Phone swap? – Language swap!

It’s women’s day, and I’m not in the mood for work. So how to write a blog post that celebrates African women and is fun, to put all of us in a more celebratory mood? As ever so often, two separate strands of thought suddenly collided with a spark and gave me the idea for this post. Since writing on euphemism in Songhay I’ve been thinking about the language(s) used in African films, because the article I discuss in that post is based on the analysis of a film in standard Songhay. I had also just seen the trailer for Yao, a film featuring Oumary Sy and Fatoumata Diawara, on the visit of a migrant to Senegal. I was intrigued that the trailer was entirely in rather metropolitan French, despite being located in northern Senegal where Wolof, Pular, and Senegalese French are spoken and often mixed.

For today, I also wanted to feature a female African researcher on the blog, since women are still very underrepresented in African studies and African linguistics, and black women even more so. And suddenly, I had my topic. the US-based literature scholar Moradewun Adejunmobi is a black woman whose work I admire. And she also happens to write extensively on multilingualism, popular culture and African film, in particular Nollywood movies.

Her work indeed answered many of my questions. I learned that most Nollywood movies are monolingual, either featuring English or one of Nigeria’s other largest languages, creating “a fictional universe where one language suffices for communication, and code-switching is rare or completely absent” (Adejunmobi 2018: 188). Such monolingual films are shot in Nigeria’s big three, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, but also in Edo, Efik and some other languages with larger speaker bases.

Films that feature several Nigerian languages, aiming at representing their characters’ complex and multilingual sociocultural realities, are rare, but Phone Swap is one of them. Have a look at the trailer and multilingualism will be in your ear, though not in your eye, as the trailer’s subtitles only translate languages other than English without identifying the languages they can’t understand for an audience not sharing the same multilingual repertoire.

Read more on the different strategies Nollywood movies adopt through choice of language(s) in sound and subtitles, what motivates them, and how different forms of addressivity – multilingual and monolingual address – in either or both modalities position these films on national and global markets here:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun. 2018. “Translation and the Multilingual Film Text: Defining a Public.” In Multilingual Currents in Literature, Translation, and Culture. Ed. Rachael Gilmour and Tamar Steinitz. London: Routledge, 188-205

Expressing endearment and avoidance in Hausa

Pet names or nicknames, special terms of endearment that convey intimacy and teasing, are common to all languages. In Hausa, one of Africa’s largest languages, these names take particularly intricate patterns, since they are built by copying part of a person’s name. There are several different ways of doing this, as you can see here:

From Newman & Ahmad (1992: 160)

All Hausa proper names can undergo this treatment, and sometimes, names can have a double hypocoristic ending, so you can find, e.g., Àli, Al̀eele and Alììliyà. There are rules on how these terms are used, and mostly they prescribe that they are used by older people to address younger people or among people of the same age.

A seeming exception are the hypocoristic terms for parents, Bàabalè (from Bàaba ‘father’) and Ìyàale (from Iyà ‘mother’), but Newman & Ahmad tell us that these are in fact avoidance terms. Since the names of parents, in-laws and other senior relatives cannot be uttered, a child bearing for instance the first name of their father cannot be addressed with this name but might be called Bàaba, ‘father ‘, instead – so calling this child
Bàabalè should not be mistaken for an expression of particular fondness toward’s once father, who would not be addressed in this way at all.

Read more oh hypocoristic names in Hausa in this article:

Newman, Paul and Mustapha Ahmad. 1992. Hypocoristic Names in Hausa Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 34, No. 1/4 (Spring – Winter, 1992), pp. 159-172

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.

Things you can’t say at night

The language-based outlook of linguistics means that often, we capture only the reality of one language. But sometimes, as soon as one starts looking across language boundaries, stories of shared cultural practices, and in this case, fears, emerge. I had such an experience when, inspired by research on Casamance Creole by Noël Bernard Biagui, Joseph Jean-François Nunez and Nicolas Quint, I got interested in some lexical taboos they report.

These taboos concern some words that are perfectly fine to be uttered during the day. But at night-time, they can’t be named. Among these words are ‘needle’, ‘soap’, ‘charcoal’, ‘salt’ and ‘snake’. Last week, I spent time with speakers of the Atlantic languages Gujaher and Joola Fogny and the Mande languages Konianké, Bambara, Mandinka. Incidentally, we were also on the road to Tabou, a place of great significance for the Mali Empire. Investigating lexical taboos while we were soaking up the atmosphere of Tabou, the place where the battle that turned Sunjata Keita into the emperor of a vast territory in which social practices were shared, took place, seemed the obvious thing to do. So here come some day-time words and their night-time paraphrases, as offered by Alpha Mané, Jacqueline Biaye, René Mané and Khady Biaye for Gujaher, Joola Fogny and Mandinka, and Boubacar and Bacary Diakité for Bambara. I know the meanings of the paraphrases for Gujaher best, to this language comes first:

Word Gujaher term used during the day Paraphrase used during the night
needle sahraŋ alufahal (‘one sews with it’)
charcoal baŋaɲ barahi (‘plenty of black things’)
salt muméer muntedahal (‘thing one cooks with’)
snake ono ubooxuna ‘the one that slithers’
soap saafuna aɲejaxël (‘the enjoyable’)

For Joola I only managed to catch charcoal: bugekap during the day, balaiene at night. In Mandinka, another language spoken in the vicinity of Gujaher and Joola Fogny in Casamance, here come two taboos for you:

Word Mandinka term used during the day Paraphrase used during the night
needle mesendoo karalaŋo, bendaŋo
charcoal kembo fimaŋ (‘the black one’)

And finally, the words that can’t be said at night in Bambara:

