Ikota, also called Kota, is a language spoken by the Bakota people, some 40-50,000 of whom live along the border that runs between Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. In Gabon, most inhabit the provinces of Ogooué-Ivindo and Haut-Ogooué, while in the Congo most are in the north of the country, in the Cuvette-Ouest department near Kelle and Mbomo, or in the southeast. ELA has focused on the Mahongwé variety.
Ikota is classified by linguists as a Northwest Bantu language of zone B, within Africa’s massive Niger-Congo language family. Several dialects are mentioned in the literature, including Ndambomo, Ikota-la-hua; Sake, Menzambi, Bougom, and Mahongwé, although the latter is understood by some (e.g. Jacquot 1978, Sima Mve 1990) to be a distinct language. The Mahongwé variety is primarily spoken, probably by a few thousand people at most, in the Mékambo area of Gabon and also between Makokou and Okondja in Gabon’s Haut-Ogooué province. Outsiders may know about the famous masks made by Mahongwé artists.
Ikota maintains an important position in the more remote regions of the language area but its future is far from certain in a time when most Gabonese languages are rapidly losing ground to French. Younger speakers in all areas have begun shifting to French and certain varieties, such as Mahongwé, are immediately endangered. Our Ikota collaborator Safiyatou Dvorak reports that most of Gabon’s languages are undergoing heavy lexical replacement, with French words replacing native words. Although this is not traditionally discussed under the heading of language endangerment, it is of concern to speakers.
No Bantu languages in this region, Ikota included, have received sustained academic attention. At a basic level, even general classification between languages/dialects is unclear (Jacquot, 1978; Rékange, 2007; Nurse, Philippson, 2003; Alewijnse, et al., 2007). The earliest work on Ikota was a description of the Western Bantu languages and their familial relations by Guthrie 1971. Next, a Frenck-Ikota lexicon was written by R.P. Perron and sketches of different Ikota varieties written by Piron 1990, Magnana Ekoukou 2009 (examining variety in Mounana), Gnoubet 2009 (examining variety spoken in) Massaha, and Mokrani 2005 who examined how Samayé, a related variety, is spoken in itébé. Additionally, Hombert 1998 provided a basic look at the phonetics of Ikota. Other works include an ethnography in Gamille 1998 and recent works by Idiata and Melindanga. For Mahongwé, there is a brief description of the phonology by Sima Mve 1990 and ethnographic work by Leá Zame Avezo’o.
Although there is no established Ikota- or Mahongwé-speaking community in the New York area, ELA has worked in depth with one Mahongwé woman from Mekambo now living in the city. Initial results have included grammatical analyses of the language produced by students at the CUNY Graduate Center and a series of folktales featuring the traditional characters, Zambe, Izanga, and Lema.
In the fall 2013, ELA director Daniel Kaufman led a class of 25 students at Columbia University in the documentation and description of Ikota, with our collaborator from Mekambo.
ELA volunteers who have contributed substantially to the project since then include kevin Kwong, who has annotated several texts, and Greg Feliu, who is describing the sound system of the language.
A modified Swadesh list with possessors and plurals can be heard below.
The growing corpus of recordings made in class and small group sessions is updated regularly and can be browsed below. Key edited texts are in the Youtube playlist above, with subtitles forthcoming.