Intelligibility Testing and Lexicostatistics of Buwal and Gavar

(Mayo-Tsanaga Division, Far North Province)

Edward Brye
SIL International
B.P. 1299 Yaoundé

April 2001


1. Introduction
    1.1 Names
    1.2 Location and Populations
    1.3 Linguistic Classification
    1.4 Previous Research
2. Methodology
    2.1 Text Elicitation and Testing
    2.2 Screening of Participants
    2.3 RTT Administration
3. Research Results
    3.1 Lexicostatistics
    3.2 Gavar Results
    3.3 Buwal Results
    3.4 The RTT Measures Oral Comprehension
    3.5 Other Considerations
4. Conclusions
5. Recommendations
6. Modifications to Ethnologue
    A. RTT Results
    B. Buwal (Gadala) RTT Text (in English)
    C. Gavar (Kortchi) RTT Text (in English)
    D. Alcam Map (Mayo-Tsanaga Department)
    E. Buwal Villages
    F. Gavar Villages
    G. Road Map

1. Introduction

    This report describes language research done of the Buwal and Gavar languages during the period February 21–24, 2000 in the Mayo-Tsanaga Division of the Far North Province of Cameroon. The research was conducted by Dr. Sadembouo Etienne of the Department of Linguistics and African Languages at the University of Yaoundé I, and Edward and Elizabeth Brye of SIL. Miss Elizabeth Castelli, also of SIL, observed the research process and assisted. This research was carried out as a follow-up of rapid appraisal surveys of Buwal and Gavar from which intelligibility studies were recommended (Seguin 1992) to verify the tentative hypothesis that speakers of these two speech varieties might be able to use the same written form for literacy purposes under one language development project.

    We are grateful for the welcome received from regional and local government, church, and traditional leaders without whose cooperation and participation this research would not have been possible. Special thanks go to the Divisional Officer at Mokolo for his assistance.

1.1 Names

    The names of the languages under study were Buwal and Gavar. Buwal speakers refer to their language as just that—Buwal. Gavar speakers, however, refer to their language as Ma-Gavar.

1.2 Location and Populations

    The Ethnologue of 1992, which reflected the most recent census information for Cameroon, listed Buwal and Gavar each with 5,000 speakers. Using the annual rate of 2.9% growth, the present population size for each would now be about 7,000, though, according to statements of Buwal speakers at Gadala in February, the Gavar-speaking population is larger than that of Buwal. Maps of Buwal and Gavar areas drawn in the Seguin reports are accepted as is, with the caveat that the Gavar village of Kortchi is a series of spread out quarters and small villages. The maps of both Buwal and Gavar are located in the appendix.

    The research team visited the Gavar-speaking village of Gadala and the Buwal-speaking village of Kortchi. Gadala was accessible by road. Kortchi, being a series of quarters and villages not on the “road” but rather on a foot path, required a four-wheel drive vehicle to cross the terrain. A guide was provided through the Office of the Lamido at Gavar-Vinde to help us identify the paths to the various quarters of Kortchi.

1.3 Linguistic Classification

    Dieu and Renaud (1983) in the Atlas Linguistique du Cameroun (ALCAM) list the languages and their codes as follows: Buwal [241] and Gavar [242]. Both Buwal and Gavar have the following linguistic classification: Afro-Asiatique, Tchadique, Centre, Centre-Ouest, Daba, Nord.

    In the Ethnologue, Grimes (1996) provides the following descriptions, including name, alternate name(s), code, location, linguistic classification, and other comments, for each language:

    BUWAL (MA BUWAL, BUAL, GADALA) [BHS] 5,000 or fewer (1983 ALCAM). In and around Gadala, Mokolo Subdivision, Mayo-Tsanaga Division, Far North Province. Afro-Asiatic, Chadic, Biu-Mandara, A, A.7. May be intelligible with Gavar. Speakers closer to Mofu or Gavar regions claim to understand those languages. Fulfulde and French bilingualism is limited. Buwal is used in church. Survey needed.

