LiNgala language

Native to Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Angola
Region Congo River
Native speakers
5.5 million  (2007)[1]
7 million second-language speakers in DRC, including Bangala (1999); unknown number R. Congo
African reference alphabet (Latin), Mandombe
Official status
Official language in
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Republic of the Congo
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ln
ISO 639-2 lin
ISO 639-3 lin
Glottolog ling1263[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUI-f
Geographic distribution of Lingala speakers, showing regions of native speakers (dark green) and other regions of use

Lingala (Ngala) is a Bantu language spoken throughout the northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a large part of the Republic of the Congo, as well as to some degree in Angola and the Central African Republic. It has over 10 million speakers.


In the 19th century, before the creation of the Congo Free State, the Bangala (literally: 'river people') were a group of similar Bantu peoples living and trading along the bend of the Congo River that reached from Irebu at the mouth of the Ubangi River to the Mongala River. They spoke similar languages, such as Losengo, but their trade language was Bangi, which was the most prestigious language between Stanley Pool (Kinshasa) and Irebu. As a result, people upstream of the Bangala mistook Bangi for the language of the Bangala and called it Lingala (language of the Bangala), and European missionaries followed suit.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, after the forces of Leopold II of Belgium conquered the region and started exploiting it commercially, Bangi came into wider use. The colonial administration, in need of a common language for the region, started to use the language for administrative purposes. It had already simplified, compared to local Bantu languages, in its sentence structure, word structure and sounds, and speakers borrowed words and constructs liberally from other languages. However, the fact that speakers had very similar native languages prevented Lingala from becoming as radically restructured as Kituba, which developed among speakers of both Bantu and West African languages.

Around 1900, CICM missionaries started a project to "purify" the language in order to make it "pure Bantu" again. Meeuwis (1998:7) writes:

[M]issionaries, such as the Protestant W. Stapleton and later, and more influentially, E. De Boeck himself, judged that the grammar and lexicon of this language were too poor for it to function properly as a medium of education, evangelization, and other types of vertical communication with the Africans in the northwestern and central-western parts of the colony (..). They set out to 'correct' and 'expand' the language by drawing on lexical and grammatical elements from surrounding vernacular languages.

The importance of Lingala as a vernacular has since grown with the size and importance of its main center of use, Kinshasa; with its use as the lingua franca of the armed forces, and with the popularity of soukous music.


European missionaries called the language Bangala, after the Bangala people, or Lingala. The latter was intended to mean '(language) of the Bangala' or 'of the River' (that is, 'Riverine Language'). However, this was an error, as the proper Bangi form would have been Kingala.[4] The name Lingala first appears in writing in a publication by the C.I.C.M. missionary Egide De Boeck (1903).

Characteristics and usage

Lingala has many borrowings from French, even in its basic vocabulary. The language also contains some Portuguese influence, such as its words for butter (mántéka), table (mésa), shoes (sapátu), and some English and Dutch influences; for instance, the word for milk (míliki), book (búku),[5] or motor-car (mótuka).[6] In practice, the extent of borrowing varies widely with speakers, and with the occasion.


The Lingala language can be divided in several dialects or variations. The major variations are considered to be Standard Lingala, Spoken Lingala, Kinshasa Lingala and Brazzaville Lingala.

Standard Lingala (called lingala littéraire or lingala classique in French) is mostly used in educational and news broadcastings on radio or television, in religious services in the Roman Catholic Church and is the language taught as a subject at all educational levels. Standard Lingala is historically associated with the work of the Catholic Church and missionaries. It has a seven-vowel system /a/ /e/ /ɛ/ /i/ /o/ /ɔ/ /u/ with an obligatory tense-lax vowel harmony. It also has a full range of morphological noun prefixes with mandatory grammatical agreement system with subject–verb, or noun–modifier for each of class. Standard Lingala is largely used in formal functions.

