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.

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