The contact of the lambs: From Latin pascha to Wolof tabaski

Happy Easter, dear readers! Whether you observe this Christian holiday or not, you may be interested in the regional entanglements and semantic changes of the Latin word pascha ‘Easter” as it travelled through the Mediterranean and beyond. With <ch> pronounced as [k] in Latin, the word bears resemblance to many words designating a major religious celebration, often particularly meaning ɛīd al-kabīr in a number of Berber languages. These languages, spread across the Maghrib and a number of sub-Saharan African countries, have forms such as tafaska (Central Moroccan Berber), tfaska (Ouargla and Djerba) or tăfaske (Tuareg).

In his book on Berber in contact, Maarten Kossmann suggests that the semantic bridge allowing the Judeo-Christian word for Easter to become used for the Islamic celebration of ɛīd al-kabīr is the central role of slaughtering sheep in both ceremonies.

Sheep on Goree

A sheep wandering in the streets of Gorée. Will it be eaten at Easter or Tabaski?

Via Berber languages, the word may have arrived in West African languages spoken further south and exposed to Islam and Christianity much later than their northern neighbours. And this may explain why ɛīd al-kabīr is known as tabaski in Wolof and many other languages of the region – an uncanny linking of two major religious holidays that at first sight do not appear to have much in common through historical connections reaching far into these languages’ past.


Read more on the contact history of Berber in this chapter:

Kossmann, Maarten (2013): Berber in Contact. The Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Periods. In Maarten Kossmann (Ed.): The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber: Brill, pp. 51–85.


Writing from the UK, where questions of exiting loom large, I can’t help being affected by the uncertainties of this country about its trajectory. For many, it’s clear what they want to move away from, but where they’re going seems completely in the dark. It’s not the English language that is at fault here, as English allows verbs of leaving to occur with source-denoting prepositions (exit from Brexit), path-denoting ones (exit through the gift shop), but also with prepositional phrases indicating a goal of motion (exit to nowhere).

In the Mande language Jalonke of Guinea, such generous conflation of meanings does not happen. Verbs of directed movement such as ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ are limited to the expression of only one particular direction. For ‘enter’, soo, this is motion towards the goal; and for ‘exit’, keli, it is movement away from a source. This is because in Jalonke, unlike in English, adpositions only express a particular location in space, and not the direction of movement. To express that component of meaning is left to the verb itself.

Have a look at these two sentences. Both feature the postpostion kwi ‘in’, but once with soo ‘enter’ to yield ‘enter into’, and once with keli ‘exit’ to give rise to ‘leave from within’:

Lüpke (2005: 115)

Still not convinced? Have a look at these two sentences. The first one doesn’t have a verb at all, only an object that is located (a jar) and its location. In this case, a static location is expressed. The second one has the compound verb sabaana soo ‘play’ (not to be confounded with soo by itself – its literal meaning is ‘enter the play’). There’s no movement in the verb, so again, location, rather than movement, is expressed.

Lüpke (2005: 115)

But in Jalonke, it is very uncommon to just specify where one leaves from – it is much more widespread to find sequences such as ‘we left there, and then we went here’, nxo keli na, nxo faa ji. Good linguistic forward planning, isn’t it?

Read more on Jalonke here:

Lüpke, Friederike.2005. A grammar of Jalonke argument structure. Nijmegen: MPI Series in Psycholinguistics 30

A dirge for Nketia

On March 13, the great Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died at the age of 97. His hugely influential body of work contains books and papers on an area very important for many African cultures, located at the meeting point of music and language: drumming.

He worked extensively on drumming in several societies of Ghana and adjoining countries, first and foremost on drumming among the Akan. A fascinating area for everybody interested in language is his research on talking drums. They are proverbial for many African settings, but do you know how the drums actually speak?

Nketia distinguishes between different modes of drumming, depending on the intentions of the drummers to send short, conventionalised signals, imitate speech, or provide a rhythm for dancing. The first and third modes appear straightforward: dancers learn a code and tap it, and listeners can interpret it as a warning, call to a meeting, etc. Or they simply follow the beat in danced movements.

