Travelling taboos

One of the nicest side effects of having this blog is that it creates a dialogue with readers, who point out things that are beyond the scope of my expertise and regional interest (and also, capacity, given the sheer number and exuberant diversity of African languages!). When I wrote my first post on taboo words, focusing on a number of West African languages, which I later followed up with this post on euphemisms in Songhay, I got a very helpful comment. My colleague Stefano Manfredi shared an article on taboo words in Kinubi with me. This Arabic-based creole close to Juba Arabic is spoken by the descendants of East African soldiers originating from Southern Sudan and recruited by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Today, most Nubi speakers or Nubis (NOT Nubians) live in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and their language has many affinities with English, Arabic and Swahili. It is therefore not surprising that Xavier Luffin turns first and foremost to the latter two languages as possible sources for widespread taboos, including some that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

Debila, the word for ‘snake’ is only used at daytime, never during the night, when it has to be paraphrased with labil-lata – literally ‘rope on the soil. The word for ‘needle’ – libra – can also not be uttered in the dark. And never ask for mile ‘salt’ at night, demand sukar-mula ‘meal’s sugar’ instead! Luffin explores similar taboos in Chadic Arabic, and in other languages of the area, such as Fadija Nubian, where not only similar interdictions are attested, but where they are also given similar motivations – saying the name of a snake at night is seen as inviting it into the house. He also mentions similar beliefs in Swahili, something for another instalment in this series.

But as the previous posts on West African languages have shown, these taboos are shared across much larger geographical areas, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and across the Sahara. Their distribution and local flavours would make a great topic for an in-depth study!

To read more on taboos in Kinubi, consult this article:

Luffin, Xavier. 2002. Language taboos in Kinubi: a comparison with Sudanese and Swahili cultures. Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto italiano perl’Africa e l’Oriente, Anno 57, No. 3 (Settembre 2002), pp. 356-367

Mashing it up – Nash Nouchi

I admit this is a bad pun. But I wanted to talk about Nouchi, a popular register of Côte d’Ivoire, and my very knowledgeable friend Anne Schumann pointed me to Nash, a musician who has her own YouTube channel, Nash Nouchi. Here you can see Nash herself explaining the origins and functions of this register that mashes up and remixes the repertoires of young people in this West African country.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the taming of French, the colonial language, has a long tradition. This appropriation is evidenced in the long-established register français populaire d’Abidjan, which has turned into the Ivorian way of speaking French. Nouchi is not categorically distinct from français populaire, nor from metropolitan French. It is part of a constantly shifting linguistic continuum which speakers navigate skilfully. Nash’s diverse language use illustrates that Nouchi, counter some popular theories on the internet, is not, or not only, a register born out of communicative needs of youngsters without formal education and concomitant lack of mastery of French. Rather than being a deficit, it’s an outlet for creativity and openness, a badge of identity. Some of the Ivorian innovations associated with Nouchi are known all over the world, for instance gaou ‘country bumpkin’, which has been eternalised in Magic System’s Premier Gaou.

Gaou and other Ivorian specialities

Many Ivorians, like Nash, daily navigate social spaces that have room for different flavours of French, some that are closer to a monolingual boxed-in code, and some that are more inclined to let their multilingualism shine through. It is not surprising that Nouchi has become associated with popular culture, in particular with rap and hip hop. Here comes Nash again, with the song Fo pas me garer. Not only the song lyrics, but also the spelling of the title and words appearing in the video show how Nouchi crosses language boundaries: Fo pas me garer corresponds to “faut pas me garer” – ‘don’t park me’, in French. Aniwoula – “a ni wula” in standard Jula/Bambara orthography means ‘good morning’. The standard spelling of French is subverted by spelling it partly in spelling norms for national languages; but the national language Jula is spelled in French orthography – playful transgression.

I’m sharing a link to an article on Nouchi that gives you much more information on its origins, linguistic make up and genres. But beware: by the time you’ve downloaded and read it, Nouchi will have already moved on! In fact, it has been mashed up over and over again since the ink of the paper dried…

Béatrice Akissi Boutin, Jérémie Kouadio N’Guessan. Le nouchi c’est notre créole en quelque sorte, qui est parlé par presque toute la Côte d’Ivoire. Peter Blumenthal. Dynamique des français africains : entre le culturel et le linguistique, Peter Lang, 2015.

