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.

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

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

Getting planes into Bijogo

After having been mainly engrossed with Mande languages recently it’s time to return to the Upper Guinea Coast for a bit. Today, I’m taking you to the Bijagos archipelago off the coast of Guinea Bissau, where Bijogo languages are spoken. Bijogo languages have noun classes, which in these languages mostly take the form of prefixes. For all languages with gender or noun class systems, the way in which loanwords (a silly name, since the words are there to stay) are integrated offers insight into the various ways in which words are assigned noun classes or genders.

One option is the form of the word. Bijogo has a noun class marker ka-, which forms its plural with ŋa-. If a a borrowed item starts in k(a)-, it is reanalysed as belonging to noun class ka-, and is given a plural form in ŋa-, as you can see in these examples, which all figure words from Portuguese-based Kriol (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
karta karta ŋa-rta ‘letter’
kalsa kadisa ŋa-disa ‘trousers’
kopu kɔp ŋa-ɔp ‘glass’
guuja kuuja ŋa-uuja ‘needle’

Misfits whose initial syllables don’t neatly match an existing noun class prefix, can retain their bare forms in the singular and get the prefix – in the plural, as do these three words (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
lebri dɛbri kɔ-dɛbri ‘hare’
mango mango kɔ-mango ‘mango’
boti boti ko-boti ‘boat’

This is also an option for words that start in a vowel, such as arupudanu ‘plane’, or aju ‘garlic’, – they can also enter the ko-class in the plural and turn into kɔ-aju and ku-rupudanu. Words whose meanings fit those of an existing noun class paradigm, as the ones for humans, they get fully integrated and get a noun class for the singular and the plural (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
soldadi ɔ-soɔndane ya-soɔndane ‘soldier’
fransis ɔ-paransis ya-ɔparansis ‘French person’
fula ɔ-puda ya-puda ‘Fula person’

Sometimes, these words unwittingly give their age away. Because arupudanu (from Portuguese aeroplano)is not used anymore in present-day Kriol but has been replaced by avion (from Portuguese avião), we can conclude that the word was most likely introduced into Bijogo in the first half of the 20th century according to Segerer (2002), from whose grammar of Bubaque Bijogo this information is taken.

Here comes the full reference:

Segerer, Guillaume. 2002. La langue bijogo de Bubaques (Guinea Bissau). Louvain/Paris: Peeters

There might be West African languages in your beauty regime

Indulge in body butter? Look after your lips with a velvety lip balm? The chances are that your cosmetics contain an ingredient whose name betrays the origin of one of the oils used in them: shea butter or beurre de karité.

They are made from oil of nuts of the same plant, Vitellaria paradoxa. In English, it is called the shea trea, but guess where this designation hails from? I was reminded of its origins when watching Na baro kè’s brilliant video chat on the cold season, in which inhabitants of the city of Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso mentioned that they use body lotion, si tulu (literally shea oil, often pronounced with a sh sound, phonetic [ʃ]) in the Bambara language.

So how did shea oil or butter, si tulu, into beurre de karité? Whichever French-speaking person introduced this word to the French language took inspiration from Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal. In Wolof, the shea trea is called kaarite.

So whenever you use shea butter or beurre de karité, you’re connecting with a West African language linking the word to the area where the product is grown and harvested.

Setting free the tongues

It is International Mother Tongue Day today, and across the globe people are celebrating the languages that are important for their lives. Very often, these languages are marginalised and minoritised, deprived of prestige and recognition, and one of the purposes of Mother Tongue Day is to put them into the spotlight for at least one day.

But persistent imaginations of what a mother tongue is, carried over from the European context in which the concept was coined, through the choice of words and the language ideas behind them, actually penalise speakers of languages whose language lives don’t correspond to the expectations it creates. Most dictionaries capture these language ideologies by characterising a mother tongue as “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult” (Cambridge English Dictionary”, as a synonym of “native language” (Marriam Webster). Collins offers a different interpretation, which potentially contradicts the former one: “Your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.” (Collins Online Dictionary) Wiktionary comes up with three definitions, one of which is similar to the Collins one: “the language spoken by your ancestors”, and a third: “the language spoken by one’s mother, when it differs from that spoken by one’s father”. Under the second and third definition, an individual can grow up not speaking their mother tongue (if they don’t learn their parents’ language), while under the first and most widespread one, this is a thing of impossibility, because by virtue of being a child’s first language, it becomes the mother tongue, even if it is not the one of parents or grandparents.

UNESCO, who initiated and continues to celebrate Mother Tongue Day, does not offer easily accessible definitions, and has made a multilingual turn, celebrating linguistic diversity and encouraging “mother-tongue based multilingual education”. This widening of perspective on repertoires and their diversity is welcome.

