There might be West African languages in your beauty regime

Indulge in body butter? Look after your lips with a velvety lip balm? The chances are that your cosmetics contain an ingredient whose name betrays the origin of one of the oils used in them: shea butter or beurre de karité.

They are made from oil of nuts of the same plant, Vitellaria paradoxa. In English, it is called the shea trea, but guess where this designation hails from? I was reminded of its origins when watching Na baro kè’s brilliant video chat on the cold season, in which inhabitants of the city of Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso mentioned that they use body lotion, si tulu (literally shea oil, often pronounced with a sh sound, phonetic [ʃ]) in the Bambara language.

So how did shea oil or butter, si tulu, into beurre de karité? Whichever French-speaking person introduced this word to the French language took inspiration from Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal. In Wolof, the shea trea is called kaarite.

So whenever you use shea butter or beurre de karité, you’re connecting with a West African language linking the word to the area where the product is grown and harvested.

Persons of the night and special someones in Songhay

Back in London it is, sadly, much easier to write on African languages than from the continent itself. The obstacles do not only concern internet access, a major hurdle to equitably shared information, but also access to and awareness of printed research. In this regard, African researchers are much more excluded from information flows and access to repositories than their counterparts in the Global North, but the difficulties persist in both directions: it is often impossible to discover, let alone have access, to scientific publications authored and distributed on the African continent (especially if they were not created in South Africa). CODESRIA, the Council
for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, is a beacon in its various activities aiming at redressing this imbalance and making African research visible and accessible. There are other initiatives, such as ILISS Africa, a German library service providing information on and access to a broad range of information not only on but crucially also from, Africa, on an internet platform. But its funding is temporary, as is that of many initiatives aiming at overcoming the digital divide, and so it is often left to personal connections and sheer luck to fill in the cracks. In this case, serendipity took the form of a lunch conversation with my Malian host, Prof. Mohamed Minkailou, from the Department of English at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines.

I was reporting my taboo hunt form the previous week, and to my delight, Prof. Minkailou said that he had published an article on euphemisms in Songhay. The data are from Faraw! Mother of the Dunes, a film in standard Songhai (which is based on the Songhay variety spoken in Gao, Gao Senni). It turns out that snakes are seen as such distasteful entities that their names – salaamun and gondi – tend not to be pronounced at all. Instead, the euphemism gandarfu ‘a rope on the ground’ is used at all times. We didn’t have the time to explore the motivation for this taboo, or its relations to other items unsayable in the darkness. But the article also mentions the word for witch, carkaw, which cannot be said at night and has to be replaced by cijin boro – ‘person of the night’ – so the dangers of witchcraft seem to linger in Songhay taboos, as they do in other languages of the wider area.

But euphemisms in Songhai go much further, even prompting marriage partners to avoid calling their spouses ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ and making them employ the term filaana ‘someone’ (from Arabic fulaan), sometimes preposed by aru ‘man’ or woy ‘woman’. I would love to share the article with you – the journal in which it appeared even has a website:, but it had only a spurious existence – the link is broken. I have permission to share the paper, so here the link to the PDF and the reference:

Minkailou, Mohamed. 2016. Exploring euphemism in standard Songhay. Recherches Africaines. Annales de l’Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Bamako 16: 31-39.

And please, if you know of websites disseminating African research from the continent, please leave the link in a comment below the line!

“My Songhay keeps growing”

My colleague Klaudia Drombowsky-Hahn and I have spent a week with students from the English Department at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines and staff members from AMALAN, The Academy of Malian Languages. As part of Klaudia’s course, all of us drew our language portraits. Developed by the Austrian linguist Britta Busch, language portraits have been developed and are now widely used as a method to evoke linguistic repertoires that, while still eliciting them in terms of codes or languages that can be named, avoids the straitjackets of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’, ‘L1’, ‘dominant language’, and so on. Rather, it is left to individuals to imagine and execute the task, which is to fill in (or draw and write around) a silhouette, through focusing on all languages that play a role in their lives.

Here you can see the language portrait of one of the course participants.

In terms of named languages, her repertoire comprises Songhay, Tamasheq, Arabic, Bambara, English and French. So, does this mean she speaks five languages? And is one of them her mother tongue? The silhouette, together with some explanations offered by her reveals that Songhai – to be precise two different Songhai varieties, Gao Senni – also callled Koyraboro Senni, the language of the town dwellers – and Tumbutu Chiini, aka Koyra Chiini ‘city language’, are important because the whole family lived in the two northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao, cities whose alternative language names set them apart from surrounding nomadic populations.

Tamasheq qualifies as her ‘mother tongue’ in the literal sense of being her mother’s language, different from her father’s. She uses it mainly when visiting the maternal side of the family, who follow a nomadic lifestyle. Arabic is an important language for her, but she feels constrained in it because of the way it was taught to her: the followed courses in Modern Standard Arabic at the university, where students were only taught to read and write it, and where oral language use had no place.

