African advantages of age

Distinctions that are socially meaningful tend to be reflected in grammar. The huge importance accorded to age differences is hard-wired into lexical distinctions in many West African languages. In Bamanan (Bambara), siblings are differentiated primarily regarding age, and only secondarily according to gender: older siblings are designated kɔrɔ, younger ones dɔgɔ. The modifiers muso `woman’ and added to these words specify whether female or male siblings are referred to, but are not compulsory.

Wolof makes the same distinction: the term for elder sibling is mag, the one for younger sibling rakh. My personal favourite language Baïnounk Gujaher confirms the pattern: wanc is the word for older sibling, and udóón the one for younger sibling, without referring to the sex of these kin relations.

These terms do testify of a great sensitivity to age motivated by the link between age and superior social status. Being aware of age is important because the veneration of people of greater age, respect for their life experience and deference to them is common throughout the entire continent. It is therefore important to be aware of one’s age in relation to anybody one interacts with; and lexicalising this difference helps keeping track of where an ego is positioned with respect to others.

Snap me one!

Languages are often boxed in in our thinking, with items belonging to one language, and with language being tacitly understood as spoken and written forms of expression only. Gesture and sign language research questions both these premises, by looking at how manual and bodily gestures are used in communication. Research on gesture, probably because it is also interested in the question of how and to what extent speech and gestures are aligned, has looked at the speech of bi- and multilinguals, taking language out of its box so to speak. What speakers do when they speak and gesture in languages that have different expressive possibilities provides insight into how integrated or separated these languages are for them.

In multilingual West Africa it makes a lot of sense to look at how people use their linguistic resources to communicate regardless of their association with one language, and how these resources can be fluid and changeable vs. associated with more conventionalised registers that can be named. Gestures are a prime example of communicative devices that can be independent of particular languages but are often shared in particular cultural spaces. An example of such a gesture, which will be familiar to many West African readers of this blog, is the “snap and point” gesture used for spatial recall and other functions described in this blog post by Chelsea Krajcik. Check out the video to see these gestures being produced.

Another example of culturally shared conventions for gesture has been documented by James Essegbey and Sotaro Kita. They report on a taboo respected all across Ghana that forbids pointing with the left hand. This practice has led to particular constraints that are widely respected, irrespective of spoken language. When people want to point to the left, they often need to contort their body or use both hands in gesturing, as this is not seen as offensive.

Examples of using the right hand or both hand when pointing left (from Kita & Essegbey 2001: 84)

Do you have examples of regionally distributed gestures? Leave a comment below the line if you do, it would be great to discover more of them together!

Read more on the left hand pointing taboo in Ghana here:

Kita, Sotaro & James Essegbey. 2001. Pointing left in Ghana. How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice. Gesture 1:1: 73-95

(No) strings attached

The observation that many noun class systems – characterised by nominal inflections in which all nouns in a language are formally marked by so-called noun classes or gender – have plants and their classification at their core goes back to Brent Berlin. True to this finding, many Atlantic languages have genders (paired noun classes for singular and one or several plurals) for trees, fruit, seeds and smaller plant-based items. You can find some examples in this post. These noun classes can be extended to items that are similar to botanical items in various respects: they can have a longest vertical axis just like trees, be spherical or have a round diameter like many fruit, or occur in an extended assemblage or a mass just like creepers or beans. Many Baïnounk languages, spoken in and around the Casamance region of Senegal, have an additional gender for string-like objects. Have a look at these nouns that are among those that enter the ‘string’ gender in Baïnounk Gujaher:

Singular form Plural form Gloss
cin-niba ñan-niba ‘shrub of the species Dombeya quinqueseta (Delile) Exell’
ciŋ-ŋaarara ñaŋ-ŋaarara ‘vine of the Smilax anceps Willd.’
cil-lug ñal-lug ‘marrow plant’
ciŋ-kal ñaŋ-kal ‘tail’
cin-díít ñan-díít ‘intestine’
cin-tííb ñan-tííb ‘trace’
cil-líít ñal-líít ‘ribbon’

What is remarkable is the origin of the class marker cin-. It is transparently related to the word denoting ‘bark’, ‘rope’ and ‘string’ – cin-cind. So the root cind occurs with a noun class marker that is probably derived from it to classify rope as a string-like item. The link to the botanical domain is still very salient, as ropes and strings are made from the bark of trees and from the stalks of vines and creepers.

A climbing belt made from plant fiber and string

But what is even neater is the metaphorical extension of the prefix cin– into other domains. It is used to create the noun ‘family name’, cir-ram, literally cin-greet. Greeting is a reciprocal activity that connects two people, and verbal nouns and infinitives linking participants via social activities are created using cin-, in addition to being marked with the reciprocal suffix –ai.

