How the language of the Edo people of Nigeria made its way into Portuguese creole

Image by BenBlack

By Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu

In 1472, during one of the Portuguese voyages along the coast of west Africa, the Portuguese explorer, Ruy de Sequeira arrived on the coast of the Niger delta in present-day Nigeria. It was an area controlled by the powerful kingdom of Benin located in the hinterland north of the delta. The kingdom was not known to Europeans at the time, and this was the first time any European has ever reached this area.

After a decade, another Portuguese explorer, Affonso d’Aveiro ventured into the delta to visit Benin. The Portuguese had heard stories about Benin that compelled them to breach their customary adherence to coastal harbors and take the risk of venturing into the delta.

When Aveiro reached Benin in 1486, what he found was a large and advanced country with a city comparable to those in Europe. The people of the kingdom—the Edo people—lived in a city and towns run by a centralized and sophisticated bureaucracy. The roads were wide, long, and straight, with huge metal lamps hanging many feet high to provide light at night. The people lived in large houses with courtyards and dressed in beautiful cloth made in the kingdom.

Aveiro was astounded by the high level of organization and wealth of the country, and described it as the “great city of Benin.” He quickly established a diplomatic and trade relationship between Portugal and Benin and stayed behind as Portugal’s emissary in the kingdom. Also, the King of Benin sent several emissaries from Benin to Portugal at different times. This relationship between the Portuguese and Edo people in the region shaped the pidgin spoken in the Niger Delta region today and also—what may be a surprise to many—Portuguese creole.

The language of the Edo people is the major African component of Portuguese creole

Gulf of Guinea creoles are the main Portuguese creole languages still spoken today. There are a few other portuguese creoles spoken by a few thousand people in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, and Indonesia.  Several studies have shown though that the Edo language is the major African component that constitutes the foundation of the creoles of the Gulf of Guinea.

At least one variety of these creoles is spoken in Sao tome and Principe and Equatorial Guinea, with diaspora speakers mainly in Angola and Portugal, according to the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures (APiCS), a linguistic atlas that provides expert-based information on 130 grammatical and lexical features of 76 pidgin and creole languages from around the world.

The creoles of the Gulf of Guinea were derived from the combination of the Portuguese language, Edo language (including closely related Edoid languages in the Niger delta), and Bantu languages (mainly Kikongo and Kimbundu), according to linguists. The creoles emerged from a first-contact language or pidgin resulting from the contact between the Portuguese colonizers and the slaves from the kingdom of Benin in Sao Tome. The Bantu languages came in contact with the newly formed Portuguese-Edo language in the island some decades later.

Benin abolished slavery in the mid 16th century leading to the rise in slaves to Sao Tome from Congo and Angola

Earlier in 1471, Portuguese explorers Pedro Escobar and João de Santarém were the first Europeans to find the uninhabited island of Sao Tome located south of the Niger delta and later established a permanent settlement there in 1493. The settlers acquired slaves through trade with Benin to work on the island, first as servants during the short homestead period, and later as labor for their plantations, until the mid-16th century when Benin banned the sales of slaves.

As a result, the plantation owners focused on importing slaves from the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, and the number of Bantu slaves began to increase significantly on the island. The Bantu slaves rapidly became the dominant slave population in the islands and their language made its way into the creole.

Slave trade between the Portuguese and the kingdom of Kongo (in modern day Angola,) was at first welcomed by the reigning monarch, Afonso I, in the early 1500s but would eventually lead to the downfall of the kingdom when the future kings were unable to protect their people from British, Portuguese, and Dutch slave traders. They had initially sold slaves from prisoners of war.

In a study, John Ladhams, a Linguistics expert in Portuguese-based pidgin and creole at the University of Westminster, explained that the grammatical process in which a sequence of meaningful word elements are composed has originated in an Edo noun prefix in the creole of the Gulf of Guinea and there is a higher proportion of Edo contribution to other word classes such as adjectives, verbs, and adverbs than nouns.

This, he said, suggests the Edo language played a more important or a more specialized role than the Bantu language in the formation of the creole since the borrowing of adjectives, verbs, and adverbs from one language into another occurs less frequently than the borrowing of nouns.

However, the number of speakers of the Gulf of Guinea creole is “rapidly” declining, especially among the younger generations, according to APiCS. The country of Sao Tome and Príncipe has a population of about 219,000 people. APiCS estimated that the Santome and Angolar varieties of the creole have about 60,000 speakers and 5,000 speakers respectively, on the larger island, Sao Tome.

The Principense variety (which has the most Edo-derived words among the varieties) has about 20 fluent speakers on the smaller island, Principe where it is native. The APiCS referred to the Principense variety as an endangered language. The Fa d’Ambo variety is estimated to have about 5,000 speakers on the island of Annobon and in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.