I wish I’d learned more Krio before I left for Sierra Leone. Although most people in Freetown are able to English — some haltingly, many very well — Krio is the language people use in all but the most formal situations. It’s a really useful language for visitors to know, or at least be familiar with.
Krio is captivating to listen to and has a fascinating history. As an English-based creole, English words form the basis for most of the vocabulary. It started out as a pidgin language used for basic communication. But despite the similarities Krio is not pidgin or simplified English — it’s a separate language with a consistent and full grammatical system.
Originally the language of the Krio people, who were black settlers of Freetown who came from Britain, Canada, the United States and Jamaica and other African countries, Krio was influenced by the English dialects of all these people, especially Jamaican Creole. It was also influenced by African languages, both local and those brought by settlers, and by Portuguese.
You can hear what it sounds like in this song in Krio from the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars:
I recently wrote a column about Krio linked to below:
Even though there are a lot of commonalities between English and Krio, it’s hard to understand the full meaning of Krio sentences, especially when people speak fast. Once I got more familiar with the pronunciation system (which makes a word like “but” sound like “boat” or “like” sound “leck”), and learned some of the grammar and words specific to Krio (they have a word for second person plural: “una”), I was able to understand a lot more — but still only about 50 percent most of the time. The percentage understandable depends on how fast people are speaking, and how much I know about the subject.
One thing I like about Krio grammar is the way it marks tense. A particle pronounced “day” is used before verbs to indicate present tense. “Ah day go” means “I’m going.” The particle “go” before a verb indicates future. And there are two particles to mark different kinds of past tense: “done” and “bin.” They’re obviously from English, but the way they’re used is different.
You can hear Krio in a more understandable form in the clip below. It’s selections from an interview conducted by one of my colleagues with the chairman of a slum in Freetown. The interview covers how the slum is preparing for flooding, the destructive floods last September, and life in the slums, including what kind of business people do, whether the children go to school, and how the police work in the slum (basically, they don’t go there — the slum has its own law enforcement, my colleague said).
I’ll also post this clip I linked to in an earlier post, of a man giving a speech to children at an orphanage. The speech was mostly in English, but about 21 seconds in, he switches to Krio for about 25 seconds to speak directly to the children, before going back to English. It’s interesting to hear the contrast, and it’s possible to understand some of what he says in Krio given the context of the English before it: