The contact of the lambs: From Latin pascha to Wolof tabaski

Happy Easter, dear readers! Whether you observe this Christian holiday or not, you may be interested in the regional entanglements and semantic changes of the Latin word pascha ‘Easter” as it travelled through the Mediterranean and beyond. With <ch> pronounced as [k] in Latin, the word bears resemblance to many words designating a major religious celebration, often particularly meaning ɛīd al-kabīr in a number of Berber languages. These languages, spread across the Maghrib and a number of sub-Saharan African countries, have forms such as tafaska (Central Moroccan Berber), tfaska (Ouargla and Djerba) or tăfaske (Tuareg).

In his book on Berber in contact, Maarten Kossmann suggests that the semantic bridge allowing the Judeo-Christian word for Easter to become used for the Islamic celebration of ɛīd al-kabīr is the central role of slaughtering sheep in both ceremonies.

Sheep on Goree

A sheep wandering in the streets of Gorée. Will it be eaten at Easter or Tabaski?

Via Berber languages, the word may have arrived in West African languages spoken further south and exposed to Islam and Christianity much later than their northern neighbours. And this may explain why ɛīd al-kabīr is known as tabaski in Wolof and many other languages of the region – an uncanny linking of two major religious holidays that at first sight do not appear to have much in common through historical connections reaching far into these languages’ past.


Read more on the contact history of Berber in this chapter:

Kossmann, Maarten (2013): Berber in Contact. The Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Periods. In Maarten Kossmann (Ed.): The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber: Brill, pp. 51–85.


Writing from the UK, where questions of exiting loom large, I can’t help being affected by the uncertainties of this country about its trajectory. For many, it’s clear what they want to move away from, but where they’re going seems completely in the dark. It’s not the English language that is at fault here, as English allows verbs of leaving to occur with source-denoting prepositions (exit from Brexit), path-denoting ones (exit through the gift shop), but also with prepositional phrases indicating a goal of motion (exit to nowhere).

In the Mande language Jalonke of Guinea, such generous conflation of meanings does not happen. Verbs of directed movement such as ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ are limited to the expression of only one particular direction. For ‘enter’, soo, this is motion towards the goal; and for ‘exit’, keli, it is movement away from a source. This is because in Jalonke, unlike in English, adpositions only express a particular location in space, and not the direction of movement. To express that component of meaning is left to the verb itself.

Have a look at these two sentences. Both feature the postpostion kwi ‘in’, but once with soo ‘enter’ to yield ‘enter into’, and once with keli ‘exit’ to give rise to ‘leave from within’:

Lüpke (2005: 115)

Still not convinced? Have a look at these two sentences. The first one doesn’t have a verb at all, only an object that is located (a jar) and its location. In this case, a static location is expressed. The second one has the compound verb sabaana soo ‘play’ (not to be confounded with soo by itself – its literal meaning is ‘enter the play’). There’s no movement in the verb, so again, location, rather than movement, is expressed.

Lüpke (2005: 115)

But in Jalonke, it is very uncommon to just specify where one leaves from – it is much more widespread to find sequences such as ‘we left there, and then we went here’, nxo keli na, nxo faa ji. Good linguistic forward planning, isn’t it?

Read more on Jalonke here:

Lüpke, Friederike.2005. A grammar of Jalonke argument structure. Nijmegen: MPI Series in Psycholinguistics 30