Gujaher infinitive Gloss
cinsukai ‘accompany each other’
cinfeyai ‘hate each other’
cinnannai ‘exchange’ (lit.: cin-give-reciprocal)
cinramai ‘greet each other’
cinyikai ‘have problems with each other’
cimbicai ‘divorce each other’
cimbutai ‘share with each other’
cimmaŋai ‘love each other’

I can hear some of you thinking aloud: “Why is ‘to marry’ not in the list when ‘love’ and ‘divorce’ are? It’s perhaps the most prototypical reciprocal activity!” Well, not in Gujaher (and in fact in many West African languages. While the verbs with cin– above denote activities that are thought about as involving a relationship or an exchange between two equally agentive participants, whose roles can be reversed, ‘marry’ is not construed in this way. The infinitive for ‘marry’ is bujax in Gujaher, taking a different noun class marker to signal the infinitive. The verb can only have men as agents – they are seen as taking women in marriage. Women can only be taken in marriage, so no reciprocity here. They are equal in love, hate and divorce though!

Sequoyah’s ghost at Grand Cape Mount, Liberia

Many of you may be familiar with Sequoyah, alias George Guess or Gist, a North American Cherokee who invented the Cherokee script in 1821. This script is a syllabary – it has a character for each syllable of the Cherokee language. But why would I write about a North American writing system from Georgia in a blog on African languages?

In 1832 or 1833, Momolu Duala Bukare, an inhabitant of Liberia, a country on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, designed a writing system for the Vai language. His script was also a syllabary, and in 1834, the Missionary Herald, the organ of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which had also presented the Cherokee syllabary to its readers, wrote: “The occasion and manner of its being invented, as well as the characteristics of this method of writing, are nearly the same as those of the “Cherokee Alphabet” “

An illustration of the Cherokee syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 432)

What ensued was a longstanding quest to uncover the connections between these two so similar scripts created in such a short timespan in very different, though connected, corners of the world. Most scripts don’t arise out of nowhere but are inspired by existing writing, so one explanation was that both inventors had been prompted by similar written stimuli. But soon after the creation of the Vai syllabary, it emerged that it might be more directly related to the Cherokee script than that. Initial suspicions were that American missionaries who had worked among the Cherokee had brought knowledge of the Cherokee syllabary with them, and that this had spurred Momolu Duala Bukare to come up with his invention. Much later, research revealed that a Cherokee man, Austin Curtis, was living at Cape Mount, in Vai country, in 1829. Was he involved in the creation of the Vai script?


An illustration of the Vai syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 440)

We won’t know for sure what inspired Bukare: abstract ideas and possibilities of writing, leading him to adopt a particular type of writing system – a syllabary – or direct exposure to a particular script. Perhaps the most amazing fact emerging from this mystery is the global connectedness of its protagonists, often imagined as belonging to ‘tribal’ and ‘remote’ groups. Read more on this fascinating story (and on yet more international entanglements) in this article:

Tuchscherer, Konrad, and P.E.H. Hair. 2002. Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script. Journal of African History 29:
427-486 

Breathe out… breathe in. Or not?

Taking some lungfuls of icy sea air over the weekend made me think about speech sounds and what West African specialities there are among them. Plain vanilla speech sounds tend to be produced with a pulmonic egressive air stream, that is, with air being exhaled from the lungs. Some speech sounds are formed by forming an obstacle somewhere in the mouth that is then released, first increasing the air pressure behind the closure, then releasing it, pushing the air outwards. Try it with a [b]. Your lips form an obstruction, air pressure builds behind your them, and when it is released, air leaves your mouth. But a much rarer class of speech sounds, so-called implosives, bears this name because supposedly, the glottis is lowered and causes negative air pressure, before the air is subsequently released outwards, causing some air to be initially sucked inwards. Hence the word implosive.

You can listen to an implosive in Owerri Igbo here. Now try it youself: say [b] again, but this time lower your glottis. Implosive consonants are written with a rightward little hook on the letter – you’ve seen them in some Fula words in previous posts in this blog, for instance in the one on bards, which featured the word lawɓe ‘woodworkers’. [ɓ] is the implosive counterpart of [b]. Voiced implosives are quite common; voiceless ones (formed without the vocal cords vibrating) are extremely rare. Seereer languages, spoken in Senegal, are among the languages that have both voiced and voiceless implosives, but only one variety of the language, Seereer Siin, has words that are only distinguished through having a voiced vs. a voiceless implosive. Have a look:

Minimal pairs featuring voiced and voiceless implosives in Seereer Siin (Mc Lauglin 2005: 203)

What makes these sounds even more intriguing is that in many languages they aren’t actually produced by negative air pressure forming behind an obstruction at all. Rather, what distinguishes them from explosive stops is that there is no positive air pressure involved, just absence of air pressure – silence. So strictly speaking, ‘implosive’ is a misnomer for this type of sound. There’s much more to be said about implosives in Seereer, but I leave you to discover it by yourself!