Table manners in Segou

During my recent stay in Bamako, I had occasion to revive some of my rusty Bambara. Many exchanges happened at lunch time, and now, back in London, I’m rereading a classic article to strengthen my practice. In “De l’alimentation au Mali”, Gérard Dumestre lays out the ceremonial sequence of eating and the Bambara formulaic expressions that go with them. The idealised template presented in the following will be familiar to inhabitants and visitors of many places in West Africa – a shared cultural script that makes the sharing of food with guests, and even strangers, a cornerstone of West African conviviality.

A table setting starts with the arrival of the meal, introduced by dúmuni fílɛ ‘here is the food’ or dúmuni nàna ‘the food has arrived’. The guests sit down, on a mat or around a table, and wash their hands in a container with water that circulates. It falls to the head of family or a senior member of the group to pour the gravy (ná, designating both a liquid ‘sauce’ and its contents in term of meat, fish, and vegetables) over the rice or fonio and to distribute morsels of meat or fish so that every guest finds their portion on their section of the plate.

With the words bìsìmilayi ‘in God’s name’, the meal is opened. Once a person has finished eating, they withdraw from the place of eating, thanking the household with the words ábarika ‘thank you’, the response to which is ábarika ala yé ‘thanks to God’.

Wait, you might think. What about the women behind the curtains who have prepared the food? Whether they will eat together with men or the entire family is a matter of regional and personal conventions. But whatever the case, it is possible to thank the always female cook with the words I ni gwá ‘You and the kitchen!’ To this, the answer will be Kà à súmaya ì kɔ̀nɔ ‘ May it [the food] cool inside you.’

Food is generously shared in many West African cultures, but often, it is not plentiful. What is shared communally , the sùman, ‘staple, everyday food’, is therefore often complemented by nègèlafɛnw ‘snacks’ – literally, ‘things of desire’. Those are eaten mainly out of the house, far from the realm of responsible sharing. The akara or syɔ̀furufuru I wrote about some time ago are a classic nègèlafɛn. And now I have to stop, I’m suddenly feeling very hungry…

Read more on the social aspects of eating in Mali here:

Dumestre, Gérard. 1996. De l’alimentation au Mali. Cahiers d’Études africanies, 144, XXXVI-4, 689-702

Phone swap? – Language swap!

It’s women’s day, and I’m not in the mood for work. So how to write a blog post that celebrates African women and is fun, to put all of us in a more celebratory mood? As ever so often, two separate strands of thought suddenly collided with a spark and gave me the idea for this post. Since writing on euphemism in Songhay I’ve been thinking about the language(s) used in African films, because the article I discuss in that post is based on the analysis of a film in standard Songhay. I had also just seen the trailer for Yao, a film featuring Oumary Sy and Fatoumata Diawara, on the visit of a migrant to Senegal. I was intrigued that the trailer was entirely in rather metropolitan French, despite being located in northern Senegal where Wolof, Pular, and Senegalese French are spoken and often mixed.

For today, I also wanted to feature a female African researcher on the blog, since women are still very underrepresented in African studies and African linguistics, and black women even more so. And suddenly, I had my topic. the US-based literature scholar Moradewun Adejunmobi is a black woman whose work I admire. And she also happens to write extensively on multilingualism, popular culture and African film, in particular Nollywood movies.

Her work indeed answered many of my questions. I learned that most Nollywood movies are monolingual, either featuring English or one of Nigeria’s other largest languages, creating “a fictional universe where one language suffices for communication, and code-switching is rare or completely absent” (Adejunmobi 2018: 188). Such monolingual films are shot in Nigeria’s big three, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, but also in Edo, Efik and some other languages with larger speaker bases.

Films that feature several Nigerian languages, aiming at representing their characters’ complex and multilingual sociocultural realities, are rare, but Phone Swap is one of them. Have a look at the trailer and multilingualism will be in your ear, though not in your eye, as the trailer’s subtitles only translate languages other than English without identifying the languages they can’t understand for an audience not sharing the same multilingual repertoire.

