Show me how you count and I tell you where you’re from

Because we’re so focussed on languages, we linguists tend to describe linguistic phenomena as if they belong to a single language (“In Urban Wolof…”, “In Gujaher…”). We know of course that features can be shared by languages – and this also means that languages are better understood as imaginary boxes drawn around a number of linguistic features, with some features possibly ending up in more than one box.

Some previous posts in this series have already shown how particular concepts can be shared widely among different languages, be they words with particular meanings, or entire counting systems. Today, I want to look at counting again, but not at the speech side of counting, as I have done when writing about counting money and describing how many speakers of Atlantic languages take the body as the semantic basis for number words, but on the gestures that accompany counting.

Every child knows that when counting on your fingers, you start with the thumb, right? Well, not so in Casamance. There, every child knows that when counting on your fingers, your pinkie finger comes first. You can watch speakers of Baïnounk Guñaamolo count in this video by Sokhna Bao Diop.

The differences in finger counting are a helpful reminder that “speaking a language” is an incomplete way of describing what it means to communicate successfully in a culturally appropriate way. Gestures and other features such as facial expression, posture, position towards interlocutors and many more are part and parcel of language, and of the manifold intricate things language users know and do, often without paying attention to them at all…

Reifications and fluidity: English, Swahili and everything in between

Africa is not a country, and I would normally refrain from straying into geographical areas of this continent that are far from my comfort zone. (And note that the areas of specialisation that are prescribed for Africanists from the global North and taken on by them are already huge and would not be permissible for disciplines focusing on other areas of the world, nor are similarly broad perspectives accorded to Africans, who too often are still regarded as credible experts of their local experience only. But this is a subject for a different blog post altogether…)

But today I’m inspired by my colleague Chege Githiora’s new book on Sheng that we will launch tonight at SOAS, so let me leave West Africa behind and extend my gaze to the shores of the Indian Ocean for once.

When we talk about African languages, there is often an assumption that these languages, indigenous languages, stand in contrast with colonial languages – the European languages of the colonial powers that until today remain the official languages of the vast majority of African countries. Yet, many of the languages and associated groups that we know as African languages and ethnic groups are a product of colonisation. Missionaries and colonial administrators imposed the ethnonationalist language ideas that were en vogue in Europe at the time to African settings organised around very different principles, and Africans interact(ed) with these ideas in many different ways. But the big standard languages that we can name and that are taught in formal settings (including universities in the global North) are all colonial creations. Standard Swahili, for example, was born in 1928 at a conference in Mombasa, with the Zanzibar variety serving as the basis for this new norm. Standard Swahili is thus as colonial as Standard English, and both are used for social selection in the education system.

Kenyans and East Africans, however, have their very creative strategies of bypassing these standards, and one of them is Sheng. While the name for this register suggests that it is a mixed code composed of Swahili and English, in reality it is much more inclusive and open to the incorporation of forms from its speakers diverse repertoires. Have a look at this sentence, its equivalent in Standard Swahili, and its English translation (all from Githiora 2018: 97):

Kenyan Swahili/Sheng: Mathrii ya first ilikuwa kirai.
Standard Swahili: Gari la kwanza la abiria lilikuwa tupu.
‘The first matatu was empty.’

The Sheng utterance does not only contain forms that can be identified as belonging to Swahili and English, it also includes the word kirai, from Gikuyu. This is the beauty of Sheng – it allows multilingual Kenyans to flavour and bend it according to their individual needs, breaking down barriers created by impenetrable standard registers. Registers like Sheng (and its mirror register Engsh – English mixed with Swahili) are often highlighted as ‘mixed’ and ‘hybrid’, in contrast to their standard counterparts. But if you have a closer look at the Standard Swahili sentence and the English translation, you can see that mixing is not confined to Sheng – matatu in the English translation is the word for a privately owned minibus; gari in the Standard Swahili utterance comes from English ‘car’. Multilingualism and mixing are thus in the eye of the beholder and a matter of degree.

The main difference between standard registers and so-called ‘mixed’ registers is the greater resistance to variation and mixing in the former and the openness to fluidity in the latter, where it can even be seen as a central design principle. This is why it is not possible to ‘standardise’ Sheng and other ‘mixed’ registers to use them in schools where language education is based on introducing, enforcing and assessing norms, and why they thrive in the shadow of regulated language spaces.

Read more about Sheng in Chege Githiora’s new book:

Githiora, Chege. 2018. Sheng: Rise of a Kenyan Swahili vernacular. Woodbridge: James Currey.

