My pronoun is: 3rd person singular

As a new resident of Finland and keen learner of Finnish, I was delighted when a Finnish personal pronoun appeared on ads all across Europe. Plastered on tube tunnel walls and advertising boards in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Stockholm and Sydney, witty posters thanked European languages for their lexical gifts to the Finnish language but also announced Finland’s gift to the world: hän.

A little word punching far above its weight according to the Finland Promotion Board and Finnish embassies across the world: “Equality forms a core value for Finland and its people, and the best symbol of Finnish equality is a personal pronoun from the Finnish language: hän. The third-person singular pronoun hän is neutral in terms of gender and social status, so it represents equal opportunity. It is “she” and “he,” all at once, and it has always existed in the Finnish language.”

Occasionally, commentators on social media pointed out that there are, of course, other languages that don’t distinguish between natural genders in their pronouns. But it has escaped attention that the vast majority of African languages does not make a difference between he and she, his and hers. So, really sorry to say it, but move over Finnish, here come the Niger-Congo languages!

This group of languages comprises thousands of languages and covers a huge area of the African continent. Which languages belong to this, the world’s largest, family beyond its inner core, is a matter of debate. But one thing unites them: the absence of natural gender in their rich and varied gender systems. The number of genders and of the distinctions on which they are based differs widely. Many languages have genders for nouns that denote referents with particular shapes, as does the Atlantic language Gujaher, on whose gender system I blogged earlier here and here. Most languages have particular genders for very big and very small items, and all of them have a class that collects most human beings. But within humans, no grammatical distinction between male and female referents that could give rise to masculine and feminine genders is made. In the third person, pronouns or agreement markers either encode the gender of the noun they refer to or simply the person and number – 1st, 2nd. 3rd, singular, plural, collective… Here are the six subject pronouns of Yoruba from Ayọ Bamgbose’s (2000 )grammar, with no sex distinction in sight:

Bamgbose (2000: 106)

Cross-linguistically, the absence of biological gender is rather unusual, as you can read in Greville Corbett’s gender overview in the World Atlas of Language Structures. But do gender-neutral languages advance gender equality, as claimed by the Finland Publicity Board? Some might say yes, including the Swedish campaigners who introduced the gender-neutral pronoun hen into this language, with otherwise marks biological gender in pronouns. Or the feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí , author of The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. She argues, based on evidence that includes linguistic organisation and the absence of the marking of natural gender going hand in hand with marking of seniority in the language system (on which I have written in this post) that male and female genders were no meaningful social categories in precolonial Africa.

Language can both be a symptom, a fossilised indicator, of deeply rooted social structures (since language encodes those categories best that speakers care(d) for most), and a driver for social change. But languages with and without natural gender distinctions co-exist in the same geographical spaces ad are spoken by multilingual populations with very diverse local cultures. This holds for Swedish and Finnish, and for Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic languages (many of which do have sex-based pronouns), among others.

Regarding their role in social change, then, languages can at best serve as a blank slate which can be co-opted in imagining it, as done by the Finland Promotion Board: “Finland wants to encourage international dialogue on equality by introducing a Finnish word to the world: hän. In this campaign, hän is a tool for telling the Finnish story about equality as a source of strength for society.” Billions of speakers of African Niger-Congo languages could lend their words to this endeavour. Because their pronoun is…. 3rd person singular.


Bamgbose, Ayọ. 2000. A grammar of Yoruba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Corbett, Greville. 2013. Sex-based and non-sex-based gender systems. In: Dryer, Matthew. S and Haspelmath, Martin (eds.): The World atlas of language structures. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Oyèrónkẹ́, Oyèwùmí. 1997. The invention of women: Making an African sense of Western gender discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

The ngomas of India

Surely I’m not the only thinking first and foremost of the Americas and the Caribbean as the regions hosting African diasporas. The transatlantic slave trade that saw so many Africans subjected to the middle passage and violently resettled in the New World has spurred much research and is prominent in the public awareness of slavery and forced migration from the African continent. In previous posts, I have written about Atlantic diaspora communities from the Upper Guinea coast in Peru and North Eastern Brazil, and about the spirit of Mama Jombo lingering in Louisiana.