    GAVAR (GAWAR, GOUWAR, GAUAR, RTCHI, KORTCHI) [GOU] 5,000 (1992 SIL). Around Gawar, Mogode Canton, Mokolo Subdivision, Mayo-Tsanaga Division, Far North Province. One group of Gavar Hossere live among the Gavar-Fulfulde, and another in relative isolation in the mountains around Kortchi village. Afro-Asiatic, Chadic, Biu-Mandara, A, A.7. The Gavar Hossere speak Gavar; the Gavar Fulfulde speak Fulfulde. The Gavar Hossere use their language in home and village, and Fulfulde in the market and for outside contacts. French is learned by the few who go to school. Comprehension of surrounding languages is limited (Mofu South, Mafa, Daba). It may be intelligible with Buwal, but speakers consider them to be different. 5% to 15% literate. Traditional religion, a few Christians. Survey needed.

1.4 Previous Research

    Previously published research into the Buwal and Gavar languages include rapid appraisal survey reports by Seguin in 1992 and they are listed in the bibliography section.

2. Methodology

    Research methodologies carried out in both Buwal and Gavar included intelligibility testing, lexicostatistics, and the inclusion of certain questions used from the rapid appraisal (RA) technique in order to update information obtained from the RA done in 1992 and to verify the hypothesis made at the conclusion of that report (Seguin 1992) that these two languages might be closely related linguistically. The RTT method was applied in both test locations. The procedures for carrying out intelligibility testing, which came to be called Recorded Text Testing (RTT), were documented by Eugene Casad (1974). Questions for measuring comprehension were obtained in the language of the speakers to be “tested”, then inserted into short biographical anecdotal stories lasting 2–3 minutes in order to make test tapes of each speech form. Dr. Sadembouo elicited a list of everyday words in Buwal and Gavar for comparative purposes, using the standard 126 word ALCAM list. Such lexicostatistics and results from the RTT would indicate with greater certainty the relative feasibility of including both Buwal and Gavar in a single language development project.

2.1 Text Elicitation and Testing

    Owing to their prominence among the Buwal and Gavar languages, Gadala (for Buwal) and Kortchi (for Gavar) were the villages selected for elicitation and testing.

    Gadala is the largest and most representative Buwal village and, in 1992, was considered to be the “centre” of Buwal though, geographically, it is its southwesternmost village. Kortchi was considered to be the largest and therefore the representative village for the Gavar-speaking language group. In each location, a biographical anecdotal story was elicited at the residence of the village chief.

    We played the Buwal text to 20 different Gavar speakers (17 men and three women) just outside of the chief’s residence in Kortchi. The Gavar text recorded here was later played for 10 individual Buwal residents (5 men and 5 women) of Gadala and, later, also to another small group of men from the same village who did not participate in the individual RTT.

    The biographical stories and comprehension questions that made up the recorded texts are found in the appendices.

2.2 Screening of Participants

    There is reportedly a significant amount of contact between Gavar and Buwal speakers—such as at the markets at Gavar-Vinde, Zamay, Mokolo, Kortchi, and in Gadala. We could not identify anyone who had not had prior contact with speakers of the other language.

2.3 RTT Administration

    For Buwal, testing of 10 adults—five men and five women of varying ages—was carried out in the village of Gadala. Each participant had been born in that village, used Buwal in the home, and had a mother who was a Buwal mother tongue speaker. Following the administration of the RTT to 10 individuals, the text and comprehension questions were played also to a small group of Gadala residents who had not participated in the individual RTT testing.

    At the Gavar village of Kortchi, we opted for only a group RTT 1. The main reason for this was the village’s remote location. The team realized after arriving in Kortchi that they lacked the time to make more than one trip to this area, so obtaining the Gavar text and testing Gavar speakers' comprehension of the Buwal text needed to occur the same day.

    Although we did not determine which questions might be ambiguous and therefore inappropriate prior to recording and RTT administration, we dropped all questions that seemed to be ambiguous prior to calculating results. One of the 11 comprehension questions of the Buwal text was eventually omitted for lack of correct response from Buwal speakers themselves and, likewise, one of the nine comprehension questions of the Gavar text also was omitted for incorrect response from Gavar speakers.

