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

We know the missionaries, but who did they talk to?

I bet many of you don’t know Sigismund Koelle. But I also bet that among those of you who know this German missionary of the Church Missionary Society, hardly anyone will know Sam Cole of Freetown. Of course you wouldn’t – the Reverend Koelle was the researcher, and his interlocutor was the informant. So far, so unsurprising.

Sigismund Koelle was a German missionary who spent much time in Sierra Leone from 1845 onwards, at a time when the Fourah Bay College became a hotbed for linguistic research and and turned into a catalytic environment for identity transformations of the African diaspora scholars studying and teaching there – among them Ajayi Crowther, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. In 1854, Koelle published a book entitled Polyglotta Africana, or a comparative vocabulary of nearly three hundred words and phrases, in more than one hundred distinct African languages. The Polyglotta Africana is one of the most comprehensive early sources available for words from a broad range of African languages, all collected in Freetown, which was a place in which many liberated slaves found themselves at the time. What sets Koelle’s work apart from many word lists published by Europeans is the care he took in identifying his sources. They are acknowledged with their names and a short biography, and Koelle also includes their perspectives, rather than just reporting his view on their repertoires and how the languages they reported should be named. Have a look at this statement, describing a group of languages commonly labelled Aku or Yoruba at the time:

Koelle on the problematic designations “Aku” and “Yoruba” (Koelle 1854: 5)

Rather than superimposing an outsider’s perspective on the classification of words offered by his interlocutors, Koelle tolerates variation, and deviation from the label that will become, under the influence of Yoruba diaspora nationalists like Crowther, the glossonym that will ultimately take precedence over more localised identities expressed in local language names and create a new ethnolinguistic identity through the activities of diaspora nationalists. Koelle lists 14 different ways of speaking, only one of them called Yoruba, and describes where the individuals who offered information on them came from, what their trajectories were, and how they themselves named the registers they reported. And here is the information given by Sam Cole:

Koelle’s biographical information on Sam Cole (Koelle 1854: 5)

I will have more to say on Koelle’s African collaborators, and how later linguists interpreted the information they offere. Stay tuned!

From the Upper Guinea Coast to Louisiana: Mama Jombo

For researchers looking at transatlantic entanglements, and for traces that link slaves in the Americas to their places of origin, names – for rituals, objects, foods – provide important clues. I have described in earlier posts how the presence of Upper Guineans in Peru and Northeastern Brazil is tangible in family names and names for particular foods. Today, a spirit is in focus: Mama Jombo. In her beautiful account of spirit shrines, Eve Crowley identifies the shrine dedicated to Mama Jombo as one of the most powerful shrines in the area, with a vast zone in which it is revered:

The regions in which Mama Jombo was influential in the 1970s and 1980s (Crowley 1990: 511)

Mama Jombo originates from Kaboi [Caboi] in present-day Guinea Bissau, and it is around Kaboi, an area associated with the language Guboi [Cobiana/Kobiana in Portuguese and many linguistic sources] that it has the most influence, with annual rituals being celebrated to seek its protection, and where it is consulted for daily affairs through oracles and mediums at its shrines.

Mama Jombo’s powers reach far back into the past – the spirit is mentioned in Mungo Park’s accounts of his travels in West Africa and in many other travelogues (and with some likelihood carried over into English in its present meaning of gibberish from these sources, since these descriptions Othered West African religious customs, turning them into incomprehensible, alien, practices – mumbo jumbo). But Mama Jombo also travelled into the opposite direction in space: carnival processions held by African Americans in the US state of Louisiana, feature a masked dance with a mask called Mama Jombo. Louisiana is linked, by name and through slave trade, to French possessions on both sides of the Atlantic, including former trading posts such as Saint Louis in present-day Senegal. Ibrahima Seck, the director of the Whitney Plantation slavery museum in Louisiana, gives a captivating descripton of the contemporary Louisian Mama Jombo in this film – start watching at 13:00:

Mama Jombo’s incarnation and social role has changed through displacement in space and time, but the name bears witness to its enduring importance both at is origin and destination points. In Guinea Bissau Mama Jombo is so popular, it even is the name of a band: Super Mama Djombo! This band, formed in the 1960s, was instrumental in the fight for Guinea Bissau’s independence from Portugal, and its name alludes to the fact that many of the independence fighters put themselves under the protection of Mama Jombo. Watch and listen them play here:

You can read about the importance of spirit shrines for social and political life in Guinea Bissau in Eve Crowley’s PhD thesis:

Crowley, Eve Lakshmi. 1990. Contracts with the spirits: religion, asylum, and ethnic identity in the Cacheu region of Guinea-Bissau. Yale University: PhD thesis