For the speech mode of drumming, the signal needs to be memorised by the drummers, translated into drum beats and pulses, and retranslated into speech by the listeners in order to be understood. Poems, oral history, proverbs could all be drummed, and understood by the audience based on rhythm and pitch of the drums. This art was already becoming rarer at the time when Nketia documented this skilful practice and is rapidly vanishing, since it requires years of instruction. Here is an extract from a text on oral history that could be drummed:

A text drummed in speech mode from Ashanti (Nketia 1963)

Because he was aware of the rapidly changing role and function of education in West African societies, Nketia wrote much on the importance of musical education to continue and modernise these traditions. A contribution that remains very topical, since formal education does still not give space to the learning of West African performing arts. Read more in his seminal work:

Nketia, Joseph Hanson Kwabena. 1963. Drumming in Akan societies of Ghana. Edinburgh: T. Nelson for the University of Ghana

Travelling taboos

One of the nicest side effects of having this blog is that it creates a dialogue with readers, who point out things that are beyond the scope of my expertise and regional interest (and also, capacity, given the sheer number and exuberant diversity of African languages!). When I wrote my first post on taboo words, focusing on a number of West African languages, which I later followed up with this post on euphemisms in Songhay, I got a very helpful comment. My colleague Stefano Manfredi shared an article on taboo words in Kinubi with me. This Arabic-based creole close to Juba Arabic is spoken by the descendants of East African soldiers originating from Southern Sudan and recruited by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Today, most Nubi speakers or Nubis (NOT Nubians) live in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and their language has many affinities with English, Arabic and Swahili. It is therefore not surprising that Xavier Luffin turns first and foremost to the latter two languages as possible sources for widespread taboos, including some that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

Debila, the word for ‘snake’ is only used at daytime, never during the night, when it has to be paraphrased with labil-lata – literally ‘rope on the soil. The word for ‘needle’ – libra – can also not be uttered in the dark. And never ask for mile ‘salt’ at night, demand sukar-mula ‘meal’s sugar’ instead! Luffin explores similar taboos in Chadic Arabic, and in other languages of the area, such as Fadija Nubian, where not only similar interdictions are attested, but where they are also given similar motivations – saying the name of a snake at night is seen as inviting it into the house. He also mentions similar beliefs in Swahili, something for another instalment in this series.

But as the previous posts on West African languages have shown, these taboos are shared across much larger geographical areas, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and across the Sahara. Their distribution and local flavours would make a great topic for an in-depth study!

To read more on taboos in Kinubi, consult this article:

Luffin, Xavier. 2002. Language taboos in Kinubi: a comparison with Sudanese and Swahili cultures. Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto italiano perl’Africa e l’Oriente, Anno 57, No. 3 (Settembre 2002), pp. 356-367

Mashing it up – Nash Nouchi

I admit this is a bad pun. But I wanted to talk about Nouchi, a popular register of Côte d’Ivoire, and my very knowledgeable friend Anne Schumann pointed me to Nash, a musician who has her own YouTube channel, Nash Nouchi. Here you can see Nash herself explaining the origins and functions of this register that mashes up and remixes the repertoires of young people in this West African country.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the taming of French, the colonial language, has a long tradition. This appropriation is evidenced in the long-established register français populaire d’Abidjan, which has turned into the Ivorian way of speaking French. Nouchi is not categorically distinct from français populaire, nor from metropolitan French. It is part of a constantly shifting linguistic continuum which speakers navigate skilfully. Nash’s diverse language use illustrates that Nouchi, counter some popular theories on the internet, is not, or not only, a register born out of communicative needs of youngsters without formal education and concomitant lack of mastery of French. Rather than being a deficit, it’s an outlet for creativity and openness, a badge of identity. Some of the Ivorian innovations associated with Nouchi are known all over the world, for instance gaou ‘country bumpkin’, which has been eternalised in Magic System’s Premier Gaou.

Gaou and other Ivorian specialities

Many Ivorians, like Nash, daily navigate social spaces that have room for different flavours of French, some that are closer to a monolingual boxed-in code, and some that are more inclined to let their multilingualism shine through. It is not surprising that Nouchi has become associated with popular culture, in particular with rap and hip hop. Here comes Nash again, with the song Fo pas me garer. Not only the song lyrics, but also the spelling of the title and words appearing in the video show how Nouchi crosses language boundaries: Fo pas me garer corresponds to “faut pas me garer” – ‘don’t park me’, in French. Aniwoula – “a ni wula” in standard Jula/Bambara orthography means ‘good morning’. The standard spelling of French is subverted by spelling it partly in spelling norms for national languages; but the national language Jula is spelled in French orthography – playful transgression.

I’m sharing a link to an article on Nouchi that gives you much more information on its origins, linguistic make up and genres. But beware: by the time you’ve downloaded and read it, Nouchi will have already moved on! In fact, it has been mashed up over and over again since the ink of the paper dried…

Béatrice Akissi Boutin, Jérémie Kouadio N’Guessan. Le nouchi c’est notre créole en quelque sorte, qui est parlé par presque toute la Côte d’Ivoire. Peter Blumenthal. Dynamique des français africains : entre le culturel et le linguistique, Peter Lang, 2015.