Spoken Lingala (called lingala parlé in French) is the variation mostly used in the day-to-day lives of Lingalaphones. It has a full morphological noun prefix system, but the agreement system is more lax than the standard variation, i.e. noun-modifier agreement is reduced to two classes. Regarding phonology, there is also a seven-vowel system but the vowel harmony is not mandatory. This variation of Lingala is historically associated with the Protestant missionaries' work. Spoken Lingala is largely used in informal functions, and the majority of Lingala songs use spoken Lingala over other variations. Modern spoken Lingala is increasingly influenced by French; French verbs, for example, may be "lingalized" adding Lingala inflection prefixes and suffixes: "acomprenaki te" or "acomprendraki te" (he did not understand, using the French word comprendre) instead of classic Lingala "asímbaki ntína te" [literally: s/he grasped/held the root/cause not].



Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a
IPA Example (IPA) Example (written) Meaning Notes
i /lilála/ lilála orange
u /kulutu/ kulutu oldest child
e /eloᵑɡi/ elongi face
o /mobáli/ mobáli masculine pronounced slightly higher than the cardinal o,
realized as [o̝]
ɛ /lɛlɔ́/ lɛlɔ́ today
ɔ /ᵐbɔ́ᵑɡɔ/ mbɔ́ngɔ money
a /áwa/ áwa here

Vowel harmony

Lingala words show vowel harmony to some extent. The close-mid vowels /e/ and /o/ normally do not mix with the open-mid vowels /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ in words. For example, the words ndɔbɔ 'fishhook' and ndobo 'mouse trap' are found, but not *ndɔbo or *ndobɔ.

Vowel shift

The Lingala spoken in Kinshasa shows a vowel shift from /ɔ/ to /o/, leading to the absence of the phoneme /ɔ/ in favor of /o/. The same occurs with /ɛ/ and /e/, leading to just /e/. So in Kinshasa, a native speaker will say mbóte as /ᵐbóte/, compared to the more traditional pronunciation of /ᵐbɔ́tɛ/.


Labial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɲ
Stop p b t d k g
Fricative f v s z ʃ (ʒ)
Approximant l j
IPA Example (IPA) Example (written) Meaning
p /napɛ́si/ napɛ́sí I give
ᵐp /ᵐpɛᵐbɛ́ni/ mpɛmbɛ́ni near
b /boliᵑɡo/ bolingo love
ᵐb /ᵐbɛlí/ mbɛlí knife
t /litéja/ litéya lesson
ⁿt /ⁿtɔ́ᵑɡɔ́/ ntɔ́ngó dawn
d /daidai/ daidai sticky
ⁿd /ⁿdeko/ ndeko sibling, cousin, relative
k /mokɔlɔ/ mokɔlɔ day
ᵑk /ᵑkóló/ nkóló owner
ɡ /ɡalamɛ́lɛ/ galamɛ́lɛ grammar
ᵑɡ /ᵑɡáí/ ngáí me
m /mamá/ mamá mother
n /bojini/ boyini hate
ɲ /ɲama/ nyama animal
f /fɔtɔ́/ fɔtɔ́ photograph
v /veló/ veló bicycle
s /sɔ̂lɔ/ sɔ̂lɔ truly
ⁿs /ɲɔ́ⁿsɔ/ nyɔ́nsɔ all
z /zɛ́lɔ/ zɛ́lɔ sand
ⁿz (1) /ⁿzáᵐbe/ nzámbe God
ʃ /ʃakú/ cakú or shakú African grey parrot
l /ɔ́lɔ/ ɔ́lɔ gold
j /jé/ him; her (object pronoun)
w /wápi/ wápi where

(1) [ᶮʒ] is allophonic with [ʒ] depending on the dialect

Prenasalized consonants

The prenasalized stops formed with a nasal followed by a voiceless plosive are allophonic to the voiceless plosives alone in some variations of Lingala.

  • /ᵐp/: [ᵐp] or [p]
    e.g.: mpɛmbɛ́ni is pronounced [ᵐpɛᵐbɛ́ni] but in some variations [pɛᵐbɛ́ni]
  • /ⁿt/: [ⁿt] or [t]
    e.g.: ntɔ́ngó is pronounced ⁿtɔ́ᵑɡó but in some variations [tɔ́ᵑɡó]
  • /ᵑk/: [ᵑk] or [k]
    e.g.: nkanya (fork) is pronounced [ᵑkaɲa] but in some variations [kaɲa]
  • /ⁿs/: [ⁿs] or [s] (inside a word)
    e.g.: nyɔnsɔ is pronounced [ɲɔ́ⁿsɔ] but in some variations [ɲɔ́sɔ]

The prenasalized voiced occlusives, /ᵐb/, /ⁿd/, /ᵑɡ/, /ⁿz/ do not vary.