Yet, this is still too often translated into an insistence on the singular in practice, and on the idea of a clear context in which a child grows up with one and only one language that occupies this particular role, at least in their early lives, but ideally through to adulthood. But what about situations where individuals have no, or several, mother tongues (understood both as ancestral languages and as languages in which they are primarily socialised)? These contexts are globally in the majority, and in them, an individual may grow up hearing and speaking many different languages throughout the first years of their lives: the languages spoken in the court yard, the different languages spoken by different members of the family, by mothers who marry into communities of their husbands, by fathers who joined their wives, the languages associated with religion, and the languages of secret societies. Children may identify with ancestral languages not present in their environment, so that spoken and claimed languages don’t coincide. Or they may grow up moving between different linguistic ecologies and adapt seamlessly to these contexts, which turns them into adults with enhanced linguistic capacities who go on to keep learning languages throughout their lives. Crucially, in these contexts, none of the languages in an individual’s repertoire will fulfil the exclusive role suggested by the term ‘mother tongue’. So, insisting on mother tongue in the singular, or on one language with this total importance in a person’s life, reduces the richness and complexity of multilingual life experiences and shoehorns them into a choice that does not represent the roles of languages in individuals’ repertoires.

In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why “mother tongue education” in Africa, despite great verbal support, is not really taking off – because it doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of linguistic settings and of multifaceted and fluid linguistic identities. Any language policy that requires the selection of on one and only one language in a particular region will exclude many of its inhabitants and their repertoires. So, on Mother Tongue Day, let’s set free the tongues, and strip our appraisal of the functions of languages from Eurocentric baggage so that we can truly comprehend what linguistic diversity means.

Multiple or impossible choice? multilingualism as or instead of mother tongue. The repertoires of children in two household in the village of Agnack Grand, Senegal

To read more on multilingualism and the role of multiple languages, in particular in rural African communities often presented as monolingual, read this article:

Good, Jeff; Di Carlo, Pierpaolo; Ojong, Rachel (forthcoming): Multilingualism in rural Africa. In Mark Aronoff (Ed.): Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Linguistics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If you want to be visually immersed in multilingual life in a West African village community, watch this film and check out the companion materials on its website:

Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack

“My language is unclassified. That can’t be.”

Today’s topic in class was the history and the metaphors behind the genealogical classification of languages. Comparing two family trees – one of the Niger-Congo language phylum and one of Sunjata Keita brought to the fore what underlies both these conceptualisations of these lineages, and what information is not considered relevant in them. Have a look. Do you have an idea about what is missing?

One view of Niger-Congo languages (Williamson 1989)
Sunjata’s lineage (after Niane 1960)

Both family trees trace genealogical relatedness – descent from a common ancestor – through time, the Niger-Congo tree from left to right, the Keita lineage from top to bottom (incidentally, family trees tend to show the trees uprooted and upside down, or lying down, but almost never growing from the roots, despite using the image of a tree… And both trees assume monoparental descent – languages have one ancestor, and lineage in Sunjata’s case is determined through the male line, until the very bottom of the tree, when some women come in, because of their importance for the plot development of the Sunjata Epos.

In class, a vivid discussion ensued: on the word lists and features used to establish the trees, on selections of words and features resulting in conflicting trees, and, crucially, on the metaphor underlying genealogical classification itself, on how it is intended to exclude contact-induced language change and on the historical background in which it was created, in a sociopolitical context focusing on racial and linguistic purity. We evoked the problems that keep appearing for Niger-Congo – the place of Mande languages, the integrity of Atlantic languages, the name for the Gur language family, the belonging of Dogon – and we discussed how the view that language is passed akin to asexual reproduction in biology conflicts with the way in which children learn languages, focussing on West African language socialisation in large families which in their majority unite speakers of several languages, creating a multilingual input from the outset. I stop here, because each of these topics deserves and hopefully will get its separate blog post.

But this is what I will end tonight’s story with: One course participant is Dogon, and he reports, very upset, that in the most recent classifications, the Dogon cluster of languages is seen as unclassified – there is not enough evidence to give it a place in any established language family or stock. But, he says, we have relationships – we belong into the Mande world! It pains me how a model developed in the nationalist and racist context of the late 19th century can continue to cause that much harm by denying people’s relationships to spheres with which they feel much social and also linguistic belonging – just not the one of the kind measured by the comparative method. But lets’s remind ourselves that this method calculates relatedness by computing the lexical similarity of 100 to 400 words from the most basic vocabulary only, sometimes complemented by features selected to support particular classifications, explicitly and by design discarding the wealth of culturally meaningful layered tapestries that emerge when we look at other areas of language. Perhaps we want to keep using the family tree metaphor. But we need to be clear about one thing: it tells a very limited story, leaving out some of the main protagonists, and we need to give more room to other stories.