If your in-law’s name smells of grass

Taboos are a popular topic among readers of this blog, for understandable reasons. They give insight into people’s beliefs, as in the case of night-time taboos that can be found all over Africa, including Mali and South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Or they illustrate the rules that guide social interaction, as is often the case in naming conventions. In any case, how speakers replace words that can’t be uttered in certain situations testifies of their linguistic creativity. Additionally, and that’s an important bonus for linguists, avoidance strategies also offer access to how speakers perceive similarity between words.

Today, I turn to a language that has a fairly developed system of avoidance words, often called an avoidance register by linguists. The language in question is the Tanzanian Nilotic language Datooga. Datooga-speaking women face a special task once they are married: they are not allowed to pronounce the names of most of their male in-laws. Not a big deal, you may think, but the taboo goes further: not only are the names themselves not permissible, but also any word that resembles them. So, if your father-in-law’s name is Gídámúlda (gídá meaning ‘male’), you must avoid all words beginning with mul – in consequence, words such as múlòoda ‘log’ or múlmúlánèeeda ‘thin metal bracelet’ are off limits.

No female speaker of Datooga masters the entire avoidance register. This is because extended families live together in compounds, and co-wives of a husband and sisters-in-law share the same male relatives. Consequently, they only need to avoid those words that resemble their limited set of names. This is a probably a blessing, since Datooga names are freely descriptive: people can be named after landmarks such as lakes, rivers, fires, after noteworthy events, or after characteristics of their birth year, etc. So imagine your in-law’s name ‘smells’ – this is how similar-sounding words are described in the language – of grass, nyéega. You can avoid this taboo word by referring to a particular type of grass, ng’àróojiga. Many taboo replacements work this way, by substituting a word with a semantically related one. The versatility entailed by constantly having to think up lexical alternatives (for married women) and interpret them correctly (everybody else) must make Datooga speakers extremely good at crosswords!

Remarkably, there is one context in which Datooga women are allowed to pronounce the name of their husbands’ ancestors: when they are in labour. Apparently, enraging their spirits will wake them up and so incite them to help in childbirth.

Read more on Datooga women’s dynamic avoidance practices here:

Mitchell, Alice (2016): Words That Smell like Father-in-Law. A Linguistic Description of the Datooga Avoidance Register. In Anthropological Linguistics 57 (2), pp. 195–217. DOI: 10.1353/anl.2016.0004.

A dirge for Nketia

On March 13, the great Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died at the age of 97. His hugely influential body of work contains books and papers on an area very important for many African cultures, located at the meeting point of music and language: drumming.

He worked extensively on drumming in several societies of Ghana and adjoining countries, first and foremost on drumming among the Akan. A fascinating area for everybody interested in language is his research on talking drums. They are proverbial for many African settings, but do you know how the drums actually speak?

Nketia distinguishes between different modes of drumming, depending on the intentions of the drummers to send short, conventionalised signals, imitate speech, or provide a rhythm for dancing. The first and third modes appear straightforward: dancers learn a code and tap it, and listeners can interpret it as a warning, call to a meeting, etc. Or they simply follow the beat in danced movements.

For the speech mode of drumming, the signal needs to be memorised by the drummers, translated into drum beats and pulses, and retranslated into speech by the listeners in order to be understood. Poems, oral history, proverbs could all be drummed, and understood by the audience based on rhythm and pitch of the drums. This art was already becoming rarer at the time when Nketia documented this skilful practice and is rapidly vanishing, since it requires years of instruction. Here is an extract from a text on oral history that could be drummed:

A text drummed in speech mode from Ashanti (Nketia 1963)

Because he was aware of the rapidly changing role and function of education in West African societies, Nketia wrote much on the importance of musical education to continue and modernise these traditions. A contribution that remains very topical, since formal education does still not give space to the learning of West African performing arts. Read more in his seminal work:

Nketia, Joseph Hanson Kwabena. 1963. Drumming in Akan societies of Ghana. Edinburgh: T. Nelson for the University of Ghana

Ö goes to Guinea

I’m still in Bamako, but a good connection means I can return to this blog just like a polygamous husband to his neglected other wife… And while not much happened in my online life, I spent a captivating week offline but directly connected to the various ways in which village residents from three West African countries – Mali, Senegal, and Guinea – present aspects of their diverse local knowledges.