Lingala being a tonal language, tone is a distinguishing feature in minimal pairs, e.g.: moto (human being) and motó (head), or kokoma (to write) and kokóma (to arrive). There are two tones possible, the normal one is low and the second one is high. There is a third, less common tone – starting high, dipping low and then ending high – all within the same vowel sound, e.g.: bôngó (therefore).

Tonal morphology

Tense morphemes carry tones.

  • koma (komL-a : write) inflected gives
  • sepela (seLpel-a : enjoy) inflected gives
    • simple present L-aL :
      osepela oL-seLpelL-aL (you-SG enjoy)
    • subjunctive H-aL :
      ósepéla oH-seLpelH-aH (you-SG would enjoy)
    • present L-iH:
      osepelí oL-seLpelL-iH (you-SG have been enjoying)


Noun class system

Like all Bantu languages, Lingala has a noun class system in which nouns are classified according to the prefixes they bear and according to the prefixes they trigger in sentences. The table below shows the noun classes of Lingala, ordered according to the numbering system that is widely used in descriptions of Bantu languages.

class noun prefix example translation
1 mo- mopési servant
2 ba- bapési servants
3 mo- mokíla tail
4 mi- mikíla tails
5 li- liloba word
6 ma- maloba words
7 e- elokó jar, stone bottle
8 bi- bilokó jars, stone bottles
9 m-/n- ntaba goat
10 m-/n- ntaba goat (pl.)
9a Ø sánzá moon
10a Ø sánzá moon (pl.)
11 lo- lolemo tongue
14 bo- bosoto dirt

Individual classes pair up with each other to form singular/plural pairs, sometimes called 'genders'. There are seven genders in total. The singular classes 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 take their plural forms from classes 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, respectively. Additionally, many household items found in class 9 take a class 2 prefix (ba) in the plural: lutubalutu 'spoon', mesabamesa 'table', sanibasani 'plate'. Words in class 11 usually take a class 10 plural. Most words from class 14 (abstract nouns) do not have a plural counterpart.

Class 9 and 10 have a nasal prefix, which assimilates to the following consonant. Thus, the prefix shows up as 'n' on words that start with t or d, e.g. ntaba 'goat', but as 'm' on words that start with b or p (e.g. mbisi 'fish'). There is also a prefixless class 9a and 10a, exemplified by sánzásánzá 'moon(s) or month(s)'. Possible ambiguities are solved by the context.

Noun class prefixes do not show up only on the noun itself, but serve as markers throughout the whole sentence. In the sentences below, the class prefixes are underlined. (There is a special verbal form 'a' of the prefix for class 1 nouns.)

  • molakisi molai yango abiki (CL1.teacher CL1.tall that CL1:recovered) That tall teacher recovered
  • bato bakúmisa Nkómbó ya Yɔ́ (CL2.people CL2.praise name of You) (Let) people praise Your name (a sentence from the Lord's Prayer)

Only to a certain extent, noun class allocation is semantically governed. Classes 1/2, as in all Bantu languages, mainly contain words for human beings; similarly, classes 9/10 contain many words for animals. In other classes, semantical regularities are mostly absent or are obscured by many exceptions.

Verb inflections and morphology

Verbal extensions

There are 4 morphemes modifying verbs. They are added to some verb root in the following order :

  1. Reversive (-ol-)
    e.g.: kozinga to wrap and kozingola to develop
  2. Causative (-is-)
    e.g. : koyéba to know and koyébisa to inform
  3. Applicative (-el-)
    e.g. : kobíka to heal (self), to save (self) and kobíkela to heal (someone else), to save (someone)
  4. Passive (-am-)
    e.g. : koboma to kill and kobomama to be killed
  5. Reciprocal or stationary (-an-, sometimes -en-)
    e.g. : kokúta to find and kokútana to meet

Tense inflections

The first tone segment affects the subject part of the verb, the second tone segment attaches to the semantic morpheme attached to the root of the verb.