But on the continent’s Eastern shores, the Indian ocean connects it with South Asia, which, just like the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean, has facilitated bidirectional traffic for much of the last millennium. I will not go into the details of the many trade networks through history in this post. Instead, I focus on India, where a diaspora of Afro-Indians assumes a distinct identity today, although of course, as with all diasporic groups, their heritage is a dynamic reconfiguration of multiple influences rather than the retention of traits of a supposed culture of origin.

Sidis or Siddis, as Afro-Indians are called today, live in several Indian states, with their largest concentration in Karnakata, Gujarat and in Hyderabad. Sidis speak Indian languages, but in some of their musical practices, vestiges of Swahili and other East African languages remain. The drums in a Sidi Sufi musical perfomance in Gujarat bear witness of their origin: they are called goma or ngoma. In Swahili and related Bantu languages, this word denotes a type of drum, and in parts of East Africa, the word ngoma also designates a social event involving dance. The word Ngoma in a Sufi ceremony in present-day India beautifully illustrates how the merging and adaptation of cultural practices neither statically preserves nor completely obliterates their origins but blends and remixes multiple roots into something ultimately new.

You can see a video of a Ngoma performance at a Sufi festival in Gujarat here.

More on the history of Afro-Asians in and beyond India, plus a wealth of references can be found on this piece by Shihan de Silva:

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.


Writing from the UK, where questions of exiting loom large, I can’t help being affected by the uncertainties of this country about its trajectory. For many, it’s clear what they want to move away from, but where they’re going seems completely in the dark. It’s not the English language that is at fault here, as English allows verbs of leaving to occur with source-denoting prepositions (exit from Brexit), path-denoting ones (exit through the gift shop), but also with prepositional phrases indicating a goal of motion (exit to nowhere).

In the Mande language Jalonke of Guinea, such generous conflation of meanings does not happen. Verbs of directed movement such as ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ are limited to the expression of only one particular direction. For ‘enter’, soo, this is motion towards the goal; and for ‘exit’, keli, it is movement away from a source. This is because in Jalonke, unlike in English, adpositions only express a particular location in space, and not the direction of movement. To express that component of meaning is left to the verb itself.

Have a look at these two sentences. Both feature the postpostion kwi ‘in’, but once with soo ‘enter’ to yield ‘enter into’, and once with keli ‘exit’ to give rise to ‘leave from within’:

Lüpke (2005: 115)

Still not convinced? Have a look at these two sentences. The first one doesn’t have a verb at all, only an object that is located (a jar) and its location. In this case, a static location is expressed. The second one has the compound verb sabaana soo ‘play’ (not to be confounded with soo by itself – its literal meaning is ‘enter the play’). There’s no movement in the verb, so again, location, rather than movement, is expressed.

Lüpke (2005: 115)

But in Jalonke, it is very uncommon to just specify where one leaves from – it is much more widespread to find sequences such as ‘we left there, and then we went here’, nxo keli na, nxo faa ji. Good linguistic forward planning, isn’t it?

Read more on Jalonke here:

Lüpke, Friederike.2005. A grammar of Jalonke argument structure. Nijmegen: MPI Series in Psycholinguistics 30