Kall – Wolof à l’envers

Thank you to Bamba Diop for reminding me of kall – a secret language and playful register of Wolof that inverts the syllables in a word. Kall means ‘speak’, lakk in ‘normal’ Wolof. This creative way of playing with language goes back to precolonial times and continues to be used, today more as a ludic register than a secret code that among other things was used to deform messages so that they were incomprehensible to colonial overhearers.

Let’s have a look at some words and utterances in ordinary Wolof (at the top) and their kall counterparts (below):


Samay doom lekk.
Masa mëdoo kële
‘My children eat’

It is not enough to simply reverse the syllables of a word. Speakers of kall need to be aware of the constraints that ban certain sounds and sound combinations from occurring in particular positions in the word. Consider lekk. Two identical consonants that follow each other (called geminates by linguists) can only occur at the end of a word, not at its beginning, and not more than two consonants can follow each other regardless of their position in the word. That’s why the kall form is not *kkle (linguists use asterisks to flag language forms that do not occur), but kële – there can only be one word-initial consonant, but the void left by the second consonant is filled with an added vowel so that the kall word has the same length. This, by the way, is the reason that lakk becomes kall and not *kkla when the syllables are transposed – the length or weight of the original word is preserved, but this time by doubling the final l.

For at least the past 200 years, speakers of Wolof have interwoven Wolof with French, creating a register called Urban Wolof that first arose when French traders and later colonial actors began communicating with Wolof speakers, who populated the coast where the initial French trade posts were located. French has its own kall verlan, resulting from the transposition of the syllables in the word l’envers ‘the opposite’. In present-day Wolof, not only these two languages, but also their kall/verlan forms are fluidly mixed, as you can see in these utterances:

Damay dem jouer au basket.
An ma damay ouerjou sketba.
‘I’m going to play basket ball.’

The rules of kall (and verlan) are complex and as fluid as the different ways of speaking Wolof. And if you have every listened to Senegalese Rap, you’ve been exposed to a healthy dose of kall and verlan, even if you didn’t know it!

For an early account of Kall, see this article, which is also the source of the first two examples:

Ka, Omar. 1988. Wolof syllable structure: evidence from a secret code. In: Proceedings of the Eastern States Conference on Linguistics (5th, Philadelphia, PA,September 30-October 2, 1988).

For language practice, including kall, in a youth centre in Senegal, see this book, from which the third example is taken:

Köpp, Dirke. 2002. Untersuchungen zum Sprachgebrauch im Senegal. Hamburg: LIT

“How many languages are there in Africa?”

There is no cut and dried answer to this question, but it is worthwhile exploring what colours the different possible answers. There are sources that propose definite numbers of languages spoken on this continent, and these range between 2,100 and 3,000 languages. Crucially, there are different meanings to the word ‘language’, and they influence how idioms are counted. For most speakers, a language is a particular way of speaking that is related to a particular sociopolitical identity and tied to some extent to a place. Changing social and religious circumstances, political configurations and their consequences on imagining history can all result in changing how a language is conceptualised, how it is named, and what territory it is associated with. Outsiders tend to have their own perspectives on the languages they are aware of, too, and very often they will employ different categorisations that are less fine-grained. So, different people name languages differently at any given point in time, and naming practices can change over time, which makes enumerating languages really impossible

This is why linguists try to skirt the sociocultural dimensions of language and aim at definitions of language that are based on how similar or how dissimilar they are to their nearest neighbours. But this, too, is a really hopeless endeavour, because there are so many possible ways to decide on the cut-off point. Some linguists look at the number of shared words and say that if over 70% of vocabulary is shared, we are dealing with a single language. The problem with this approach is that depending on which vocabulary items are included, completely different percentages emerge. This is why many linguists only compare very short word lists (of 100 to 400) with words that are deemed to be universal – but that means discarding most of the words of a languages and not including those words that have the most cultural significance to speakers. Other linguists look at mutual intelligibility and say that if speakers who speak differently can understand each other, they are speaking dialects of one and the same language. But intelligibility is often dependent on the linguistic repertoire of a person, on their exposure to different languages and lects, and also on their attitude to a particular way of speaking, so it is not an exact measure either. And don’t even get me started on shared grammatical structure…

The names for languages that are contained in language catalogues, then, are mostly based on a mix of all these perspectives, and that means that they don’t offer an exact count but only a very rough approximation of Africa’s linguistic diversity. What we can safely state, though, is that this diversity is huge by global standards. Even the smallest country on the sub-Sahran African mainland, the Gambia, with a surface of 10,689 square kilometers and a population of a mere 1.2 million, counts 11 languages. The country with the largest surface area of 2,344,858 square kilometers, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hosts 212 languages, spoken by 81 million. The most linguistically diverse country is Nigeria, with 525 officially recognised languages for the 190 million inhabitants populating its 923,768 square kilometers.

