“My language is unclassified. That can’t be.”

Today’s topic in class was the history and the metaphors behind the genealogical classification of languages. Comparing two family trees – one of the Niger-Congo language phylum and one of Sunjata Keita brought to the fore what underlies both these conceptualisations of these lineages, and what information is not considered relevant in them. Have a look. Do you have an idea about what is missing?

One view of Niger-Congo languages (Williamson 1989)
Sunjata’s lineage (after Niane 1960)

Both family trees trace genealogical relatedness – descent from a common ancestor – through time, the Niger-Congo tree from left to right, the Keita lineage from top to bottom (incidentally, family trees tend to show the trees uprooted and upside down, or lying down, but almost never growing from the roots, despite using the image of a tree… And both trees assume monoparental descent – languages have one ancestor, and lineage in Sunjata’s case is determined through the male line, until the very bottom of the tree, when some women come in, because of their importance for the plot development of the Sunjata Epos.

In class, a vivid discussion ensued: on the word lists and features used to establish the trees, on selections of words and features resulting in conflicting trees, and, crucially, on the metaphor underlying genealogical classification itself, on how it is intended to exclude contact-induced language change and on the historical background in which it was created, in a sociopolitical context focusing on racial and linguistic purity. We evoked the problems that keep appearing for Niger-Congo – the place of Mande languages, the integrity of Atlantic languages, the name for the Gur language family, the belonging of Dogon – and we discussed how the view that language is passed akin to asexual reproduction in biology conflicts with the way in which children learn languages, focussing on West African language socialisation in large families which in their majority unite speakers of several languages, creating a multilingual input from the outset. I stop here, because each of these topics deserves and hopefully will get its separate blog post.

But this is what I will end tonight’s story with: One course participant is Dogon, and he reports, very upset, that in the most recent classifications, the Dogon cluster of languages is seen as unclassified – there is not enough evidence to give it a place in any established language family or stock. But, he says, we have relationships – we belong into the Mande world! It pains me how a model developed in the nationalist and racist context of the late 19th century can continue to cause that much harm by denying people’s relationships to spheres with which they feel much social and also linguistic belonging – just not the one of the kind measured by the comparative method. But lets’s remind ourselves that this method calculates relatedness by computing the lexical similarity of 100 to 400 words from the most basic vocabulary only, sometimes complemented by features selected to support particular classifications, explicitly and by design discarding the wealth of culturally meaningful layered tapestries that emerge when we look at other areas of language. Perhaps we want to keep using the family tree metaphor. But we need to be clear about one thing: it tells a very limited story, leaving out some of the main protagonists, and we need to give more room to other stories.

What is ‘African’ African linguistics? Or what could it be(come)?

I’m excited this week, because I’m teaching African linguistics to Malian students at the Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Bamako. There is no degree programme in Malian or African languages and linguistics here, and therefore my colleague Ibrahima Cissé had the ingenious idea to invite colleagues from his network to come and teach as part of the English Master, in English. My colleague Klaudia Dombrowsky-Hahn, who teaches at Frankfurt and Bayreuth, is also here, and we follow each other’s classes.

African linguistics started out as a colonial discipline, when colonial administrators and missionaries started being interests in the languages of the the interior of the continent that they had conquered in the second half of the 19th century. As a discipline that is concerned with sub-Saharan Africa – an entity that only becomes meaningful through European eyes, adopting problematic racial and geographic boundaries – it still is very much inscribed into a paradigm dating back to colonial times, which coincided with particular racial prejudices, and also with the heyday of romantic ethnonationalism in Europe. The legacies of this lens, which led them to discover mini-peoples (aka ‘tribes’ or ethnic groups), united by a language and a territory, in societies governed by very different principles of cohabitation, loom large. So my course started by discussing visions of language inherent in the work of colonial actors and investigating alternative visions of Malian linguists. Surprisingly to many, lead-language writing transferring French writing norms to Malian languages was started by a Malian linguist, Moussa Travelé, and was frowned upon by French linguists, who according to their purist language logics wanted to keep languages separate and also did not want to ‘corrupt’ African languages or French by allowing transferences and similarities in writing – so the official alphabets of many African languages are closer to colonial language ideas than the French-based writing practices many Malians use until today. An example of the latter follows.

Moussa Travelé’s Bambara dictonary, using French lead-language writing

The writing conventions developed by the colonial administrator and linguist Maurice Delafosse, which aimed at writing Bambara different from French, can be seen here:

Content pages from Delafosse’s (1901) Bambara course book

The ensuing debate showed how important it is to lay bare these different visions and their motivations, which co-exist in different sociolinguistic spaces and in people’s imaginations. The debate will continue tomorrow!

To read more about the colonial history of linguistics in (French) West Africa, read these books:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun (2004): Vernacular palaver. Imaginations of the local and non-native languages in West Africa. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

van den Avenne, Cécile (2017): De la bouche même des indigènes. Échanges linguistiques en Afrique coloniale. Paris: Éditions Vendémiaire.