  • present perfect (LH-í)
  • simple present (LL-a)
  • recurrent present (LL-aka)
  • undefined recent past (LH-ákí)
  • undefined distant past (LH-áká)
  • future (L-ko-L-a)
  • subjunctive (HL-a)

Writing system

Lingala is more a spoken language than a written language, and has several different writing systems. Most of those are ad hoc. Due to the low literacy of Lingala speakers in Lingala (in the Republic of the Congo literacy rate in Lingala as a first language is between 10% and 30%), its popular orthography is very flexible and varies from one Congo to the other. Some orthographies are heavily influenced by the French language orthography; including double S, ss, to transcribe [s] (in the Republic of the Congo); ou for [u] (in the Republic of the Congo); i with umlaut, , to transcribe [áí] or [aí]; e with acute accent, é, to transcribe [e]; e to transcribe [ɛ], o with acute accent, ó, to transcribe [ɔ] or sometimes [o] in opposition to o transcribing [o] or [ɔ]; i or y can both transcribe [j]. The allophones are also found as alternating forms in the popular orthography; sango is an alternative to nsango (information or news); nyonso, nyoso, nionso, nioso (every) are all transcriptions of nyɔ́nsɔ.

In 1976, the Société Zaïroise des Linguistes (Zairian Linguists Society) adopted a writing system for Lingala, using the open e (ɛ) and the open o (ɔ) to write the vowels [ɛ] and [ɔ], and sporadic usage of accents to mark tone. Also, the limitations of input methods prevents Lingala writers from easily using the ɛ and ɔ and the accents. For example, it is almost impossible to type Lingala according to that convention with a common English or French keyboard. The convention of 1976 reduced the alternative orthography of characters but did not enforce tone marking. The lack of consistent accentuation is lessened by the disambiguation due to context.

The popular orthographies seem to be a step ahead of any academic based orthography. Many Lingala books, papers, even the translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more recently, Internet forums, newsletters, and major websites, such as Google's Lingala, do not use Lingala specific characters (ɛ and ɔ). Tone marking is in most literary works.


The Lingala language has 35 letters and digraphs. The digraphs each have a specific order in the alphabet, for example mza will be expected to be ordered before mba, because the digraph mb follows the letter m. The letters r and h are rare but present in borrowed words. The accents indicate the tones :

  • no accent for default tone, the low tone
  • acute accent for the high tone
  • circumflex for descending tone
  • caron for ascending tone
Variants Example
a A á â ǎ nyama, matáta, sâmbóle, libwǎ
b B bísó
c C ciluba
d D madɛ́su
e E é ê ě komeka, mésa, kobênga
ɛ Ɛ ɛ́ ɛ̂ ɛ̌ lɛlɔ́, lɛ́ki, tɛ̂
f F lifúta
g G kogánga
gb Gb gbagba
h H bohlu (bohrium)
i I í î ǐ wápi, zíko, tî, esǐ
k K kokoma
l L kolála
m M kokóma
mb Mb kolámba, mbwá, mbɛlí
mp Mp límpa
n N líno
nd Nd ndeko
ng Ng ndéngé
nk Nk nkámá
ns Ns nsɔ́mi
nt Nt ntaba
ny Ny nyama
nz Nz nzala
o o ó ô ǒ moto, sóngóló, sékô
ɔ Ɔ ɔ́ ɔ̂ ɔ̌ sɔsɔ, yɔ́, sɔ̂lɔ, tɔ̌
p P pɛnɛpɛnɛ
r R malaríya
s S kopésa
t T tatá
u U ú butú, koúma
v V kovánda
w W káwa
y Y koyéba
z Z kozala


Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer (Catholic version)

Tatá wa bísó, ozala o likoló,
bato bakúmisa Nkómbó ya Yɔ́,
bandima bokonzi bwa Yɔ́, mpo elingo Yɔ́,
basálá yangó o nsé,
lokóla bakosalaka o likoló
Pésa bísó lɛlɔ́ biléi bya mokɔlɔ na mokɔlɔ,
límbisa mabé ma bísó,
lokóla bísó tokolimbisaka baníngá.
Sálisa bísó tondima masɛ́nginyá tê,
mpe bíkisa bísó o mabé.
Na yɔ́ bokonzi,
nguyá na nkembo,
o bileko o binso sékô.

