Sango language

Sango language
yângâ tî sängö
Pronunciation [jáŋɡá tí sāŋɡō]
Spoken in  Central African Republic
 Democratic Republic of the Congo[1]
Region Central Africa
Native speakers 400,000  (1988)
1.6 million as second language (1988)
Language family
Official status
Official language in  Central African Republic
Regulated by Institute of Applied Linguistics[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sg
ISO 639-2 sag
ISO 639-3 sag

Sango (also spelled Sangho) is the primary language spoken in the Central African Republic: it has approximately 1,600,000 second-language speakers, but only about 404,000 native speakers, mainly in the towns.[1][3]



Some linguists, following William J. Samarin, classify it as a Ngbandi-based creole; others, however (e.g. Marcel Diki-Kidiri, Charles H. Morrill) reject this classification, saying that changes in Sango structures (both internally and externally) can be explained quite well without a creolization process.

According to the creolization hypothesis, Sango is exceptional in that it is an African- rather than European-based creole.[4] Although French has contributed numerous loanwords, Sango's structure is wholly African.[4]


A variety of Sango was used as a vehicular language along the Ubangi River before French colonization in the late 1800s.[5] The French army recruited Central Africans, causing them to increasingly use Sango as a means of inter-ethnic communication.[5] Throughout the twentieth century missionaries promoted Sango due to its wide usage.[5]

Originally used by river traders, Sango arose as a vehicular language based on the Northern Ngbandi dialect of the Sango tribe, part of the Ngbandi language cluster, with some French influence.

The rapid growth of the city of Bangui since the 1960s has had significant implications for the development of Sango, with the creation, for the first time, of a population of first-language speakers. Whereas rural immigrants to the city spoke many different languages and used Sango only as a lingua franca, their children use Sango as their main (and sometimes only) language. First, this has led to a rapid expansion of the lexicon, including both formal and slang terms. Second, its new position as the everyday language of the capital city has led to Sango gaining greater status and being used increasingly in fields where it was previously the norm to use French.

Geographic Distribution

Sango is widespread in the Central African Republic, with 350,000 speakers as of the 1988 census.[1] It is also spoken as a trade language in southern Chad, where it is probably not spoken natively and its use is decreasing, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is rapidly spreading.[1]


A study by Taber (1964) indicates that some 490 native Sango words account for about 90% of colloquial speech; however, while French loanwords are much more rarely used, they account for the majority of the vocabulary, particularly in the speech of learned people. The situation might be compared to English, where most of the vocabulary - particularly "learned" words - is derived from Latin, Greek, or French, while the basic vocabulary remains strongly Germanic. However, more recent studies suggest that this result is specific to a particular sociolect - the so-called "functionary" variety. Morrill's work, completed in 1997, revealed that there were three sociologically distinct norms emerging in the Sango language: an urban "radio" variety which is top-ranked by 80% of his interviewees, and has a very few French loan words, a so called "pastor" variety, which is scored 60%, and a "functionary" variety, spoken by learned people who make the highest use of French loan words while speaking Sango, and this variety scores 40% of the interviewees.


Sango began being written by French missionaries, with Catholic and Protestant conventions differing slightly.[6] The 1966 bible and 1968 hymnal were highly influential and still used today.[6]

In 1984, President André Kolingba signed 'Décret No 84.025', establishing an official orthography for Sango.[7] The official Sango alphabet consists of 22 letters:

Official 1984 orthography[7]
22-Letter Sango Alphabet

Letters are pronounced as their IPA equivalent, except for <y>, pronounced as [j]. Additionally the digraphs ⟨kp, gb, mb, mv, nd, ng, ngb, nz⟩ are pronounced [k͡p], [ɡ͡b], [ᵐb], [(ᶬv)], [ⁿd], [ᵑɡ], [ᵑ͡ᵐɡ͡b] and [ⁿz] respectively.

⟨’b⟩, ⟨ty⟩, and ⟨dy⟩ may be used in loan words not fully integrated into Sango's phonological system.[7] Additionally, the letters C, J, Q, X may be used in proper names.[7]

The official orthography of Sango contains the following consonants: ⟨p, b, t, d, k, g, kp, gb, mb, mv, nd, ng, ngb, nz, f, v, s, z, h, l, r, y, w⟩, to which some add ⟨’b⟩ for the implosive /ɓ/. Sango has seven oral vowels, /a e ɛ i o ɔ u/, of which five, /ĩ ã ɛ̃ ɔ̃ ũ/, occur nasalized. In the official orthography, ⟨e⟩ stands for both /e/ and /ɛ/, and ⟨o⟩ stands for both /o/ and /ɔ/; nasal vowels are written ⟨in, en, an, on, un⟩.

Sango has three tones: low, mid, and high. In standard orthography, low tone is unmarked, ⟨e⟩, mid tone is marked with dieresis, ⟨ë⟩, and high tone with circumflex, ⟨ê⟩. So do-re-mi would be written ⟨do-rë-mî⟩.

