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This paper, based on two language surveys conducted in 1988 and 1989, addresses the question "What language do you speak?" for the people of the district of Epena in the Likouala Region of the People's Republic of the Congo. The goals of the study were to: 1) inventory all the languages and dialects spoken in the district; 2) clarify their relationships with each other and neighboring languages; 3) measure the degree of intelligibility between speakers of different language varieties, specifically among the Bomitaba people; 4) investigate the particular situations the people use specific languages; and 5) provide some bases for making a recommendation concerning the need and desirability for a vernacular literacy project in one or more of the languages of the district and propose the location of such a project, if needed.
Three research tools were used: 1) wordlists were collected and analyzed to determine the apparent
cognate percentages between language varieties, 2) short stories were recorded in four varieties of
Bomitaba and tested for comprehension in seven Bomitaba villages, and 3) sociolinguistic questionnaires
were completed by individuals in each village and by village officials.
The results of the wordlist analysis indicate that there are five village languages spoken in the
district: Bomitaba, Babole, Bambenga, Bongili, and Yaswa. The first two are the largest, each having
three or four distinct dialects. The scores from the recorded tests show that there is a high degree
of intelligibility among the Bomitaba of both the Northern and Central dialects, with the former
being generally understood a little better.
The questionnaires indicate that the Bomitaba use their own language almost exclusively in their
daily lives in the home and the village. The official language, French, is mostly used in schools
and with government officials. Lingala, the national (trade) language for northern Congo, is spoken by the Bomitaba more than French in their contacts with non-Bomitaba. I believe that a single vernacular literacy project for the Bomitaba, in the Northern (Matoko) dialect, or alternatively the Central (Epena) dialect, would be useful and desirable.