Things you can’t say at night

The language-based outlook of linguistics means that often, we capture only the reality of one language. But sometimes, as soon as one starts looking across language boundaries, stories of shared cultural practices, and in this case, fears, emerge. I had such an experience when, inspired by research on Casamance Creole by Noël Bernard Biagui, Joseph Jean-François Nunez and Nicolas Quint, I got interested in some lexical taboos they report.

These taboos concern some words that are perfectly fine to be uttered during the day. But at night-time, they can’t be named. Among these words are ‘needle’, ‘soap’, ‘charcoal’, ‘salt’ and ‘snake’. Last week, I spent time with speakers of the Atlantic languages Gujaher and Joola Fogny and the Mande languages Konianké, Bambara, Mandinka. Incidentally, we were also on the road to Tabou, a place of great significance for the Mali Empire. Investigating lexical taboos while we were soaking up the atmosphere of Tabou, the place where the battle that turned Sunjata Keita into the emperor of a vast territory in which social practices were shared, took place, seemed the obvious thing to do. So here come some day-time words and their night-time paraphrases, as offered by Alpha Mané, Jacqueline Biaye, René Mané and Khady Biaye for Gujaher, Joola Fogny and Mandinka, and Boubacar and Bacary Diakité for Bambara. I know the meanings of the paraphrases for Gujaher best, to this language comes first:

Word Gujaher term used during the day Paraphrase used during the night
needle sahraŋ alufahal (‘one sews with it’)
charcoal baŋaɲ barahi (‘plenty of black things’)
salt muméer muntedahal (‘thing one cooks with’)
snake ono ubooxuna ‘the one that slithers’
soap saafuna aɲejaxël (‘the enjoyable’)

For Joola I only managed to catch charcoal: bugekap during the day, balaiene at night. In Mandinka, another language spoken in the vicinity of Gujaher and Joola Fogny in Casamance, here come two taboos for you:

Word Mandinka term used during the day Paraphrase used during the night
needle mesendoo karalaŋo, bendaŋo
charcoal kembo fimaŋ (‘the black one’)

And finally, the words that can’t be said at night in Bambara:

Word Bambara term used during the day Paraphrase used during the night
charcoal kembo fimaŋ (‘the black one’)
needle miseli karalelaŋ (‘sewing instrument’)
salt kɔgɔ nandialaŋ (‘condiment’)
snake saa duguma fɛ ‘the one on the ground’

Not all taboos are shared. For the two Bambara speakers from Monzona, ‘soap’ had no prohibitions attached to it. And of course, the tables are a crude first approximation of the complex linguistic taboos and the diverse social practices and beliefs attached to them. Can you guess why these items are so sensitive? It is their involvement in witchcraft that turns them into the Unsayable at night. Often, this taboo goes hand in hand with interdictions regarding the handling of the objects themselves. In Agnack, one can’t buy needles, salt or charcoal at night. In Monzona, a shop keeper will not hand you the salt you just bought, rather depositing it in front of you, once night has fallen. Clearly, this is an area where speakers and inhabitants of the areas where these taboos are practised ought to work together with linguists and anthropologists to complete this picture. So today’s blog ends with a call for information – on existing research, and on so far undocumented taboos.

Ö goes to Guinea

I’m still in Bamako, but a good connection means I can return to this blog just like a polygamous husband to his neglected other wife… And while not much happened in my online life, I spent a captivating week offline but directly connected to the various ways in which village residents from three West African countries – Mali, Senegal, and Guinea – present aspects of their diverse local knowledges.

Through recording local knowledge that is important to them on mobile phones and uploading it to the Donkosira blog if and when connectivity permits, it is their regard that determines what is deemed worthwhile documenting and sharing, and how it is presented. But blogs are a medium that requires use of the written modality in addition to photos and videos, and if this written information is to be offered in languages other than the colonial (and sole official) language of the three countries in the scope of the project, which is French, this causes great insecurity. Because the languages spoken in the villages Monzona, Damaro, Bouillagui and Agnack Grand and Agnack Petit are either locally confined or not taught at school, the first answer to the suggestion to write in them is: “But these languages are not written.”

Yet, almost all of the project participants had actually already produced writing in languages other than French – for instance in text messages or in transcriptions of stories and other texts. You can see an example in this post on proverbs by Ansoumana Camara. If you look at the ways in which the proverbs are transcribed in Konianké, the local Mande language, a truly ingenious strategy emerges: Ansoumana Camara has transferred the spelling rule of the language of first literacy, French, to Konianké. This type of writing is extremely widespread in West Africa, and a very economical way of writing in a multilingual environment that doesn’t offer much support to languages other than the colonial one. Sadly, it is often dismissed as corrupted and improper, so that its practitioners themselves dismiss it. Yet, these writing techniques testify of a great understanding of phonic regularities in French spelling and their transfer to new languages is highly skilful, and not at all deficient. So of course their value is recognised and they have a place of honour on the Donkosira blog.