The Lord's Prayer (Protestant version used in Ubangi-Mongala region)

Tatá na bísó na likoló,
nkómbó na yɔ́ ezala mosanto,
bokonzi na yɔ́ eya,
mokano na yɔ́ esalama na nsé
lokola na likoló.
Pésa bísó kwanga ekokí lɛlɔ́.
Límbisa bísó nyongo na bísó,
pelamoko elimbisi bísó bango nyongo na bango.
Kamba bísó kati na komekama tê,
kasi bíkisa bísó na mabé.
Mpo ete na yɔ́ ezalí bokonzi,
na nguyá, na nkembo,
lobiko na lobiko.

See also


  1. ^ Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2007" The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007
  2. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Lingala". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Derek Nurse (2003) The Bantu Languages, p 199.
  5. ^ Le grand Dzo : nouveau dictionnaire illustré lingala-français / Adolphe Dzokanga. – 3e éd. Bonneuil sur Marne : A. Dzokanga, 1995
  6. ^ Lingala – Malóba ma lokóta/Dictionnaire. René Van Everbroeck C.I.C.M. Editions l'Epiphanie. B.P. 724 LIMETE (Kinshasa)


  • Van Everbroeck, René C.I.C.M. (1985) Lingala – Malóba ma lokóta/Dictionnaire. Editions l'Epiphanie. B.P. 724 LIMETE (Kinshasa).
  • Edama, Atibakwa Baboya (1994) Dictionnaire bangála–français–lingála. Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique SÉPIA.
  • Etsio, Edouard (2003) Parlons lingala / Tobola lingala. Paris: L'Harmattan. ISBN 2-7475-3931-8
  • Bokamba, Eyamba George et Bokamba, Molingo Virginie. Tósolola Na Lingála: Let's Speak Lingala (Let's Speak Series). National African Language Resource Center (May 30, 2005) ISBN 0-9679587-5-X
  • Guthrie, Malcolm & Carrington, John F. (1988) Lingala: grammar and dictionary: English-Lingala, Lingala-English. London: Baptist Missionary Society.
  • Meeuwis, Michael (1998) Lingala. (Languages of the world vol. 261). München: LINCOM Europa. ISBN 3-89586-595-8
  • Meeuwis, Michael (2010) A Grammatical Overview of Lingála. (Lincom Studies in African Linguistics vol. 81). München: LINCOM Europa. ISBN 978-3-86288-023-2.
  • Samarin, William J. (1990) 'The origins of Kituba and Lingala', Journal of African Languages and Linguistics, 12, 47-77.
  • Bwantsa-Kafungu, J'apprends le lingala tout seul en trois mois'. Centre de recherche pédagogique, Centre Linguistique Théorique et Appliquée, Kinshasa 1982.
  • Khabirov, Valeri. (1998) "Maloba ma nkota Russ-Lingala-Falanse. Русско-лингала-французский словарь". Moscow: Institute of Linguistics-Russian Academy of Sciences (соавторы Мухина Л.М., Топорова И.Н.), 384 p.
  • Weeks, John H. (Jan–Jun 1909). "Anthropological Notes on the Bangala of the Upper Congo River". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (– Scholar search) 39: 97–136. JSTOR 03073114. doi:10.2307/2843286. weeks1909. 

External links

  • First words in Lingala (French)
  • Maloba ya lingála (French)
  • Dictionnaire bilingues lingala - français (French)
  • Dictionary of Congo-Brazzaville National Languages
  • Lingala-English dictionary Freelang
  • Lingala Swadesh list of basic vocabulary words (from Wiktionary's Swadesh-list appendix)
  • PanAfriL10n page on Lingala
  • UCLA Language Profiles : Lingala
  • Google in Lingala
  • Inflections: Problems
  • Small Collection of Lingala Online resources
  • Parallel French-Lingala-English texts
  • Maneno (African blogging platform) in Lingala
  • Basic Lingala language course (book + audio files) USA Foreign Service Institute (FSI)
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