Ways with gender

My second post on African languages to honour the UNESCO year of indigenous languages puts the noun class systems of Atlantic languages (a group of languages mainly spoken on the Atlantic coast of West Africa) into the spotlight. In languages with noun class or gender systems, nouns occur in a particular gender based on aspects of their meaning or on formal properties. The noun class systems of Bantu languages are best known to linguists, but Atlantic languages deserve attention because of the complexity and diversity of their noun class systems. Ironically, the two most well-known Atlantic languages, Wolof and Fula, are not representative for the group. Wolof, mainly spoken in Senegal, has only ten different noun classes, eight for the singular and two for the plural, and is the only Atlantic language that does not mark noun class on the noun itself. The different varieties of Fula, a language that stretches from the Atlantic shores to the horn of Africa because of the many nomadic pastoralists among its members, have 20+ noun class markers that combine into genders (singular-plural pairs). Fula marks noun classes on the noun itself, but unlike all other Atlantic languages, the noun class markers are suffixed (i.e. occur at the end of the noun), and not prefixed. Additionally, Fula is characterized by consonant mutation: the initial consonant of the noun changes in different noun classes. Consider the words for ‘Fula’: they are pull-o in the singular and ful-ɓe in the plural. The changes in the initial consonant explain why the English and French designations for members of this group sound so different: the French term Peul is based on the singular; the English denotation Fula on the plural. In many Atlantic languages, there are more than 30 different genders. Noun roots have a very general meaning, and the combination with different noun class markers creates nouns with specific meaning. Let’s have a look at the root lëb in the language Gujaher. Its vague meaning is translatable as ‘something to do with speaking’. Through prefixation of the noun class marker, the following concrete meanings are created:

u-lëb ‘speaker’
ñan-lëb ‘speakers’
bu-lëb ‘speak’
gu-lëb ‘language’
ha-lëb ‘languages’
kan-lëb ‘place of speaking’


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