3. Research Results

    This section contains the findings from the RTT individual tests in Gadala and the RTT group testing in Gadala and Kortchi and the lexicostatistics from the word lists elicited.

3.1 Lexicostatistics: 90% similarity between word lists of Buwal and Gavar

    The lexicostatistical comparison of the word lists from the Gavar-speaking village of Kortchi and the Buwal-speaking village of Gadala revealed approximately a 90% lexical similarity based on “apparent cognates”. Mbevetchi Jeremie Harran provided the Buwal list and the daughter of the Kortchi chief provided the Gavar list.

    A comment should be made about how to interpret this percentage and about the relative value of word list comparisons. Although lexicostatistics between the Buwal and Gavar do not indicate what other linguistic similarities might exist—such as of grammatical structures, for example—the word list comparisons do serve as one indicator of the linguistic relationship that exists between speech forms (Grimes 1989:4.1.9). In general, speech forms which share less than a 70% similarity of cognates (adjusted for variation of the .10 upper confidence limit (Simons 1974:3.3.7) are classified as separate languages; but when the similarity percentage reaches at least 70% then dialect intelligibility testing as described by Eugene Casad (1974) is recommended in order to more accurately clarify the linguistic relationship between speech forms. According to our selection of cognate groupings, our lexicostatistical groupings were well above the 70% threshold—at 90%. This indicates that the words that Buwal and Gavar speakers use for these 126 words are closely related.

3.2 Gavar Results

    The Kortchi group RTT answered correctly 8 of 10 questions about the Buwal text, suggesting there to be an estimated 80% comprehension of the Buwal text by Gavar speakers. The chief of Kortchi said he understood everything, but that the larger group of 17 men and three women did not. That said, there were often laughs and nods when the Buwal text was played as if they understood. Various individuals including one or two women, answered each Buwal question. Someone said that everyone could in fact understand Buwal but that no one could speak it. The villagers at Kortchi recognize that Buwal and Gavar speakers understand one another due to their regular contact which is related to the proximity of their respective villages.

    In general, the 75–85% range of comprehension is considered to be a “critical range” for including a language group in a joint language development program with another (related) language group, unless there are compensatory sociological factors to indicate otherwise. Both men and women from Kortchi regularly visit Gadala and other Buwal-speaking villages, thus probably contributing to their ability to understand Buwal. Likewise, the people of Gadala understand Gavar as spoken in Kortchi though they, too, are unable to express themselves in Gavar.

3.3 Buwal Results

    Buwal’s comprehension of the Gavar text is variable. The 10 individuals from the village of Gadala who participated in the Gavar RTT responded correctly to comprehension questions 69.5% of the time—that is, the 10 respondents correctly answered 55.5 questions out of the 80 total questions admitted into tabulation—with a standard deviation of 1.13 (20.5%). After the administration of the 10 individual RTTs, a group RTT was carried out with men under 40 years of age who had not been among the 10 who participated in the individual RTT; no person from within the group was allowed to respond to more than one comprehension question, and only the first response was taken (though this procedure, as expected, probably encouraged only those who knew the correct answers to volunteer to answer the comprehension question). The overall response of this group session was 7.5 correct answers out of the total 8 comprehension questions to yield 93% correct. Buwal faces generally appeared to register comprehension of the Gavar text during the group testing.

    However, before making any inferences from these two figures about Buwal speakers’ estimated level of comprehension of Gavar, we must seek a cause for the wide range/difference/extremes between the somewhat low aggregate score of 69.5% from the 10 individual scores (and their slightly high 20.5% standard deviation) with the 93% from the group RTT. In general, 85+% comprehension accompanied by a standard deviation below 12% are indicative of potential inclusion in a single language development project (if attitudes shared between the speakers of the language groups are positive), whereas a level of comprehension of less than 75% is usually considered inadequate for sharing a common literature.