Sango has little written material apart from religious literature, though some basic literacy material has been developed.[8]



Sango has seven oral and five nasal vowels.[9] Vowel quality and number of nasalized vowels may be affected by the mother tongue of non-native speakers of Sango.[9]

Sango vowels[9]
  Oral vowels Nasal vowels
Front Back Front Back
Close i u ĩ ũ
Close-mid e o    
Open-mid ɛ ɔ ɛ̃ ɔ̃
Open a ã


Sango consonants [4][9]
  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Labial-
Plosive p  b  (ɓ)   t  d     k  ɡ k͡p  ɡ͡b
Prenasalized ᵐb (ᶬv) ⁿd ⁿz nj ᵑɡ ᵑ͡ᵐɡ͡b
Nasal m   n      
Fricative   f  v s  z       h
Approximant       l  r j w

Palatal affricates occur in loan words and certain dialects.[9] In some dialects there are alternations between [ᶬv] and [m], [ᵐb] and [ᵑ͡ᵐg͡b], [ᵐb] and [b], word-medial [l] and [r], and word-initial [h] and [ʔ].[9] [ᶬv] is quite rare.[9]

Syllable structure

Syllable structure is generally CV.[9] Consecutive vowels are rare but do occur.[9] Consonants may be labialized or palatalized, orthographically <Ci> and <Cu>.[9]

Words are generally monosyllabic or bisyllabic, less commonly trisyllabic.[9] Four-syllable words are created via reduplication and compounding, and may also be written as two words (e.g. kêtêkêtê or kêtê kêtê 'tiny bit', walikundû or wa likundû 'sorcerer').[9]


Sango has three basic tones (high, mid, and low), with contour tones also occurring, generally in French loanwords.[9] Tones have a low functional load, but minimal pairs exist, for instance 'give birth' versus 'hole'.

Monosyllabic loan words from French usually have the tone pattern high-low falling (e.g. bâan 'bench' from French banc). In multi-syllabic words all syllables carry low tone except the final syllable, which is lengthened and takes a descending tone. The final tone is generally mid-low falling for nouns (e.g. 'ananäa' pineapple from French ananas) and high-low falling for verbs (e.g. 'aretêe' 'to stop' from French arrêter).

Tones in isolation have ideolectual variation, and may also be affected by the mother language of non-native speakers.[9]


Sango is an isolating language with subject–verb–object word order, as in English.[10] Noun phrases are of the form determiner-adjective-noun:[10]

    mbênï kêtê môlengê
indef. small child
"a small child"

Plurals are marked with the proclitic â-, which precedes noun phrases:[10]

    âmbênï kêtê môlengê
PL-indef. small child
"some small children"

â- may be attached to multiple items in the noun phrase by some speakers, but this is less common:[10]

    âkötä (â)zo
PL-big person
"important people/dignitaries"

The derivational suffix -ngö nominalizes verbs. It also changes all tones in the verb to mid:[10]

    kono to grow, be big kîri to return, repeat
    könöngö size kïrïngö return

Genitives are normally formed with the preposition 'of':[10]

hole of water
"water hole, well"

However compounding is becoming increasingly common, for instance dûngü 'well' (note change in tone).[10] Such compounds are sometimes written as two separate words.[10]

The verbal prefix a- is used when the subject is a noun or noun phrase, and absent when the subject is a pronoun or implicit (as in imperatives):[10]

    âmôlengê lo agä
PL-child of 3S SM-come
"his children came"
    adü lo
SM-give.birth 3S
"he was born" (lit. "someone bore him")
    löndö mo
rise 3S come
"get up and come (here)"

This prefix is sometimes written as a separate word.[10]

The pronouns are: mbï "I", mo "you (sg.)", lo "he, she, it", ë "we", âla "you (pl.)", âla "they". Verbs take a prefix a- if not preceded by a pronoun; thus mo yeke "you are", but Bêafrîka ayeke "Central Africa is". Particularly useful verbs include yeke "be", bara "greet" (> bara o "hi!"), hînga "know". Possessives and appositives are formed with the word "of": ködörö tî mbï "my country", yângâ tî sängö "Sango language". Another common preposition is na, covering a variety of locative, dative, and instrumental functions.

Learning Sango

Being a vehicular language, Sango is considered unusually easy to learn; according to Samarin, "with application a student ought to be able to speak the language in about three months." However, reaching true fluency takes much longer, as with any language.

For English-speakers there are two main difficulties. First, one must remember not to split double-consonants. The place name Bambari, for example, must be pronounced ba-mba-ri and not bam-ba-ri. Second, as with any tonal language, one must learn not to vary the tone according to the context. For example, if one pronounces a question with a rising tone as in English, one may inadvertently be saying an entirely different and inappropriate Sango word at the end of the sentence.


  1. ^ a b c d Lewis (2009)
  2. ^ (French) Le Sango
  3. ^ Karan (2006, 12.3 Sango: Classification and vocabulary base)
  4. ^ a b c Walker & Samarin (1997)
  5. ^ a b c Karan (2006, 12.1 Sango: language of wider communication and of the churches)
  6. ^ a b Karan (2006, 12.9 The Sango orthography before 1984)
  7. ^ a b c d Karan (2006, 12.9 The 1984 orthography decree)
  8. ^ Karan (2006, 12.7 Sango literature)
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Karan (2006, 12.5 The phonology of Sango)
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Karan (2006, 12.4 Sango grammatical structure)


External links

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