Through recording local knowledge that is important to them on mobile phones and uploading it to the Donkosira blog if and when connectivity permits, it is their regard that determines what is deemed worthwhile documenting and sharing, and how it is presented. But blogs are a medium that requires use of the written modality in addition to photos and videos, and if this written information is to be offered in languages other than the colonial (and sole official) language of the three countries in the scope of the project, which is French, this causes great insecurity. Because the languages spoken in the villages Monzona, Damaro, Bouillagui and Agnack Grand and Agnack Petit are either locally confined or not taught at school, the first answer to the suggestion to write in them is: “But these languages are not written.”

Yet, almost all of the project participants had actually already produced writing in languages other than French – for instance in text messages or in transcriptions of stories and other texts. You can see an example in this post on proverbs by Ansoumana Camara. If you look at the ways in which the proverbs are transcribed in Konianké, the local Mande language, a truly ingenious strategy emerges: Ansoumana Camara has transferred the spelling rule of the language of first literacy, French, to Konianké. This type of writing is extremely widespread in West Africa, and a very economical way of writing in a multilingual environment that doesn’t offer much support to languages other than the colonial one. Sadly, it is often dismissed as corrupted and improper, so that its practitioners themselves dismiss it. Yet, these writing techniques testify of a great understanding of phonic regularities in French spelling and their transfer to new languages is highly skilful, and not at all deficient. So of course their value is recognised and they have a place of honour on the Donkosira blog.

Today, however, I want to tell you about a local flavour present in Ansoumana’s writing that is very endearing to me as a German. Since I’d first seen him write in Konianké, I had been intrigued by one thing: the presence of the letter ö. Ö has no place whatsoever in French orthography, but of course we Germans are very fond of our umlauts. I knew that the letter ö had been introduced in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970s to write the the sound [ɔ] in national languages that had been officially standardised. But Ansoumana had stated that he had never learned to read and write a Guinean language. So how had the ö found its way into his spelling?

A Koniaké story transcribed by Ansoumana Camara from Damaro (Guinea)

Our workshop in Bamako offered the occasion to find out. It turned out that school teachers had introduced the letter ö because the sound [ɔ] appears in local names, such as Böbö [bɔbɔ], pronounced with a more open vowel than Bobo would be in French, and so a proper name served as a Trojan horse to introduce some aspects of writing national languages that otherwise had no right of existence in the Frenchg-based school curriculum. Thirty odd years after this school experience, the ö is still there – a tiny but persistent trace of spelling rules for national languages that still have no space in the school curriculum.

If you want to learn more about lead language writing, i.e. the transfer of spelling skills to repertoires in West Africa, you can find out more in this article:

Lüpke, Friederike (2018): Escaping the tyranny of writing. West African regimes of writing as a model for multilingual literacy. In Kasper Juffermans, Constanze Weth (Eds.): The tyranny of writing revisited. Ideologies of the written word. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 129–148.

Breathe out… breathe in. Or not?

Taking some lungfuls of icy sea air over the weekend made me think about speech sounds and what West African specialities there are among them. Plain vanilla speech sounds tend to be produced with a pulmonic egressive air stream, that is, with air being exhaled from the lungs. Some speech sounds are formed by forming an obstacle somewhere in the mouth that is then released, first increasing the air pressure behind the closure, then releasing it, pushing the air outwards. Try it with a [b]. Your lips form an obstruction, air pressure builds behind your them, and when it is released, air leaves your mouth. But a much rarer class of speech sounds, so-called implosives, bears this name because supposedly, the glottis is lowered and causes negative air pressure, before the air is subsequently released outwards, causing some air to be initially sucked inwards. Hence the word implosive.

You can listen to an implosive in Owerri Igbo here. Now try it youself: say [b] again, but this time lower your glottis. Implosive consonants are written with a rightward little hook on the letter – you’ve seen them in some Fula words in previous posts in this blog, for instance in the one on bards, which featured the word lawɓe ‘woodworkers’. [ɓ] is the implosive counterpart of [b]. Voiced implosives are quite common; voiceless ones (formed without the vocal cords vibrating) are extremely rare. Seereer languages, spoken in Senegal, are among the languages that have both voiced and voiceless implosives, but only one variety of the language, Seereer Siin, has words that are only distinguished through having a voiced vs. a voiceless implosive. Have a look:

Minimal pairs featuring voiced and voiceless implosives in Seereer Siin (Mc Lauglin 2005: 203)

What makes these sounds even more intriguing is that in many languages they aren’t actually produced by negative air pressure forming behind an obstruction at all. Rather, what distinguishes them from explosive stops is that there is no positive air pressure involved, just absence of air pressure – silence. So strictly speaking, ‘implosive’ is a misnomer for this type of sound. There’s much more to be said about implosives in Seereer, but I leave you to discover it by yourself!