    Although the individuals in Buwal tended to have some difficulty with concisely answering direct questions about the text, most often respondents tried to summarize what they had just heard. With the assistance of two young men who were trilingual in French, Fulfulde, and Buwal, we were able to determine if responses were correct or not. (One of these men—a Mr. Zra Mokol Bernard—provided the comprehension questions in Buwal to be inserted into the Gavar RTT, and he also provided the comprehension questions for the hometown RTT text of Buwal.)

    Considering both the 69.5% and 93% score results, we conservatively and tentatively conclude that the Gadala residents may possess approximately the same level of understanding of Gavar (as spoken at Kortchi) as Gavar speakers do of Buwal. Individual testing was not done in Kortchi however and, moreover, only eight questions of the Gavar text were admitted into the final calculation when computing an estimate of Buwal’s level of comprehension in Gavar.

    Sociological factors are a consideration when percentages fall within the 75–85% range. These have already been stated above, and will be reiterated in the conclusions’ section which follows.

    Fulfulde is the language of wider communication (LWC), but speakers of Gavar and Buwal used their respective MTs when communicating with speakers of the other language.

3.4 The Recorded Text Testing [RTT] Measures Oral Comprehension

    The RTT is designed to aid sociolinguistic researchers in their measurement of speakers’ comprehension of oral speech of a speech form other than their mother tongue. At present there is no research tool for measuring a preliterate people’s potential to use texts written in a speech variety other than their own 2. It is not yet possible to completely screen for bilingualism.

3.5 Other Considerations

    There is an outstanding question having to do with possible language shift. It is true that the Buwal language area is adjacent to Gavar to the west and southwest. But three of the five Buwal villages (not including Gadala) lie on a good road that flanks a swath of a Fulfulde-speaking area immediately to the east and extending to the southeast. (See ALCAM map in appendix.) Moreover, the Buwal-speaking region is adjacent to the Mefele language area to the northwest and to the Mafa-speaking region to the north. (Might language shift be promoted in Buwal due to the good road extending north to Zamay, which is the village marking the beginning of paved road reaching 18 kilometers westward to Mokolo and even fewer kilometers to the Cuvok-speaking area to the northeast?)

4. Conclusions

    It is significant that Buwal and Gavar speakers use their respective mother tongues when speaking with each other, but with no others. With others, they use the LWC which is Fulfulde. The sociolinguistic data—both linguistic and sociological information collected to date—suggest that speakers of Buwal and Gavar may be able to use one written form for language development purposes.

    Linguistically, there is a 90% lexicostatistical similarity of 126 commonly used words by speakers of Buwal and Gavar. The finding from this comparison of word lists was helpful to complement the results of the RTT testing. Each group appears to enjoy roughly a 80–82% level of comprehension of the other’s oral speech. Though this lies in the middle of the “critical” 75–85% range, there are sociological factors that would favor a joint language development project involving Buwal and Gavar speakers. These include:

5. Recommendations

6. Modifications to Ethnologue


A: RTT Results

Buwal Results of Gavar
Subject No.
B 1
4 / 8
B 2
4 / 8
B 3
4.5 / 8
B 4
5 / 8
B 5
5.5 / 8
B 6
5.5 / 8
B 7
6 / 8
B 8
6.5 / 8
B 9
7 / 8
B 11
7 / 8 

B’S Aggregate 55.5/80 (69.5%)

All 10 participants were born in Gadala.

Half were men and half were women.

Five were under 30, and five were 30 or older.

Gavar Group (individuals tested excluded) 7.5/8 = 93%.

The average of the group RTT (93%) and the 10 individual RTT scores (69.5%) equals 81.25%.

Gavar Results of Buwal

    What follows are the results of the comprehension testing of the recorded Buwal text played to a group of 20 adults assembled in front of the residence of the chief of Kortchi. The Gavar text recorded was later played for 10 Gadala residents one at a time and, later, also to another small group of men from the same village who had not participated in the individual RTT.

    Most faces of the Buwal group registered comprehension as the Gavar text was being played to the group. The group scored 7.5 answers correctly of 10 comprehension questions for an estimated 75% level of comprehension of the Gavar text. After responding, they were asked if they seemed to understand. The people replied that they did.

