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:
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.