In the mind of many Europeans, and also of many Africans themselves, sadly, the perception prevails that African languages are not really fully-fledged languages but simple ‘dialects’ or ‘patois’ without complex grammatical structures and with a very simple lexicon. (The same prejudice is applied to the ways in which Africans speak languages of European provenance, including so-called creoles and pidgins.) The posts on this blog showcase the complex lexicon and grammar of African languages and prove these judgements wrong. The reasons for these stereotypes range from sheer racism and patronising judgements stemming from colonial times that are still widespread to powerful ideas of language that are based on European romantic ideas of language: a language is a standardised idiom equipped with an orthography and an associated body of literature that expresses the identity of a people. Under this view, as the linguist Max Weinreich quipped, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, or referring to African language creators, “a language is a dialect with a missionary and a dictionary”, as I have said in Lüpke & Storch 2013). Multilingual and multiscriptual Africa has produced very different identity concepts that defy this ethnonationalist vision of language. Watch this space to find out more about them!

Read more on the history and social meaning of African languages in this book:

Lüpke, Friederike; Storch, Anne (2013): Repertoires and choices in African languages. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

You can leave your head on

Today, I want to look at a characteristic shared patchily by many languages of West Africa, across language families: the existence of two different possessive constructions. What this means is that in these languages, there are two formal ways to express ownership and relations between two entities, and they entail a difference in meaning. Have a look:

Jalonke (Guinea, Mande): n xunjaana ‘my younger sibling’

Bambara (Mali, Mande): anw teri ‘our friend’

Kujireray (Senegal, Atlantic): fuhow Damien ‘Damien’s head’

Do you get a hunch what types of relationships might be encoded in this construction? Perhaps it helps to look the second type and the contrast in meaning:

Jalonke: n ma xalisina ‘my money’

Bambara: i ka mobili ‘your car’

Kujireray: yaŋ ya Damien ‘Damien’s house’

You probably have concluded that ownership and social relations can be seen as more permanent, inherent, inalienable, and that this close relationship is reflected in language: in these cases, the possessor and the possessed object are adjacent to each other. If relationships and ownership are seen as less permanent, more loose, an element is inserted between the possessor and the possessed item, iconically signalling this larger distance. So if I say n ma xunna ‘my (alienable) head’, I’m necessarily talking about a severed head, perhaps of an animal, and not my own body part. Neat, isn’t’ it?

Now these heads would be alienably possessed…

But of course things aren’t quite that simple. The type of possessive construction chosen for a particular relation depends on how that relation is (or was, since languages change slower than society) construed in a particular culture. In Jalonke for instance, husbands are inalienable to their wives, and teachers to their students. But a man would say ‘my wife’, 
n ma ginɛna – a reflex of the greater power of men to end marriages and teachers to terminate apprenticeships that is not reciprocal. Children as well are seen as alienable in Jalonke – perhaps an index of the fact that children are often fostered in and out, so not seen as inalienable blood relatives so much than as temporary household members.

And last, but not least, nominalised verbs also occur in these two constructions. This means that a phrase such as ‘the killing of the hunters’ is not ambiguous in languages with two possessive constructions: the entity that undergoes a change of state will be the possessor of an inalienable construction (muxɛɛ faxaa ‘the killing of people’) and the entity that brings about a change of state will be the possessor of an alienable construction 
(n ma muxi faxa ‘my killing of people’). Should I tell you about intransitive verbs as well? Perhaps I should leave that to the intrepid linguists.

The data on Kujireray are from Rachel Watson’s thesis, referenced in the previous post. Bambara is always my very own rusty knowledge, and you can find out more about Jalonke possession (including intransitive verbs!) here:

Lüpke, Friederike (2007): It’s a split, but is it unaccusativity? Two classes of intransitive verbs in Jalonke. In Studies in Language 31 (3), pp. 525–568.

Diaspora dynamics and the creation of Yoruba

From a social point of view, languages come into being as a crystallisation of particular imaginations of identities linked to particular ways of speaking. Sometimes these ideas grow over long periods of times. In other cases, particular encounters, with people or ideas, act as catalysts for language movements that radically alter the status quo. In my first post, I looked at Sulemaana Kantè’s vision for West African Manding, a vision for the unity of this language that is gaining traction.