You can find an overview of phonetic research on implovises in Seereer and an acoustic phonetic study of implosives in Seereer Siin here:

Mc Laughlin, Fiona. 2005. Voiceless implosives in Seereer-Siin. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 35(2): 201-214

Kall – Wolof à l’envers

Thank you to Bamba Diop for reminding me of kall – a secret language and playful register of Wolof that inverts the syllables in a word. Kall means ‘speak’, lakk in ‘normal’ Wolof. This creative way of playing with language goes back to precolonial times and continues to be used, today more as a ludic register than a secret code that among other things was used to deform messages so that they were incomprehensible to colonial overhearers.

Let’s have a look at some words and utterances in ordinary Wolof (at the top) and their kall counterparts (below):


Samay doom lekk.
Masa mëdoo kële
‘My children eat’

It is not enough to simply reverse the syllables of a word. Speakers of kall need to be aware of the constraints that ban certain sounds and sound combinations from occurring in particular positions in the word. Consider lekk. Two identical consonants that follow each other (called geminates by linguists) can only occur at the end of a word, not at its beginning, and not more than two consonants can follow each other regardless of their position in the word. That’s why the kall form is not *kkle (linguists use asterisks to flag language forms that do not occur), but kële – there can only be one word-initial consonant, but the void left by the second consonant is filled with an added vowel so that the kall word has the same length. This, by the way, is the reason that lakk becomes kall and not *kkla when the syllables are transposed – the length or weight of the original word is preserved, but this time by doubling the final l.

For at least the past 200 years, speakers of Wolof have interwoven Wolof with French, creating a register called Urban Wolof that first arose when French traders and later colonial actors began communicating with Wolof speakers, who populated the coast where the initial French trade posts were located. French has its own kall verlan, resulting from the transposition of the syllables in the word l’envers ‘the opposite’. In present-day Wolof, not only these two languages, but also their kall/verlan forms are fluidly mixed, as you can see in these utterances:

Damay dem jouer au basket.
An ma damay ouerjou sketba.
‘I’m going to play basket ball.’

The rules of kall (and verlan) are complex and as fluid as the different ways of speaking Wolof. And if you have every listened to Senegalese Rap, you’ve been exposed to a healthy dose of kall and verlan, even if you didn’t know it!

For an early account of Kall, see this article, which is also the source of the first two examples:

Ka, Omar. 1988. Wolof syllable structure: evidence from a secret code. In: Proceedings of the Eastern States Conference on Linguistics (5th, Philadelphia, PA,September 30-October 2, 1988).

For language practice, including kall, in a youth centre in Senegal, see this book, from which the third example is taken:

Köpp, Dirke. 2002. Untersuchungen zum Sprachgebrauch im Senegal. Hamburg: LIT

Words that sound their meanings

It’s the weekend, and time to have some fun with language in today’s post honouring African indigenous languages. Words that add expressiveness to utterances exist in all languages, (‘vroum vroum‘, ‘nee-no-nee-no‘, ‘zack‘…), but they are extremely widespread in African languages, to the extent that the term ‘ideophone’ (according to Welmers 1973 “a vivid representation of an idea in a sound”) was coined by the Africanist Clement Doke in 1935 to designate sound-symbolic words that convey in iconic fashion properties of objects and actions. Ideophones can add meaning on sound, colour, size, shape, pattern of movement, texture, intensity and much more. The Mande language Bambara of Mali has its own word class of expressive adverbs that are all ideophonic. Some ideophones in Bambara are very specialized and only occur with one single notion, for instance with colours. Po, pyan, pye, pas, pa, pelepele, poro and puli (pronounced with extra high pitch) all combine with the colour term ‘white’ and only with it to give rise to the meaning ‘very white’. Other ideophones occur with several notions and receive their contextual meaning from the combination with a verb or noun. To these belong bagibagi, which describes boiling water, high fever and generally high temperatures, kolokoto ‘totally’, used with expressions of failure, or burututu‘ ceaseless’. One of my all-time favourites is fugubɛfugubɛ, which combines with motion verbs to give an impression of quick, agitated motion. If you know Malian sartorial style, you can hear flapping robes trailing in the tailwind of a person taking great strides!

You can read more on ideophones in Bambara in this article:

Dumestre Gérard. Les idéophones : le cas du bambara. In: Faits de langues, n°11-12, Octobre 1998. Les langues d’Afrique subsaharienne. pp. 321-334