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The Words of “oldness” in Yaoundé — by Patrick Awondo

XinyuanWang18 January 2019

Hat weaving, common creative by Max Pixel

In a book published in 2004 the French linguist Alain Montandon[1] brought together studies that show how old age is expressed in different languages, not only Indo-European languages, but also in other parts of the world and especially in Africa. Montandon argues that these amount to two universal traits.

Firstly, in almost all languages, there are various categories  of old age, especially a division between terms implying  physical old age as against normative categories of old age. For example, old age may be considered a “a gift of God, a spiritual achievement”. At the same time, old age is linguistically expressed in terms of declining physical abilities, such as impotence. The decline of the body may become linguistically associated with  personality disorders that contrast other images of an old person who is “happy, harmonious, full of wisdom and serenity “.

Perception of old age may reference elements of physical modification, such as the appearance of white hair. Montandon also notes the sociocultural variability of age categorizations. Almost always signs of are or relative maturity are different when applied to the poor as opposed to the rich.  Our comparative project accentuates these economic differences because of its focus upon retirement, which presupposes a formal structure of employment, that cannot be assumed for some of our fieldsites, and this shows the importance of such comarative studies. With these thoughts in mind, what do the linguistic expressions of the perception of old age tell us about  Yaoundé and Cameroon?

Expressing old age in Yaoundé

Originally inhabited by the Ewondo, Yaoundé is today home to nearly 3 million people from across Cameroon. French is the most commonly spoken official language across the country, employed by 80% of the population followed by English.[ref UNESCO]. So linguistic terms testify to a creativity that speaks to the dynamics of contemporary French aligned with borrowings from many national and local languages which remain strong alongisde the two official languages. For example, Ewondo, the Bantu langauge of Yaounde.

However, I would prefer to start with the Ewondo language, which belongs to the Bantu group.  In Ewondo the expression “Nya modo”, ‘this cultural area and modo ‘man’. ‘Nya modo’ is a name and a notion that refers to a person perceived as old, as well as a concept symbolically meaning the attributes of nobility of spirit, of wisdom. Even today, the expression ‘Nya modo’ refers to people who are seen as being middle aged, the most prestigious age group, superseding even the elderly. The term is made up of nya’ meaning ‘mother’ and modo which means man in the sense of the human species. The female equivalent of ‘nya modo’ is ‘nya minega’, which carries less status.

Aging: age, social status and moral discourse

In everyday French, older age is often expressed through a term analogous with the English expression ‘of a certain age’  which for people in Yaounde seems to translate as ‘as an intermediate age’, neither too old nor too young, implying people over 50 years old. The informants of Yaounde often say “he / she has an old age” while the expression “advanced age” could mean an “older person”. The top end of this category according to most informants would be around 70 years old. When a Yaoundéan feels that a person “of a certain age” says things which are deemed unworthy, he will be called “an old man like that” or an “old woman like that”, making clear the moral expectations that are associated with the process of ageing  This puts forward a moral expectation related to ‘getting old’.  In this manner we can see the linguistic variety within yaoundé that help to both forge categories for labelling the stages of ageing, but also represent these as having moral and cultural expectations against which the actual people are judged. . These games of linguistic meaning are important especially because the people who are thereby designated with both labels and normative expectations have then to confront the manner in which they have been defined.

[1] For more please see Alain Montandon (études rassemblées par), Les Mots du Vieillir, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2004.

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