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.

5 thoughts on “Ö goes to Guinea

  1. colemandonaldson says:

    Huh! Had assumed it was a Guinean thing he picked up. But it coming from a Latin Ajami tradition is even more interesting 🙂

    I believe the umlaut shows up in some of Delafosse’s works and other colonial era documents so it might actually have an even more interesting trajectory behind it! If I think of it I’ll have a look back at some of Cécile Van Den Avenne’s work which might show a bit of it too. She has some interesting bits about how tone was clearly recognized as contrastive and important by Moussa Travélé but denied by his superior and mentor, Delafosse; similar a way perhaps to this orthographic convention!

    Liked by 1 person

    • soascrossroads says:

      If I remember correctly, Delafosse doesn’t use ö but has for the equivalent of French , i.e. [y, Y]. Which is really strange, since the closed and near-closed front rounded vowels don’t exist in Mande languages!


  2. donosborn says:

    I believe that the Sékou Touré era orthography for Maninkakan in Guinea used the ö for the open-o (replaced in the orthography adopted in 1989 with the ɔ common in the official orthographies of various other West African languages). Not sure how that particular decision was arrived at, but Guinea at the time chose a “typewriter-ready” orthography for its national languages, at variance with the system that was adopted in Bamako 1966 (and other regional meetings of that period on harmonization of orthographies).

    Note also the ë in written Wolof (also “official,” I believe).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. soascrossroads says:

    Yes, this is the history of the ö in Guinea (and also in Côte d’Ivoire I believe). What I found intriguing about Ansoumana Keita’s writing practices is that he was never systematically exposed to the official alphabet of Guinean languages that had this and other conventions diverging from French-based orthography, and that apart from the ö he doesn’t use any graphemes from from this and other conventions – for instance, he doesn’t distinguish vowel height for [o] and [ɔ] through and . It’s only the that stuck.


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