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Kamtok (Cameroon Pidgin)

written by Loreto Todd
(with help from Martin Jumbam and Herbert Wamey)

This page includes information on:




Kamtok is the pidginised English of Cameroon. This English-related language has been a lingua franca in the country since at least the 1880s. The 35-year period since 1966 has seen dramatic changes in the attitude of speakers towards the language. Speakers have always recognised the usefulness of the language but, in early writings, it was frequently referred to as "Bad English", "Broken English" and "Bush English". Today, due mainly to its extended use in Churches and on Radio and Television, it is becoming known as Kamtok from Cameroon Talk, and is taking its place as a recognised medium of interaction.

It is difficult to distinguish between a widely-used pidgin and a creole. The sociological differentiation, often cited, is that a creole is a mother tongue whereas a pidgin is not. However, this distinction is overly simplistic in West Africa where multilingualism is the norm and where the same language can, at any one time, be a mother tongue, a language of wider communication and a first, second, third, fourth or foreign language. This is the case with Kamtok. It is acquired by many in infancy at the same time as their other mother tongue(s) and spoken at a similar speed and with similar flexibility. Many, including clergymen, traders, travellers, gendarmes, soldiers and prisoners utilise it as the most viable means of communication in a country with two official languages, French and English, and a minimum of two hundred mutually unintelligible vernaculars. Other people, including immigrants and expatriates, learn it with varying degrees of proficiency and a few, albeit a diminishing number, still refuse to speak it because they believe it incapable of civilised discourse.


Cameroon has quite a small population (c. 15.5 million) for its size (475,440 square kilometres), but almost half of its people are under 14, so the population is likely to rise by between 2.5% and 3% per annum. Cameroon has large stretches of fertile land, producing good quality cocoa, coffee, tea and bananas. It also has substantial deposits of oil and bauxite. The country shares borders with Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and it has a 400 kilometre coastline on the Bight of Biafra. Because of its position at the "hinge of Africa" and because of its geographical and ethnic diversity, Cameroon has often been referred to as "Africa in miniature". No one is certain exactly how many languages are spoken in Cameroon but government publications suggest 200, which can be subdivided into perhaps 25 major groups. The official languages are French and English with Arabic also having high prestige.

Education is prized and at least 60% of the population is literate. The percentage is much higher in urban areas and lower among older rural women. All education is through the medium of either English or French and all young people are expected to be bilingual in the countries official languages. Approximately 50% of the population continues to follow their animist traditional religions, while 33% are Christian and 17% Muslim.

History and Use

It is impossible to be precise about when Kamtok became established as a lingua franca in the country but a variety of it existed in Cameroon at least as far back as 1884 when the Germans annexed the country. The German administration found it necessary to permit Kamtok on the large multilingual plantations they established and a glossary of West African pidgin was published in 1908. German and later Dutch and French priests found it easier in areas such as Bamenda to use Kamtok and their use of it in liturgical contexts added to the prestige of the language.

Kamtok is spoken, in some form, by at least half of the population so it would be overly simplistic to suggest that it could be described in a few pages. What I can do is offer some generalisations with examples, all drawn from live speech unless otherwise indicated. I should just like to emphasise, however, that there are many varieties of Kamtok including:

  • Grafi Kamtok, the variety used in the grassfields and often referred to as 'Grafi Talk'
  • liturgical Kamtok. This variety has been used by the Catholic church for three quarters of a century
  • francophone Kamtok. This variety is now used mainly in towns such as Douala and Yaoundé and
    by francophones talking to anglophones who do not speak French
  • Limbe Kamtok. This variety is spoken mainly in the southwest coastal area around the port that used
    to be called Victoria and is now Limbe.
  • Bororo Kamtok. This variety is spoken by the Bororo cattle traders, many of whom travel through
    Nigeria and Cameroon.