Bambara is a language she already spoke before coming to the south of Mali, to Bamako, to study. But it really only took off when she was exposed to it there, where it is spoken by everybody, so she is still learning it. Bambara is followed by English, the language we also use totalk to each other, because we are in the English Department and teaching takes place in English, in which the students are highly fluent. She learned Englishonly from 7 to 9 grade, and then at university when she enrolled in the English programme.

French somehow is mentioned last in the conversation we have about her language portrait, but this doesn’t mean that it is very remote fromher daily life. It is not only the main language of her formal educational experience, but also a language she speaks with friends, and spoke with her father during her childhood. English and Tamasheq are in her heart; French and Songhay in her head, and they keep growing

Language portraits vividly illustrate how important it is to let go of fixed assumptions about the role languages might play in people’s lives and to invite them (even if a frame and perspective can’t be avoided altogether) to develop their own metaphors on what languages mean to them.

Read on language biographies and language portraits in this article:

Busch, Brigitta (2006): Language biographies. Approaches to multilingualism in education and linguistic research. In PRAESA Occasional Papers, pp. 5–18.

Setting free the tongues

It is International Mother Tongue Day today, and across the globe people are celebrating the languages that are important for their lives. Very often, these languages are marginalised and minoritised, deprived of prestige and recognition, and one of the purposes of Mother Tongue Day is to put them into the spotlight for at least one day.

But persistent imaginations of what a mother tongue is, carried over from the European context in which the concept was coined, through the choice of words and the language ideas behind them, actually penalise speakers of languages whose language lives don’t correspond to the expectations it creates. Most dictionaries capture these language ideologies by characterising a mother tongue as “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult” (Cambridge English Dictionary”, as a synonym of “native language” (Marriam Webster). Collins offers a different interpretation, which potentially contradicts the former one: “Your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.” (Collins Online Dictionary) Wiktionary comes up with three definitions, one of which is similar to the Collins one: “the language spoken by your ancestors”, and a third: “the language spoken by one’s mother, when it differs from that spoken by one’s father”. Under the second and third definition, an individual can grow up not speaking their mother tongue (if they don’t learn their parents’ language), while under the first and most widespread one, this is a thing of impossibility, because by virtue of being a child’s first language, it becomes the mother tongue, even if it is not the one of parents or grandparents.

UNESCO, who initiated and continues to celebrate Mother Tongue Day, does not offer easily accessible definitions, and has made a multilingual turn, celebrating linguistic diversity and encouraging “mother-tongue based multilingual education”. This widening of perspective on repertoires and their diversity is welcome.

Yet, this is still too often translated into an insistence on the singular in practice, and on the idea of a clear context in which a child grows up with one and only one language that occupies this particular role, at least in their early lives, but ideally through to adulthood. But what about situations where individuals have no, or several, mother tongues (understood both as ancestral languages and as languages in which they are primarily socialised)? These contexts are globally in the majority, and in them, an individual may grow up hearing and speaking many different languages throughout the first years of their lives: the languages spoken in the court yard, the different languages spoken by different members of the family, by mothers who marry into communities of their husbands, by fathers who joined their wives, the languages associated with religion, and the languages of secret societies. Children may identify with ancestral languages not present in their environment, so that spoken and claimed languages don’t coincide. Or they may grow up moving between different linguistic ecologies and adapt seamlessly to these contexts, which turns them into adults with enhanced linguistic capacities who go on to keep learning languages throughout their lives. Crucially, in these contexts, none of the languages in an individual’s repertoire will fulfil the exclusive role suggested by the term ‘mother tongue’. So, insisting on mother tongue in the singular, or on one language with this total importance in a person’s life, reduces the richness and complexity of multilingual life experiences and shoehorns them into a choice that does not represent the roles of languages in individuals’ repertoires.

In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why “mother tongue education” in Africa, despite great verbal support, is not really taking off – because it doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of linguistic settings and of multifaceted and fluid linguistic identities. Any language policy that requires the selection of on one and only one language in a particular region will exclude many of its inhabitants and their repertoires. So, on Mother Tongue Day, let’s set free the tongues, and strip our appraisal of the functions of languages from Eurocentric baggage so that we can truly comprehend what linguistic diversity means.

Multiple or impossible choice? multilingualism as or instead of mother tongue. The repertoires of children in two household in the village of Agnack Grand, Senegal

To read more on multilingualism and the role of multiple languages, in particular in rural African communities often presented as monolingual, read this article:

Good, Jeff; Di Carlo, Pierpaolo; Ojong, Rachel (forthcoming): Multilingualism in rural Africa. In Mark Aronoff (Ed.): Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Linguistics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If you want to be visually immersed in multilingual life in a West African village community, watch this film and check out the companion materials on its website:

Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack

“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.