Word Bambara term used during the day Paraphrase used during the night
charcoal kembo fimaŋ (‘the black one’)
needle miseli karalelaŋ (‘sewing instrument’)
salt kɔgɔ nandialaŋ (‘condiment’)
snake saa duguma fɛ ‘the one on the ground’

Not all taboos are shared. For the two Bambara speakers from Monzona, ‘soap’ had no prohibitions attached to it. And of course, the tables are a crude first approximation of the complex linguistic taboos and the diverse social practices and beliefs attached to them. Can you guess why these items are so sensitive? It is their involvement in witchcraft that turns them into the Unsayable at night. Often, this taboo goes hand in hand with interdictions regarding the handling of the objects themselves. In Agnack, one can’t buy needles, salt or charcoal at night. In Monzona, a shop keeper will not hand you the salt you just bought, rather depositing it in front of you, once night has fallen. Clearly, this is an area where speakers and inhabitants of the areas where these taboos are practised ought to work together with linguists and anthropologists to complete this picture. So today’s blog ends with a call for information – on existing research, and on so far undocumented taboos.

Pluriversity? Under construction

Most repositories – libraries, digital archives, even the servers hosting this blog – are situated in the global north. There is a promise of global accessibility today, thanks to the miracles of the internet, but the reality remains very different, so these collections remain colonial archives in terms of access and in terms of creators, despite good intentions to overcome this legacy.

Today serves as a vivid reminder of this enduring inequality to me. I’m typing this one my phone, the only way to get it online, as the slow internet connection in Bamako, Mali, doesn’t agree with my computer.

I’m not telling you this to complain about a personal inconvenience but because it is the reality for millions of Africans. Yes, web access is there, but only in its flimsiest forms: enough for a Facebook Like or a WhatsApp message, but not for really equitable sharing, very often not even access. Achille Mbembe, the continent’s most influential philosopher, calls for a broadening of perspectives, a pluriversity to replace the Eurocentric university. Not easy when you need to chase network coverage and type from your phone, even more so when you try to access some of the works written on you by a Northern researcher, including almost all research on African languages, sadly including most of my own.

Since making African perspectives visible on the net is one of the reasons I’m here, I will blog about these obstacles and how they are experienced by my colleagues and collaborators from Donkosira for the days to come, and I’ll also try to find out through which tricks they overcome some of the infrastructural hurdles put in their way. You’ll get a synopsis at my return if I can’t get online!

The Donkosira team last year in Conakry

Do you drink cigarettes?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have seen many examples already of how languages can structure meaning in different ways. The fields of eating and drinking are no exception.

In Many Mande languges, for example, there is no special verb for smoking, one drinks cigarettes, as in Bambara:

N tɛ sigareti min.
‘I don’t smoke (literally: drink) cigarettes.’

Speakers of Baïnounk languages distinguish between eating chewy food and soft food stuffs, a pattern attested in many languages in the region. Consider these two examples:

Maŋkëbi kahar.
‘I’ve eaten (the) meat.’

Mansoosi bumango.
‘I have eaten the/a mango.’

Hold on, some of you might say. I can also say in English that I have chewed the meat and slurped the soup. The difference to a language like Gujaher, from which these examples come, is that it wouldn’t be acceptable at all to use another verb for describing these actions. They are the only and unmarked way for eating meat-type and fruit-type foods.

There is also a verb that looks close to English ‘eat’, and it seems to denote a fairly generic activity of eating. For one, it is used in generic contexts:

Dokulo guyahla!
‘Come eat!’

And its uses comprise the main meals of the day, the eating of bulut ‘circular heated stuff`.

Mayahi bulut.
‘I’ve eaten the meal.’

But the verb bujah is perhaps less general than these examples suggest at first sight. When people are invited to eat a meal, this meal, bulut, is almost always the main staple of a Casamance diet: rice. And to be described by the the verb bujah the event of eating must be at an acceptable stage between bukëb and busoos on the hardness spectrum. If it is undercooked, bukëb is used. So, if you want to talk about food in West Africa, watch what you’re eating!

Ideas of the sea

Every speaker of a language carries some invisible baggage: how the concepts encoded in the words of their language(s) and their relationships with other words pre-structure the world for them and create expectations on possible connotations and translations. And every learner of a new language knows that a central part of acquiring another language is letting go of these associations in order to fully enter a new language space.

Today, I have two examples that illustrate language worlds and how different they can be in their associations. Both are related to the sea. The first ‘sea’ I’m going to talk about surprised me by being located more than 70 kilometers away from the shores of the Atlantic ocean on the bank of what for me, and in French and English translation, was ‘a river’, ‘un fleuve‘: the Casamance river that reaches from the Atlantic coast more than 320km inland. You can call it a river since it has two banks, a source, and a wide mouth between which is snakes its way through the marsh lands. Or, as Casamançais do, you can call it the sea – jakam in Baïnounk languages for instance. And sea-like this ‘river’ is up to the city of Ziguinchor: till here, it is more like a fjord, vast and filled with salty water carried there by the tides. Its meandering marigots – smaller sea arms – are called cinda in Bainounk Gujaher. Remember cin– the noun class marker derived from the word for ‘rope’ that create words for elongated, rope-like objects? But I digress.

On the Casamance river

The idea of the sea evoked by jakam could not be further removed from the one captured in the word Sahel. The Sahel is a shore, but its sea is a desert: the Sahara. Originating from Arabic sāḥil for ‘shore, coastline’, this word alludes to the sea-like qualities of the desert, whose dunes form waves that can be ridden by travellers. Geographical and sociopolitical borders are often drawn so that the areas north and south of the Sahara are seen as belonging to different spaces. But really, the inhabitants of these regions are also all dwellers of the shore of a sandy ocean that connects them.