirty minutes each evening, inspired by Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again (my top book for 2014).

This particular Schubert Impromptu prompts a childhood memory. When I first began learning the piano, age 9, I used to wait in the adjacent room for an older boy to finish his lesson before going in for mine. Week by week, I would hear wisps and snatches of liquid gold emanating from the next room. He was learning the Schubert Eb Impromptu. I was captivated, and promised myself that one day I would be able to play it myself.

Well, here I am almost 50 years later and, err, I can and I can’t. Trouble is, I’ve spent so many years not bothering with the painstaking, humdrum task of working out the fingering, that by now a host of tiny lapses are stubbornly cemented in and unyielding.

This particular pianist’s brain has an astonishing capacity for flagrantly ignoring mistakes, filtering out bothersome, unintended sounds, blithely convincing itself that no listener can possibly have noticed, and letting ten unbridled fingers scamper headlong towards the coda.

So my approach for the next three weeks is keyhole surgery: diligently, methodically and slowly unpicking fifty years of lazy fingering.

I arrived safely in Yaoundé yesterday… but my baggage didn’t. I’m hoping to get it back when the plane returns from Libreville (Gabon) tomorrow afternoon. It’s very funny: everyone here is quite laid back about it and has their own stories to tell. In the meantime I have been lent a toothbrush and a shirt. What else does one need? One advantage of being in the tropics is that you can wash clothes late one evening and they will be dry by early the next morning. I’m here to help staff a tone orthography workshop, with participants from six Central African languages. I’m working with the Kabba guys. Fun.