Table manners in Segou

During my recent stay in Bamako, I had occasion to revive some of my rusty Bambara. Many exchanges happened at lunch time, and now, back in London, I’m rereading a classic article to strengthen my practice. In “De l’alimentation au Mali”, Gérard Dumestre lays out the ceremonial sequence of eating and the Bambara formulaic expressions that go with them. The idealised template presented in the following will be familiar to inhabitants and visitors of many places in West Africa – a shared cultural script that makes the sharing of food with guests, and even strangers, a cornerstone of West African conviviality.

A table setting starts with the arrival of the meal, introduced by dúmuni fílɛ ‘here is the food’ or dúmuni nàna ‘the food has arrived’. The guests sit down, on a mat or around a table, and wash their hands in a container with water that circulates. It falls to the head of family or a senior member of the group to pour the gravy (ná, designating both a liquid ‘sauce’ and its contents in term of meat, fish, and vegetables) over the rice or fonio and to distribute morsels of meat or fish so that every guest finds their portion on their section of the plate.

With the words bìsìmilayi ‘in God’s name’, the meal is opened. Once a person has finished eating, they withdraw from the place of eating, thanking the household with the words ábarika ‘thank you’, the response to which is ábarika ala yé ‘thanks to God’.

Wait, you might think. What about the women behind the curtains who have prepared the food? Whether they will eat together with men or the entire family is a matter of regional and personal conventions. But whatever the case, it is possible to thank the always female cook with the words I ni gwá ‘You and the kitchen!’ To this, the answer will be Kà à súmaya ì kɔ̀nɔ ‘ May it [the food] cool inside you.’

Food is generously shared in many West African cultures, but often, it is not plentiful. What is shared communally , the sùman, ‘staple, everyday food’, is therefore often complemented by nègèlafɛnw ‘snacks’ – literally, ‘things of desire’. Those are eaten mainly out of the house, far from the realm of responsible sharing. The akara or syɔ̀furufuru I wrote about some time ago are a classic nègèlafɛn. And now I have to stop, I’m suddenly feeling very hungry…

Read more on the social aspects of eating in Mali here:

Dumestre, Gérard. 1996. De l’alimentation au Mali. Cahiers d’Études africanies, 144, XXXVI-4, 689-702

Phone swap? – Language swap!

It’s women’s day, and I’m not in the mood for work. So how to write a blog post that celebrates African women and is fun, to put all of us in a more celebratory mood? As ever so often, two separate strands of thought suddenly collided with a spark and gave me the idea for this post. Since writing on euphemism in Songhay I’ve been thinking about the language(s) used in African films, because the article I discuss in that post is based on the analysis of a film in standard Songhay. I had also just seen the trailer for Yao, a film featuring Oumary Sy and Fatoumata Diawara, on the visit of a migrant to Senegal. I was intrigued that the trailer was entirely in rather metropolitan French, despite being located in northern Senegal where Wolof, Pular, and Senegalese French are spoken and often mixed.

For today, I also wanted to feature a female African researcher on the blog, since women are still very underrepresented in African studies and African linguistics, and black women even more so. And suddenly, I had my topic. the US-based literature scholar Moradewun Adejunmobi is a black woman whose work I admire. And she also happens to write extensively on multilingualism, popular culture and African film, in particular Nollywood movies.

Her work indeed answered many of my questions. I learned that most Nollywood movies are monolingual, either featuring English or one of Nigeria’s other largest languages, creating “a fictional universe where one language suffices for communication, and code-switching is rare or completely absent” (Adejunmobi 2018: 188). Such monolingual films are shot in Nigeria’s big three, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, but also in Edo, Efik and some other languages with larger speaker bases.

Films that feature several Nigerian languages, aiming at representing their characters’ complex and multilingual sociocultural realities, are rare, but Phone Swap is one of them. Have a look at the trailer and multilingualism will be in your ear, though not in your eye, as the trailer’s subtitles only translate languages other than English without identifying the languages they can’t understand for an audience not sharing the same multilingual repertoire.

Read more on the different strategies Nollywood movies adopt through choice of language(s) in sound and subtitles, what motivates them, and how different forms of addressivity – multilingual and monolingual address – in either or both modalities position these films on national and global markets here:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun. 2018. “Translation and the Multilingual Film Text: Defining a Public.” In Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture. Ed. Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz. London: Routledge, 188-205