Read more on the different strategies Nollywood movies adopt through choice of language(s) in sound and subtitles, what motivates them, and how different forms of addressivity – multilingual and monolingual address – in either or both modalities position these films on national and global markets here:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun. 2018. “Translation and the Multilingual Film Text: Defining a Public.” In Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture. Ed. Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz. London: Routledge, 188-205

Expressing endearment and avoidance in Hausa

Pet names or nicknames, special terms of endearment that convey intimacy and teasing, are common to all languages. In Hausa, one of Africa’s largest languages, these names take particularly intricate patterns, since they are built by copying part of a person’s name. There are several different ways of doing this, as you can see here:

From Newman & Ahmad (1992: 160)

All Hausa proper names can undergo this treatment, and sometimes, names can have a double hypocoristic ending, so you can find, e.g., Àli, Al̀eele and Alììliyà. There are rules on how these terms are used, and mostly they prescribe that they are used by older people to address younger people or among people of the same age.

A seeming exception are the hypocoristic terms for parents, Bàabalè (from Bàaba ‘father’) and Ìyàale (from Iyà ‘mother’), but Newman & Ahmad tell us that these are in fact avoidance terms. Since the names of parents, in-laws and other senior relatives cannot be uttered, a child bearing for instance the first name of their father cannot be addressed with this name but might be called Bàaba, ‘father ‘, instead – so calling this child
Bàabalè should not be mistaken for an expression of particular fondness toward’s once father, who would not be addressed in this way at all.

Read more oh hypocoristic names in Hausa in this article:

Newman, Paul and Mustapha Ahmad. 1992. Hypocoristic Names in Hausa Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 34, No. 1/4 (Spring – Winter, 1992), pp. 159-172

From the heart of Mali to the shores of the Atlantic

A while ago I posted on Sigismund Koelle whose Polyglotta Africana remains the earliest comprehensive word list of African languages. In mid-19th century Freetown, he had occasion to interview many liberated slaves, traders and brokers who flocked to this cosmopolitan place. I have decided to dedicate blog posts to his “informants”, as he called the people from whom he gathered linguistic information, so once in a while I will put not the collector, but the source of information, in the spotlight.

Differently to many of his contemporaries, Koelle took care to provide biographical information on his interlocutors, though it is not always complete, and he also recorded names of places and languages without superimposing his own perspective on theirs. The vignettes on informants thus offer rare insight into how they themselves described their provenance and labelled their languages and groups.

In today’s post, I present Mahammadu (no family name provided), a trader from Kaba. Kaba, or Kangaba, as it is called today, is located in present-day Mali. It is the legendary first capital of the Mali Empire, where members of the Keita lineage claiming descent from Sunjata, its first emperor, built a sanctuary whose construction is ceremonially restaged every seven years. Here is what Koelle has to say about Mahammadu and his language:

From Koelle (1854: 2)

It is interesting that Koelle observes the relationship between places and languages and groups – they are often associated to specific places. What he doesn’t capture is that nga in all likelihood is not a “patronymic termination” but corresponds to the word [kã], < kan>, ‘voice, language’ and used in present-day Bambara and other related languages to create language names. In Mahammadu’s testimony, kan is probably added to Manden, giving rise to Mandenkan ‘the Manden language’ or’ the language of Manden’, today commonly known as Maninka (malinké in French).

And yes, I know. Nobody heeded Koelle’s complaints about the erroneous i. He’d be outraged. It is firmly there in gloss Onyema such as Mandinka, Maninka and Manding, the most widely used names for the local variety of Kaba and the language cluster of which it is seen to be a part of.

The Bamum script in London

Africa hosts a wealth of scripts and writing traditions. I have mentioned some of them in earlier posts, for instance the Bamum script from Foumban in Cameroon, the N’ko alphabet from Guinea, Ajami writing, and the Vai script from Liberia. Before introducing you to other African writing practices, I have to share the news with you that an eminent researcher on writing in Africa, Konrad Tuchscherer, is going to present his research in London.

On June 28, he’ll give a talk, entitled “Script in West Africa” at the British Library. A fitting location to remind the British public that far from being the oral continent that needs to be converted to writing by the activities of outsiders, is a treasure trove of scripts, innovated by daring inventors or having roots reaching back through millenia.

The British Library also hosts the Endangered Archives Programme, which provides funding for archival activities that help protect, preserve and share many of the world’s vulnerable archives, for instance the palace archives of the Sultan of Foumban. There is a yearly call for applications for funding. The bad news: this year’s call is closed. The good news: the programme just got extended, so you can apply next year. There’s much more precious evidence of African writing through the centuries to bring to light!