“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.

What is ‘African’ African linguistics? Or what could it be(come)?

I’m excited this week, because I’m teaching African linguistics to Malian students at the Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Bamako. There is no degree programme in Malian or African languages and linguistics here, and therefore my colleague Ibrahima Cissé had the ingenious idea to invite colleagues from his network to come and teach as part of the English Master, in English. My colleague Klaudia Dombrowsky-Hahn, who teaches at Frankfurt and Bayreuth, is also here, and we follow each other’s classes.

African linguistics started out as a colonial discipline, when colonial administrators and missionaries started being interests in the languages of the the interior of the continent that they had conquered in the second half of the 19th century. As a discipline that is concerned with sub-Saharan Africa – an entity that only becomes meaningful through European eyes, adopting problematic racial and geographic boundaries – it still is very much inscribed into a paradigm dating back to colonial times, which coincided with particular racial prejudices, and also with the heyday of romantic ethnonationalism in Europe. The legacies of this lens, which led them to discover mini-peoples (aka ‘tribes’ or ethnic groups), united by a language and a territory, in societies governed by very different principles of cohabitation, loom large. So my course started by discussing visions of language inherent in the work of colonial actors and investigating alternative visions of Malian linguists. Surprisingly to many, lead-language writing transferring French writing norms to Malian languages was started by a Malian linguist, Moussa Travelé, and was frowned upon by French linguists, who according to their purist language logics wanted to keep languages separate and also did not want to ‘corrupt’ African languages or French by allowing transferences and similarities in writing – so the official alphabets of many African languages are closer to colonial language ideas than the French-based writing practices many Malians use until today. An example of the latter follows.

Moussa Travelé’s Bambara dictonary, using French lead-language writing

The writing conventions developed by the colonial administrator and linguist Maurice Delafosse, which aimed at writing Bambara different from French, can be seen here:

Content pages from Delafosse’s (1901) Bambara course book

The ensuing debate showed how important it is to lay bare these different visions and their motivations, which co-exist in different sociolinguistic spaces and in people’s imaginations. The debate will continue tomorrow!

To read more about the colonial history of linguistics in (French) West Africa, read these books:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun (2004): Vernacular palaver. Imaginations of the local and non-native languages in West Africa. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

van den Avenne, Cécile (2017): De la bouche même des indigènes. Échanges linguistiques en Afrique coloniale. Paris: Éditions Vendémiaire.

Transatlantic beans

Another taster typed on my phone and posted while the internet gods are in a good mood. True to its name it brings you a snack straight from the streets of Bamako… or Lagos… or Accra… or even Salvador de Bahia:

Akara: the snack that conquered the Atlantic world

These little morsels made from black-eyed beans have travelled all over West Africa and beyond, to Brazil, where they are especially well known in Bahia.

And it’s not just the food that has traveled. Its name as well has come along. Said to originate in Yoruba, where the bean fritters are called àkàrá, they are called by the name akara in Ghana, Togo, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia… and as acarajé in Brazil.

So feasting on this snack in land-locked Bamako, hundreds of kilometres from the Atlantic, connects me with food stalls across the Atlantic world.

From the Upper Guinea Coast to Louisiana: Mama Jombo

For researchers looking at transatlantic entanglements, and for traces that link slaves in the Americas to their places of origin, names – for rituals, objects, foods – provide important clues. I have described in earlier posts how the presence of Upper Guineans in Peru and Northeastern Brazil is tangible in family names and names for particular foods. Today, a spirit is in focus: Mama Jombo. In her beautiful account of spirit shrines, Eve Crowley identifies the shrine dedicated to Mama Jombo as one of the most powerful shrines in the area, with a vast zone in which it is revered:

The regions in which Mama Jombo was influential in the 1970s and 1980s (Crowley 1990: 511)

Mama Jombo originates from Kaboi [Caboi] in present-day Guinea Bissau, and it is around Kaboi, an area associated with the language Guboi [Cobiana/Kobiana in Portuguese and many linguistic sources] that it has the most influence, with annual rituals being celebrated to seek its protection, and where it is consulted for daily affairs through oracles and mediums at its shrines.