Today, I present another well-documented case of the birth of a language. The birth story of Yoruba is linked to Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c. 1809-1891). Crowther, originally from Lagos, had been captured by Fulani raiders to be sold into slavery as a child, but his slave ship had been captured and, as many freed slaves of the time, he had been brought to Sierra Leone by the British who intercepted his ship. In Freetown, became part of the growing Creole community of Sierra Leone, encountered missionaries of the Church Missionary Society and converted to Christianity. After a stay in England, he enrolled at Freetown’s newly founded Fourah Bay College, where he was the first student and later, teacher. Upon his return to Nigeria, he began charting the linguistic blueprint of what became Yoruba identity in 1843: the notion of a language based on a grammar, standard orthography and codified texts. This view, close to their own romantic language ideas, found the approval and support of British colonial actors and missionaries, which added to its spread.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Yoruba nationalism became an influential movement that was not just limited to Lagos or Nigeria but extended to Brazil, where it influenced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. This change in turn had an impact on how this diaspora religion became linked to the newly established Yoruba identity. Rather than being vestiges of age-old languages and religions, standard Yoruba and Candomblé testify how, as J.L Matory put it, diasporas are not connected with homelands, but create homelands.

Read more on Yoruba genesis in this book:

Falola, Toyin & Ann Genova. 2006. Yorùbá identity and power politics (Rochester studies in African history and the diaspora, 1092-5228 [v. 22]). Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press; [Woodbridge : Boydell & Brewer]

You can find out more on Candomblé and its transatlantic entanglements here:

Matory, James L. 2005. Black Atlantic religion: Tradition, transnationalism, and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, N.J., Woodstock: Princeton University Press.

Counting at the Crossroads

The Crossroads I’m going to write about today is a real junction situated on the road from Ziguinchor, the capital of Lower Casamance in Senegal to Cape Skirring on the Atlantic coast. Located at this junction are two villages, Brin (Jire in its local language) and Djibonker (alias Jibëeher). Only a couple of hundred meters apart from each other, each of these villages is nominally associated with a different language. At the Crossroads, the road divides and swerves north towards a peninsula, the realm of the kingdom of Mov Ëvi and home base to yet a different language, Banjal or Eegimaa, that in turn is further locally differentiated.

Villages and languages at the Crossroads

The villages are associated with particular languages because these are the languages of their founders, but people have been mobile and mixing with each other since the beginning of time. What is the impact of prolonged multilingualism, in languages that are also closely (Banjal and Kujireray) or remotely (those two and Gubëeher) genealogically related? The general design principles and divisions of labour for different counting systems appear to be identical: in all three languages, numbers up to twenty are based on the human body, with the basic units ‘five’ and ‘ten’ related to hands, ‘fifteen’ expressed through an added foot, and ‘twenty’ designated with a word that means ‘king’ – standing in for a person and all the digits of their hand and feet. From twenty to hundred, everything is organised around hand, feet and multiples of kings. Hundreds are counted decimally (with multiples of ten). Phone numbers are counted in French, and money, as we have seen in an earlier post, has its own counting system based on five as the basic unit, with larger sums are given in French.

Too complicated already? Then consider the more fine-grained nuances of the system: in Gubëeher, the word for ‘five’ is cilax ‘hand’. 200 meters down the road, in Brin, ‘five’ is not expressed with the word for hand, but with the word for ‘fist’, futox, which is also the form used in Banjal. But 10 is based on the word for ‘hands’ in all three languages – halax in Gubëeher, kuñen in Kujireray, and guñen in Banjal.

All three ‘Crossroads’ languages share the source language for ‘hundred’: teemeer (Gubëeher) or eteemir (Kujireary and Banjal), borrowed from Wolof. 1,000 is expressed with a word originating in Mandinka, another lingua franca of the wider area: it is wuli in Gubëeher, and euli/éuli in Kujireray and Banjal.

It’s not just languages that are located at a junction. Their speakers interact at the local level, but preserve tiny meaningful differences in language, despite high levels of multilingualism. Where they systematically converse with speakers of other languages, for instance in trade, this is reflected in the adoption of numerals form the languages used for these purposes – Wolof, Mandinka, French… After all, why limit yourself to one language, when you can tap into so many different concepts and notions, tailored to different needs?

The numeral systems of Gubëeher, Kujireray and Banjal are discussed in the following works:

Cobbinah, Alexander Yao (2013) Nominal classification and verbal nouns in Baïnounk Gubëeher. PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London

Sagna, Serge. 2008) Formal and semantic properties of the Gújjolaay Eegimaa (a.k.a Banjal) nominal classification system.
PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.

Watson, Rachel. 2015. Kujireray: morphosyntax, noun classification and verbal nouns. PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.