The moving red eye

Emotions are not universal. They are expressed in cultural scripts reflected in language, sometimes over wide areas, but drawing on very diverse sources. The metaphors used to describe feelings often can focus on particular body parts as the locus of an emotion. In the Kwa language Ewe of Ghana, some emotional expression – those roughly corresponding to jealousy, envy and covetousness – are built on the image of a red/and or moving eye. Here some examples:

Examples for emotions expressed with ‘eye’ in Ewe (Ameka 2002: 28)

What is special about these expressions is that they feature a specialised and conventionalised use of the term ‘eye’. Ameka distinguishes a psychological and a physical use of eyes. Only the former features in the expression of emotions. It is recognisably different from the physical, body part, eye, which can occur in the plural – after all, we tend to have two eyes. The expressions of negative feelings in the example above can never be used in the plural. There are more differences between ‘ordinary’ and ’emotional’ uses of the word ‘eye’ in Ewe. Read Felix Ameka’s article to which I link below.

But I must go away now and research the origins and exact meaning of the Bambara phrase n sinamuso nyɛ fin ‘ the black eye of my co-wife’. I only know it from the textile design that is named after is, for instance for a wax like the one below. If I remember correctly, the black eye stands for the co-wife’s anger, provoked by her rival wearing such a beautiful wax. When wearing a wrapper bearing the design, the emotion is not evoked through language, but delicately and indirectly through talking fabrics. After all, communicating through speech only would be so limiting!

Wax of the type “N sinamuso nyɛ fin

Here the link to Felix Ameka’s article:

Ameka, Felix K. 2002. Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: On ‘jealousy’ and related emotions in Ewe. Pragmatics and Cognition 10(1):

Do you drink cigarettes?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have seen many examples already of how languages can structure meaning in different ways. The fields of eating and drinking are no exception.

In Many Mande languges, for example, there is no special verb for smoking, one drinks cigarettes, as in Bambara:

N tɛ sigareti min.
‘I don’t smoke (literally: drink) cigarettes.’

Speakers of Baïnounk languages distinguish between eating chewy food and soft food stuffs, a pattern attested in many languages in the region. Consider these two examples:

Maŋkëbi kahar.
‘I’ve eaten (the) meat.’

Mansoosi bumango.
‘I have eaten the/a mango.’

Hold on, some of you might say. I can also say in English that I have chewed the meat and slurped the soup. The difference to a language like Gujaher, from which these examples come, is that it wouldn’t be acceptable at all to use another verb for describing these actions. They are the only and unmarked way for eating meat-type and fruit-type foods.

There is also a verb that looks close to English ‘eat’, and it seems to denote a fairly generic activity of eating. For one, it is used in generic contexts:

Dokulo guyahla!
‘Come eat!’

And its uses comprise the main meals of the day, the eating of bulut ‘circular heated stuff`.

Mayahi bulut.
‘I’ve eaten the meal.’

But the verb bujah is perhaps less general than these examples suggest at first sight. When people are invited to eat a meal, this meal, bulut, is almost always the main staple of a Casamance diet: rice. And to be described by the the verb bujah the event of eating must be at an acceptable stage between bukëb and busoos on the hardness spectrum. If it is undercooked, bukëb is used. So, if you want to talk about food in West Africa, watch what you’re eating!

Gender confusions in Somali

Warning: Somali is not a West African language. Still, motivated by various recent conversations and encounters, I’m venturing out of my comfort zone and look at an intriguing phenomenon in an Afroasiatic language of the Cushitic branch spoken in the Horn of Africa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Somali, and many other Cushitic languages with it, are kind of famous among linguists for having gender polarity – a kind of cross-dressing for nouns, where a noun that is feminine in the singular becomes masculine in the plural, and a masculine singular noun turns into a drag queen in the plural. This is how the gender switch supposedly works, based on the form the definite article takes in the two numbers:

Fom Nilsson (2016: 452)

This perspective on Somali nouns has been challenged recently. First of all, other agreeing words don’t follow the presumed polarity pattern. Secondly, the seemingly reversed patterns in the different number forms of nouns themselves can be explained on other grounds: feminine nouns take the article /k/ in the plural, and it gets realised as [h] between vowels; masculine nouns with monosyllabic stems also take /k/ in the plural; and masculine nouns with stems with two syllables or more take the definite article /t/ in their plural forms, realised as [d] between vowels (I simplify somewhat). Here’s another table that gives you an overview of the story:

From Nilsson (2016: 456)

Of course, the story of Somali nouns is more complex than this. If you want the full picture, with plenty of references to previous research on the matter, read this article:

Morgan Nilsson. 2016. Somali gender polarity revisited. In Doris L. Payne, Sara Pacchiarotti & Mokaya Bosire (eds.), Diversity in African languages, 451–466. Berlin: Language Science Press.

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.