    Kamtok is more open to influence from English and French than at any time in its past and its speakers are much happier about using it than was the case even twenty years ago. It is accepted by most as a very useful language, the most useful lingua franca in the country. It will certainly continue to change but there is no evidence that it is dying out. Indeed, it is finding new uses. One of the most exciting of these is in the creation of drama for ordinary people. As Asheri Kilo shows in her Ph.D. thesis on Drama in Cameroon (1994), there are two types of plays being written in Cameroon, the highly poetic, intellectual plays of such writers as 'Sankie Maimo, and the Kamtok plays of creators such as Kenjo Jumbam, John T. Menget and Peter Tangyi. I used "creators" rather than "writers" because the cast is encouraged to ad lib and the audience is expected to participate. In this way, each performance is unique.

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There is a strong influence from the vernaculars, especially in the lexical fields of food:


Many idioms are directly translated from the vernaculars:

af dai (half + die = 'difficult')
drai ai (dry + eye = 'courage')
krai dai (cry + die = 'wake')
put han (put + hand = 'help')

There is a tendency to use phrases for related vocabulary sets:


male adult

female adult

female young

male young

got 'goat'

man got

wuman got

wuman pikin got

man pikin got

taiga 'tiger'

man taiga

wuman taiga

wuman pikin taiga

man pikin taiga

In early Kamtok, only a few words only were borrowed in the plural form:

ans 'ant'
ashis 'ash'
bins 'bean'
tit 'tooth/teeth'

More recently, many plurals have been taken into the language, the most widely used of which are:

aidiaz 'ideas'
chips 'chips, crisps'

pleaz 'football players'
sohks 'socks'
twinz 'twins'


In addition, a few uncountable words have been pluralised:

advaisis 'pieces of advice'
johngks 'items of junk'
slangz 'slang terms'


Some of the vocabulary shows a marked influence from French, especially in the lexical fields of education, employment and fashion:

aksidang 'accident' (< accident)
balohng (< balon)
bohngdikes (< bon de caisse)
dantite 'identity card' (< carte d'identit‚)
dohsye (< dossier)
esangs 'essence' (< essence)
gato 'cake' (< gâteau)
jandam 'police officer' (< gendarme)
kamyong 'truck' (< camion)
katsangkat 'old Peugeot 404' (< quatre cents quatre)
komise (< commissaire)
kongku (< concours)
ku (< coup) Yu bin ku mi. 'You have replaced me.')
kup 'football series'(< coupe)
kurang 'electricity' (< courant)
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There are 7 vowels in Kamtok: a, e, eh, i, o, oh, u.

a, e and o are pronounced similar to the "pure" vowels of Spanish; eh is similar to the 'e' sound in English "bet"; oh is similar to the 'aw' sound in "awful". (Note that eh is usually written as a small backwards 3, and oh as a backwards c. But these symbols are hard to produce over the web.)

Many speakers do not differentiate the vowels in the English words "cot", "court" and "cut", pronouncing all these words as koht.

Many speakers of Kamtok. (especially uneducated, rural speakers) use the sounds and sound patterns of their mother tongues.

This can involve the preference for a pattern where a consonant always is follwed by a vowel (e.g. CVCV), except at the end of a word, where the last sound may be a nasal sound, such as m, n or ng (e.g. CVCVN):

arata/alata 'rodent'
kam 'come'
midu 'middle'
sikin 'skin'
Several groups, including Noni speakers, substitute the 'l' sound for the English 'r' sound:
i lohba mi 'He/she rubs me (with oil).'

Some speakers do not differentiate between the 'd' sound in "den" and the 'th' sound in "then", pronouncing both as den.

In the Bamenda region, initial consonants are often preceded by nasal sounds (e.g. 'm' or 'n'):

mbrohda 'brother'

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Kamtok has an eight-term set of personal pronouns:

a, mi 'I'

mi 'me'

yu 'you (singular)''

i 'he, she. it'

i, -am 'him, her, it'

wi 'we, us'

una, wuna 'you (plural)'

dem 'they'

dem, -am 'them'

Some people use a pronominal set that occasionally reflects sex:

A bin si i. 'I saw he/she/it.'
Hu? 'Who?'
Shi, di wuman pikin. 'Her, the girl.'

   and case:

Dei no sabi laik ohs. 'They don't really like us.'