Mama Jombo’s powers reach far back into the past – the spirit is mentioned in Mungo Park’s accounts of his travels in West Africa and in many other travelogues (and with some likelihood carried over into English in its present meaning of gibberish from these sources, since these descriptions Othered West African religious customs, turning them into incomprehensible, alien, practices – mumbo jumbo). But Mama Jombo also travelled into the opposite direction in space: carnival processions held by African Americans in the US state of Louisiana, feature a masked dance with a mask called Mama Jombo. Louisiana is linked, by name and through slave trade, to French possessions on both sides of the Atlantic, including former trading posts such as Saint Louis in present-day Senegal. Ibrahima Seck, the director of the Whitney Plantation slavery museum in Louisiana, gives a captivating descripton of the contemporary Louisian Mama Jombo in this film – start watching at 13:00: https://youtu.be/BMGeFuwr4lw

Mama Jombo’s incarnation and social role has changed through displacement in space and time, but the name bears witness to its enduring importance both at is origin and destination points. In Guinea Bissau Mama Jombo is so popular, it even is the name of a band: Super Mama Djombo! This band, formed in the 1960s, was instrumental in the fight for Guinea Bissau’s independence from Portugal, and its name alludes to the fact that many of the independence fighters put themselves under the protection of Mama Jombo. Watch and listen them play here: https://youtu.be/J5EdS92J4Ec

You can read about the importance of spirit shrines for social and political life in Guinea Bissau in Eve Crowley’s PhD thesis:

Crowley, Eve Lakshmi. 1990. Contracts with the spirits: religion, asylum, and ethnic identity in the Cacheu region of Guinea-Bissau. Yale University: PhD thesis

(No) strings attached

The observation that many noun class systems – characterised by nominal inflections in which all nouns in a language are formally marked by so-called noun classes or gender – have plants and their classification at their core goes back to Brent Berlin. True to this finding, many Atlantic languages have genders (paired noun classes for singular and one or several plurals) for trees, fruit, seeds and smaller plant-based items. You can find some examples in this post. These noun classes can be extended to items that are similar to botanical items in various respects: they can have a longest vertical axis just like trees, be spherical or have a round diameter like many fruit, or occur in an extended assemblage or a mass just like creepers or beans. Many Baïnounk languages, spoken in and around the Casamance region of Senegal, have an additional gender for string-like objects. Have a look at these nouns that are among those that enter the ‘string’ gender in Baïnounk Gujaher:

Singular form Plural form Gloss
cin-niba ñan-niba ‘shrub of the species Dombeya quinqueseta (Delile) Exell’
ciŋ-ŋaarara ñaŋ-ŋaarara ‘vine of the Smilax anceps Willd.’
cil-lug ñal-lug ‘marrow plant’
ciŋ-kal ñaŋ-kal ‘tail’
cin-díít ñan-díít ‘intestine’
cin-tííb ñan-tííb ‘trace’
cil-líít ñal-líít ‘ribbon’

What is remarkable is the origin of the class marker cin-. It is transparently related to the word denoting ‘bark’, ‘rope’ and ‘string’ – cin-cind. So the root cind occurs with a noun class marker that is probably derived from it to classify rope as a string-like item. The link to the botanical domain is still very salient, as ropes and strings are made from the bark of trees and from the stalks of vines and creepers.

A climbing belt made from plant fiber and string

But what is even neater is the metaphorical extension of the prefix cin– into other domains. It is used to create the noun ‘family name’, cir-ram, literally cin-greet. Greeting is a reciprocal activity that connects two people, and verbal nouns and infinitives linking participants via social activities are created using cin-, in addition to being marked with the reciprocal suffix –ai.

Gujaher infinitive Gloss
cinsukai ‘accompany each other’
cinfeyai ‘hate each other’
cinnannai ‘exchange’ (lit.: cin-give-reciprocal)
cinramai ‘greet each other’
cinyikai ‘have problems with each other’
cimbicai ‘divorce each other’
cimbutai ‘share with each other’
cimmaŋai ‘love each other’

I can hear some of you thinking aloud: “Why is ‘to marry’ not in the list when ‘love’ and ‘divorce’ are? It’s perhaps the most prototypical reciprocal activity!” Well, not in Gujaher (and in fact in many West African languages. While the verbs with cin– above denote activities that are thought about as involving a relationship or an exchange between two equally agentive participants, whose roles can be reversed, ‘marry’ is not construed in this way. The infinitive for ‘marry’ is bujax in Gujaher, taking a different noun class marker to signal the infinitive. The verb can only have men as agents – they are seen as taking women in marriage. Women can only be taken in marriage, so no reciprocity here. They are equal in love, hate and divorce though!