Today, however, I want to tell you about a local flavour present in Ansoumana’s writing that is very endearing to me as a German. Since I’d first seen him write in Konianké, I had been intrigued by one thing: the presence of the letter ö. Ö has no place whatsoever in French orthography, but of course we Germans are very fond of our umlauts. I knew that the letter ö had been introduced in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970s to write the the sound [ɔ] in national languages that had been officially standardised. But Ansoumana had stated that he had never learned to read and write a Guinean language. So how had the ö found its way into his spelling?

A Koniaké story transcribed by Ansoumana Camara from Damaro (Guinea)

Our workshop in Bamako offered the occasion to find out. It turned out that school teachers had introduced the letter ö because the sound [ɔ] appears in local names, such as Böbö [bɔbɔ], pronounced with a more open vowel than Bobo would be in French, and so a proper name served as a Trojan horse to introduce some aspects of writing national languages that otherwise had no right of existence in the Frenchg-based school curriculum. Thirty odd years after this school experience, the ö is still there – a tiny but persistent trace of spelling rules for national languages that still have no space in the school curriculum.

If you want to learn more about lead language writing, i.e. the transfer of spelling skills to repertoires in West Africa, you can find out more in this article:

Lüpke, Friederike (2018): Escaping the tyranny of writing. West African regimes of writing as a model for multilingual literacy. In Kasper Juffermans, Constanze Weth (Eds.): The tyranny of writing revisited. Ideologies of the written word. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 129–148.

Transatlantic beans

Another taster typed on my phone and posted while the internet gods are in a good mood. True to its name it brings you a snack straight from the streets of Bamako… or Lagos… or Accra… or even Salvador de Bahia:

Akara: the snack that conquered the Atlantic world

These little morsels made from black-eyed beans have travelled all over West Africa and beyond, to Brazil, where they are especially well known in Bahia.

And it’s not just the food that has traveled. Its name as well has come along. Said to originate in Yoruba, where the bean fritters are called àkàrá, they are called by the name akara in Ghana, Togo, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia… and as acarajé in Brazil.

So feasting on this snack in land-locked Bamako, hundreds of kilometres from the Atlantic, connects me with food stalls across the Atlantic world.

Pluriversity? Under construction

Most repositories – libraries, digital archives, even the servers hosting this blog – are situated in the global north. There is a promise of global accessibility today, thanks to the miracles of the internet, but the reality remains very different, so these collections remain colonial archives in terms of access and in terms of creators, despite good intentions to overcome this legacy.

Today serves as a vivid reminder of this enduring inequality to me. I’m typing this one my phone, the only way to get it online, as the slow internet connection in Bamako, Mali, doesn’t agree with my computer.

I’m not telling you this to complain about a personal inconvenience but because it is the reality for millions of Africans. Yes, web access is there, but only in its flimsiest forms: enough for a Facebook Like or a WhatsApp message, but not for really equitable sharing, very often not even access. Achille Mbembe, the continent’s most influential philosopher, calls for a broadening of perspectives, a pluriversity to replace the Eurocentric university. Not easy when you need to chase network coverage and type from your phone, even more so when you try to access some of the works written on you by a Northern researcher, including almost all research on African languages, sadly including most of my own.

Since making African perspectives visible on the net is one of the reasons I’m here, I will blog about these obstacles and how they are experienced by my colleagues and collaborators from Donkosira for the days to come, and I’ll also try to find out through which tricks they overcome some of the infrastructural hurdles put in their way. You’ll get a synopsis at my return if I can’t get online!

The Donkosira team last year in Conakry

The real polyglots

From yesterday’s Polyglotta Africana it’s not a big jump to polyglots. There is a particular Northern idea of polyglots: slightly geeky, mostly male, individuals who speak multiple languages and often have their own
online and offline communities to learn languages. Some people even distinguish between ordinary polyglots and hyperpolyglots, starting somewhere above 10 languages. Without wanting to belittle their feat, that they are seen as so exceptional and equipped with special talents is a weird idea. Weird as in W.E.I.R.D (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), psychology’s acronym for the bias towards establishing expectations on normal and extraordinary behaviour based on this demographic.

Take a W.E.I.R.D polyglot to West Africa, and there will be many places where they will be outshone by most of the locals. And another difference will apply: not only will most people have repertoires that at least contain 5 or 6 languages (and I mean languages with considerable distance from each other, not closely related lects), but these repertoires will be grown and adapted without any formal language learning throughout an individual’s life, dependent only on their trajectories and networks.

Casamance is an obvious place for me to use for examples, so tonight I’ll defeat expectations and take you to Northwestern Cameroon instead. There, one area has been in the focus of in-depth research on rural multilingualism: the lower Fungom. This small and remote rural area, with 100 square kilometers approaching the size of a large European city, hosts 9 languages. Everybody is multilingual in Lower Fungom, and an average repertoires comprises 6 or 7 languages plus several of their lects, and in addition, Lower Fungomians speak languages of wider communiction, too. If this is the average, imagine how multilingual one would need to be in order to qualify as a polyglot!

My colleague Jeff Good has written an article on the research of his team in the Lower Fungom in The Conversation – follow him to Cameroon to find out more about how West African village dwellers use and imagine their languages:

Good, Jeff. 2017. Threatened languages and how people relate to them: a Cameroon case study. The Conversation