Ideas of the sea

Every speaker of a language carries some invisible baggage: how the concepts encoded in the words of their language(s) and their relationships with other words pre-structure the world for them and create expectations on possible connotations and translations. And every learner of a new language knows that a central part of acquiring another language is letting go of these associations in order to fully enter a new language space.

Today, I have two examples that illustrate language worlds and how different they can be in their associations. Both are related to the sea. The first ‘sea’ I’m going to talk about surprised me by being located more than 70 kilometers away from the shores of the Atlantic ocean on the bank of what for me, and in French and English translation, was ‘a river’, ‘un fleuve‘: the Casamance river that reaches from the Atlantic coast more than 320km inland. You can call it a river since it has two banks, a source, and a wide mouth between which is snakes its way through the marsh lands. Or, as Casamançais do, you can call it the sea – jakam in Baïnounk languages for instance. And sea-like this ‘river’ is up to the city of Ziguinchor: till here, it is more like a fjord, vast and filled with salty water carried there by the tides. Its meandering marigots – smaller sea arms – are called cinda in Bainounk Gujaher. Remember cin– the noun class marker derived from the word for ‘rope’ that create words for elongated, rope-like objects? But I digress.

On the Casamance river

The idea of the sea evoked by jakam could not be further removed from the one captured in the word Sahel. The Sahel is a shore, but its sea is a desert: the Sahara. Originating from Arabic sāḥil for ‘shore, coastline’, this word alludes to the sea-like qualities of the desert, whose dunes form waves that can be ridden by travellers. Geographical and sociopolitical borders are often drawn so that the areas north and south of the Sahara are seen as belonging to different spaces. But really, the inhabitants of these regions are also all dwellers of the shore of a sandy ocean that connects them.

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