The sun, fire and bovine beings

I mentioned noun classes, one of the most prominent features of many languages of the Niger-Congo language phylum, in previous posts. I also introduced Fula, a language of the Atlantic family whose speakers are found across Africa from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa, and which has many different local varieties. Among them are Pulaar in Senegal, Pular in Guinea (yes, one vowel makes a lot of a difference, since Pulaar is associated withe the Futa Tooro region in northern Senegal, and Pular with the Futa Jalon in Guinea, both places where different Fula states were located). Further eastwards there are Maasiina Fulfulde in Mali, and Adamawa Fulfulde in Nigeria and Cameroon. Each of these languages has more localised ways of speaking. Fula spread because many of its speakers are or were cattle herders and coexist(ed) with sedentary farmers in a division of labour. Some of them were and continue to be members of mobile professional groups, for instance woodworkers and mobile merchants who travel around to sell their wares. And finally, mainly in the 18th and 19th century, many Muslim Fula groups conducted jihads and founded a number of theocratic states, into which slaves from many other groups were incorporated.

Because of the widespread nomadic way of life among Fula, with cattle herding as the main subsistence activity, cattle have a central place in the Fula universe, and this is reflected in language. In most Fula varieties, there is a special class for cows, the NGE class, in which nagge, the word for cow and cattle is realised. Have a look at the words in the NGE class in Maasiina Fulfulde:

The NGE class in Maasiina Fulfulde, in: Breedveld (1995: 71)

Look at the many and intricate words for different types of cattle, all in the NGE class! This class also contains a handful of other items, including sun and fire, and also the word yannge ‘ceremony’. Why would this be so? Which component of meaning binds these notions together? All of the terms, as Anneke Breedveld, who studied Maasiina Fulfulde, argues, are related to cows: fire attracts them and chases away mosquitoes. The sun governs their movement; and the ceremonies comprised by yannge involve the exchange of cows or milking rights. A beautiful demonstration of how a language’s vocabulary is structured according to what its speakers communicate about.

Read more about the meanings behind noun classes in Maasiina Fulfulde here:

Breedveld, Anneke. 1995. The semantic basis of noun class systems: the case of the KI and NG classes in Fulfulde. Journal of West African Linguistics XXV(2): 63-74.

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