You can find an overview of phonetic research on implovises in Seereer and an acoustic phonetic study of implosives in Seereer Siin here:

Mc Laughlin, Fiona. 2005. Voiceless implosives in Seereer-Siin. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 35(2): 201-214

Liquid salt

Most languages of the Niger-Congo stock (a large grouping of languages that are likely to go back to one single ancestor language) have rich noun class systems, on which I’ve written before in several posts. Some families within this large group don’t, among them Mande languages, and this is one of the numerous reasons while the historical relationships between these languages are tenuous. The ways in which noun class systems are organised are really different from language to language, but one striking fact sticks out: the vast majority of Niger-Congo languages with noun classes dedicate a particular noun class to liquids, and, highly unusually, the affix that formally signals this noun class has a similar shape across them. Liquids bear a noun class marker with that has the initial consonant m.

Okay, some of you will say, so if I want to order a coke, I’ll just stick an m in front, and I’ll have a word that could belong to a Niger-Congo language. But you already have a hunch that this would be too easy, don’t you? In noun class systems, items are not put into a noun class based on a single criterion. Rather, these classification systems are built up over time, and while speakers may put an object into a particular class based on different and conflicting criteria (being a ‘natural’ liquid such as sap, blood or tears as opposed to being man-made, for instance) at any point in time, this is even more true over time. But many liquids, and in particular those that occur as liquids in the natural world, are marked with m. Here are the only six words I have found in this class in Baïnounk Gujaher to give you a taste:

Gujaher form Gloss
mun-saal ‘urine’
mun-jil ‘tear’
mun-yin ‘milk’
mul-leen ‘blood’
muŋ-xaana ‘oil’
mum-méér ‘salt

Clearly, all of these words denote liquids. All of them? Some of you may have stumbled over ‘salt’. Why would this crystal be categorised as similar to blood? Looking at how salt is made in Casamance provides the necessary clue. In this area close to the sunken coast line of the Upper Guinea Coast, rivers are tidal and carry salt water far inland. Out of the salty soil close to the rivers, salt is won by extraction through mixing it with water and then evaporating the repeatedly filtered salty water by putting it to the boil until the salt crystals remain. Imagine a future where everybody in Casamance buys salt in shops and this practice is lost. The language would still reflect the experiences of previous generations that salt arrived as water, got absorbed by the soil, and turned into a liquid again before being reduced to its final state.

Here you can see salt and its transformation from solid to liquid and back.

West African keepers of words

Yesterday’s post focused on old yet often overlooked literacy practices. Today, inspired by a lecture of my colleague Lucy Durán, I look at oral transmission of language and memory, by zooming in on a particular social group widespread in most West African societies. There, a social category called griots in French, bards or praise singers in English and jeliw in Manding languages. is omnipresent. A three-partite society composed of nobles (hɔrɔnw in Manding), professional groups and artisans (nyamakalaw in Manding) and slaves (jɔnw) is typical for Mande societies and those in the realm of the Mali empire. Allegedly, this blueprint for a stratified society goes back to the founder of the Mali Empire, Sunjata Keita who ruled from 1217 to 1255, and who instituted them as a means for creating social cohesion in his newly founded state that brought together many different lineages and languages. We can’t know for sure whether this is a post-hoc explanation for the ways in which social relations are perceived and maintained through the roles of these social groups and norms of interaction between them, regardless of language or origin, but clearly, these social categories travelled through the spaces associated with Mali at different times.

Have a look at this table, which shows you the words designating some of the professional status groups in languages of the region:

Names for categories within the professional groups as presented in Tamari, Tal (1991): The development of caste systems in West Africa. In Journal of African History 32 (2), pp. 221–250.

I will have much more to say in future posts about these different groups and how many of them are associated with particular lineages and therefore indirectly with specific languages, and how this division of labour is the basis for coexistence in multilingual and multicultural settlements and societies. For today, let’s stay with bards, praise singers, keepers of genealogies and history. Members of this group are masters of verbal art. In Wolof societies, they are said to speak with much more care than members of other groups, and Judith Irvine reports that nobles often speak using simplified morphology and less elaborate style just to distinguish themselves from géwél. They are artisans, and their inherited craft is the word. In societies to the south and east of Mande, they are called ‘linguists’ – certainly a reminder to linguists to pay more attention to their registers of speech.

A wonderful portrait of a contemporary jeli, Mali’s famous Bako Dagnon, can be found in this film by Lucy Durán:

The voice of tradition: Bako Dagnon and family

You can read on Wolof géwél and their speech in this article:

Irvine, Judith T. 1975. Wolof speech styles and social status. Working papers in sociolinguistics 23