Sequoyah’s ghost at Grand Cape Mount, Liberia

Many of you may be familiar with Sequoyah, alias George Guess or Gist, a North American Cherokee who invented the Cherokee script in 1821. This script is a syllabary – it has a character for each syllable of the Cherokee language. But why would I write about a North American writing system from Georgia in a blog on African languages?

In 1832 or 1833, Momolu Duala Bukare, an inhabitant of Liberia, a country on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, designed a writing system for the Vai language. His script was also a syllabary, and in 1834, the Missionary Herald, the organ of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which had also presented the Cherokee syllabary to its readers, wrote: “The occasion and manner of its being invented, as well as the characteristics of this method of writing, are nearly the same as those of the “Cherokee Alphabet” “

An illustration of the Cherokee syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 432)

What ensued was a longstanding quest to uncover the connections between these two so similar scripts created in such a short timespan in very different, though connected, corners of the world. Most scripts don’t arise out of nowhere but are inspired by existing writing, so one explanation was that both inventors had been prompted by similar written stimuli. But soon after the creation of the Vai syllabary, it emerged that it might be more directly related to the Cherokee script than that. Initial suspicions were that American missionaries who had worked among the Cherokee had brought knowledge of the Cherokee syllabary with them, and that this had spurred Momolu Duala Bukare to come up with his invention. Much later, research revealed that a Cherokee man, Austin Curtis, was living at Cape Mount, in Vai country, in 1829. Was he involved in the creation of the Vai script?


An illustration of the Vai syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 440)

We won’t know for sure what inspired Bukare: abstract ideas and possibilities of writing, leading him to adopt a particular type of writing system – a syllabary – or direct exposure to a particular script. Perhaps the most amazing fact emerging from this mystery is the global connectedness of its protagonists, often imagined as belonging to ‘tribal’ and ‘remote’ groups. Read more on this fascinating story (and on yet more international entanglements) in this article:

Tuchscherer, Konrad, and P.E.H. Hair. 2002. Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script. Journal of African History 29:
427-486 

West African keepers of words

Yesterday’s post focused on old yet often overlooked literacy practices. Today, inspired by a lecture of my colleague Lucy Durán, I look at oral transmission of language and memory, by zooming in on a particular social group widespread in most West African societies. There, a social category called griots in French, bards or praise singers in English and jeliw in Manding languages. is omnipresent. A three-partite society composed of nobles (hɔrɔnw in Manding), professional groups and artisans (nyamakalaw in Manding) and slaves (jɔnw) is typical for Mande societies and those in the realm of the Mali empire. Allegedly, this blueprint for a stratified society goes back to the founder of the Mali Empire, Sunjata Keita who ruled from 1217 to 1255, and who instituted them as a means for creating social cohesion in his newly founded state that brought together many different lineages and languages. We can’t know for sure whether this is a post-hoc explanation for the ways in which social relations are perceived and maintained through the roles of these social groups and norms of interaction between them, regardless of language or origin, but clearly, these social categories travelled through the spaces associated with Mali at different times.

Have a look at this table, which shows you the words designating some of the professional status groups in languages of the region:

Names for categories within the professional groups as presented in Tamari, Tal (1991): The development of caste systems in West Africa. In Journal of African History 32 (2), pp. 221–250.

I will have much more to say in future posts about these different groups and how many of them are associated with particular lineages and therefore indirectly with specific languages, and how this division of labour is the basis for coexistence in multilingual and multicultural settlements and societies. For today, let’s stay with bards, praise singers, keepers of genealogies and history. Members of this group are masters of verbal art. In Wolof societies, they are said to speak with much more care than members of other groups, and Judith Irvine reports that nobles often speak using simplified morphology and less elaborate style just to distinguish themselves from géwél. They are artisans, and their inherited craft is the word. In societies to the south and east of Mande, they are called ‘linguists’ – certainly a reminder to linguists to pay more attention to their registers of speech.

A wonderful portrait of a contemporary jeli, Mali’s famous Bako Dagnon, can be found in this film by Lucy Durán:

The voice of tradition: Bako Dagnon and family

You can read on Wolof géwél and their speech in this article:

Irvine, Judith T. 1975. Wolof speech styles and social status. Working papers in sociolinguistics 23