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.