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.