Usually, plural is not marked:

ma pikin  'my child/children'

To avoid ambiguity, however, plurality can be carried by a modifier:

dat tu man pikin  'those two boys'
wuman boku  'several women/wives'

   or by using dem 'they' after the word:

papa dem  'older men'
stik dem  'trees, guavas'

Possession tends to be marked overtly, especially in fixed phrases, either by means of an added
-s or -z:

di manz waif 'the man's wife [cf di man i wuman)
di lohdz pria  'the Lord's Prayer'
   or by the use ohv 'of':
a hat ohv ston  'a heart of stone'
wan kilo ohv flaua   'a kilo of flour'

There is a growth in the number of prepositions used. In the past, people tended to use mainly foh and witi but all the common prepositions are now heard:

Kam bai faiv.  'Come at five.'

The verb is normally not marked for tense where the time is understood, as in narratives:

... i kam nak doa salut man...  'she came and knocked at the door in order to greet one'

Auxiliaries are used to indicate aspect and time:

a di wok  'I am working'
a dohn wok  'I have worked'
a nehva wok  'I haven't worked'
a foh wok 'I would have worked'
a go wok  'I will work'
a sabi wok  'I usually work'
a wan wok  'I am about to work'
a bin wok  'I worked'

Kamtok sometimes uses a series of verbs (serial verbs) where English uses prepositions or other constructions:

i big pas mi  'he is taller than I'
i rohn go pas mi  'he ran faster than I'
i rohn go rich i hohs  'he ran until he reached his house'
bring di ting kam putam foh hia  'bring it here'


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Liturgical Kamtok

Kamtok has been used for the purposes of religious education since the time of the Germans, who took over the administration of the country in July 1884. This variety has a written history dating back to 1926, at least. The Catholic Church was the first big organisation to use Kamtok as a medium of communication and as a written language. I have reproduced three small pieces for you. The first is from the Catholic Catechism, originally published by Monsignor Plissoneau in 1926:

1. Who he ben make heaven and ground? -- God he ben make heaven and ground.

2. Who he be God? -- God he be big King for all things. He dash good men, and he punish bad men.

(The same two questions occur in very similar forms in the catechism my mother had when she was at school:

1. Who made the world? -- God made the world.

2. Who is God? -- God is the creator and sovereign lord of all things. He will reward the good and punish the wicked.)

The second quotation is from St Mark's Gospel (1957, 7: 31-2)

For dem time Jesus He lef the country for Tyre -- He pass for Sidon -- and He come for near water for Galilee, -- for mindero country for Decapolis. -- Na for there them bring He some man, whe no fit hear and whe no fit talk, -- and them beg He say, -- make He put He hand for he skin.

(At that time, Jesus departed from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, and came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis. And they brought to him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hands on him.)

The third quotation is from The Sunday Lectionary in Pidgin English published in 1984. We shall take the reading for Easter Sunday.

Peter he talk (for Cornelius and he family) say, 'Una done hear the thing whe dem just happen for Judea; for Jesus for Nazareth and how he been begin for Galilee after John he been teach doctrine for Baptism. God he been fullup Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power; and because God he been be with he so, Jesus he been waka for all place for do good thing, and for help the people whe them been be for satan he power…'

Whatever one's views on the use of Kamtok as a liturgical language, one should emphasise that the language has been found capable of fulfilling the religious education of millions of Cameroonians over a 100-year period. We might quibble with the orthography used; we might argue that the variety used is too acrolectal; but we cannot claim that it has been linguistically inadequate.

Worksong in Kamtok

masa, a wan wohk o!
na wohk dis o!
masa, yu wan wohk o!
na wohk dis o!
o ya ya!
soso dai wohk o!
mohni no dei o!
o ya ya!
mohni no dei o!
wuman no dei o!
o ya ya!
daso dai wohk o!
na wohk dis o!
o ya ya!

'Master, I want work.'
'This is work.'
'Master, you want work.'
'This is work.'

'Always killing work.'
'There's no money.'

'There's no money.'
'There are no women.'

'Only killing work.'
'This is work.'

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