    Gavar speakers’ contact with Buwal speakers is relatively frequent since they pass through the Buwal area to reach the paved road leading to the town of Zamay. They are able to understand the language though this might vary from individual to individual.

B: Buwal (Gadala) RTT Text (in English)

1–2. In the morning, I awaken very early and wash and get ready.
Question: What two (2) things does he do in the morning?
Answer #1: Washup.
Answer #2: Get ready.

3. It is the dry season, as/and there is no work.
Question: What season is it?
Answer: Dry season.

4. From my village, I leave for the market.
Question: Where did he go?
Answer: (to the) market.

5. I left, then, passed my time, and looked around to buy some things; since I didn't have any money, I walked around just to pass the time.
Question: What did he not have?
Answer: (no) money.

6. I spent almost the whole day there—until 1500 hours.
Question: What time is it?
Answer: 1500 hours.

7. I (continue to) walk around, and I look around and I see my friends, and it might be that they will give me some money and I can buy something for my children—like the donuts.
Question: What can he buy if his friends give him some money?
Answer: Donuts (something for his children).

8. In the case I don’t have any money, I walk around—I just walk around.
Question: What will he do if his friend doesn’t give him this/any money?
Answer: Just walk around.

9. I take notice of the time. I see that the sun is going to set.
Question: What does he notice?
Answer: the sun setting.

10. I hear some noise; some people are drunk. I decide to go home.
Question: What does he decide to do?
Answer: To go home.

11. Whether or not I get something, I return home. If I have something, I bring it to my children. And if I have found something to eat that someone has given to me, I eat it.
Question: Who receives what he has bought at the market?
Answer: His children.

12. If I worked at the market, I washup, sleep, and await what awaits me in the morning. This is what I do at Gadala during the dry season.
*NOTE: No comprehension question was designed for this statement.

C: Gavar (Kortchi) RTT Text (in English)

1. I was resting when I saw the moon fade away.
Question: What did he see?
Answer: the moon (fading).

2. In the evening, I saw the thick fog that was covering the sky. I said, "What's this that is happening to the world?"
Question: What question did he ask?
Answer: What’s this that is happening to the world?

3. I noticed that it was a star under the form of a sickle. I thought to myself that perhaps God wanted to turn the world upside down.
Question: How did he see it? How did it look to him?
Answer: as a sickle.

4. I told the people to wait and to see what God will/would do for us.
Question: What did he say to the people?
Answer: To wait.

5. A little while later, I saw the sky brighten, and I thanked God after which I saw the sky brighten (clear-up) and I thanked God a lot.
Question: What did he do after he saw the sky brightened?
Answer: He thanked God.

6. A second time, when I was going to Rumsiki, I saw that the moon was fading (away) again. The moon wanted to leave/disappear.
Question: What did he see while going to Rumsiki?
Answer: The moon was going to disappear/eclipse.

7. Once I saw this, I asked my friends to stop what they were doing.
Question: What did he ask his friends to do?
Answer: to stop what they were doing.

8. To stop doing what you are in the process of doing that, the moon is going to be turned upside down. Let’s wait (because) maybe we’ll see "the day (light)" before continuing (with what we are doing). We stayed a long time until the sun rose again.
Question: They stayed until when?
Answer: the rising of the sun.

9. The morning when we saw the sun, I asked the people to take the tam-tams (or tum-tums) and to continue the trip.
Question: What did the people take?
Answer: tum-tums.

10. We left for Rumsiki.
*NOTE: No comprehension question was designed for this statement.

D: ALCAM Map (Mayo-Tsanaga Department)
ALCAM Map (Mayo-Tsanaga) Department

E: Buwal Villages
Buwal Villages

F: Gavar Villages
Gavar Villages

G: Road Map
Road Map


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[1] Simons (1979:25) states that the group-testing method is appropriate for finding the “upper potential” of the group.

[2] One possible assessment tool that could be applied by language workers is the conducting of experimental literacy classes for preliterate peoples, but this would require that one of the speech varieties was already developed (Douglas Boone p.c.).