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

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