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

Mashing it up – Nash Nouchi

I admit this is a bad pun. But I wanted to talk about Nouchi, a popular register of Côte d’Ivoire, and my very knowledgeable friend Anne Schumann pointed me to Nash, a musician who has her own YouTube channel, Nash Nouchi. Here you can see Nash herself explaining the origins and functions of this register that mashes up and remixes the repertoires of young people in this West African country.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the taming of French, the colonial language, has a long tradition. This appropriation is evidenced in the long-established register français populaire d’Abidjan, which has turned into the Ivorian way of speaking French. Nouchi is not categorically distinct from français populaire, nor from metropolitan French. It is part of a constantly shifting linguistic continuum which speakers navigate skilfully. Nash’s diverse language use illustrates that Nouchi, counter some popular theories on the internet, is not, or not only, a register born out of communicative needs of youngsters without formal education and concomitant lack of mastery of French. Rather than being a deficit, it’s an outlet for creativity and openness, a badge of identity. Some of the Ivorian innovations associated with Nouchi are known all over the world, for instance gaou ‘country bumpkin’, which has been eternalised in Magic System’s Premier Gaou.

Gaou and other Ivorian specialities

Many Ivorians, like Nash, daily navigate social spaces that have room for different flavours of French, some that are closer to a monolingual boxed-in code, and some that are more inclined to let their multilingualism shine through. It is not surprising that Nouchi has become associated with popular culture, in particular with rap and hip hop. Here comes Nash again, with the song Fo pas me garer. Not only the song lyrics, but also the spelling of the title and words appearing in the video show how Nouchi crosses language boundaries: Fo pas me garer corresponds to “faut pas me garer” – ‘don’t park me’, in French. Aniwoula – “a ni wula” in standard Jula/Bambara orthography means ‘good morning’. The standard spelling of French is subverted by spelling it partly in spelling norms for national languages; but the national language Jula is spelled in French orthography – playful transgression.

I’m sharing a link to an article on Nouchi that gives you much more information on its origins, linguistic make up and genres. But beware: by the time you’ve downloaded and read it, Nouchi will have already moved on! In fact, it has been mashed up over and over again since the ink of the paper dried…

Béatrice Akissi Boutin, Jérémie Kouadio N’Guessan. Le nouchi c’est notre créole en quelque sorte, qui est parlé par presque toute la Côte d’Ivoire. Peter Blumenthal. Dynamique des français africains : entre le culturel et le linguistique, Peter Lang, 2015.

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

Persons of the night and special someones in Songhay

Back in London it is, sadly, much easier to write on African languages than from the continent itself. The obstacles do not only concern internet access, a major hurdle to equitably shared information, but also access to and awareness of printed research. In this regard, African researchers are much more excluded from information flows and access to repositories than their counterparts in the Global North, but the difficulties persist in both directions: it is often impossible to discover, let alone have access, to scientific publications authored and distributed on the African continent (especially if they were not created in South Africa). CODESRIA, the Council
for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, is a beacon in its various activities aiming at redressing this imbalance and making African research visible and accessible. There are other initiatives, such as ILISS Africa, a German library service providing information on and access to a broad range of information not only on but crucially also from, Africa, on an internet platform. But its funding is temporary, as is that of many initiatives aiming at overcoming the digital divide, and so it is often left to personal connections and sheer luck to fill in the cracks. In this case, serendipity took the form of a lunch conversation with my Malian host, Prof. Mohamed Minkailou, from the Department of English at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines.

I was reporting my taboo hunt form the previous week, and to my delight, Prof. Minkailou said that he had published an article on euphemisms in Songhay. The data are from Faraw! Mother of the Dunes, a film in standard Songhai (which is based on the Songhay variety spoken in Gao, Gao Senni). It turns out that snakes are seen as such distasteful entities that their names – salaamun and gondi – tend not to be pronounced at all. Instead, the euphemism gandarfu ‘a rope on the ground’ is used at all times. We didn’t have the time to explore the motivation for this taboo, or its relations to other items unsayable in the darkness. But the article also mentions the word for witch, carkaw, which cannot be said at night and has to be replaced by cijin boro – ‘person of the night’ – so the dangers of witchcraft seem to linger in Songhay taboos, as they do in other languages of the wider area.

But euphemisms in Songhai go much further, even prompting marriage partners to avoid calling their spouses ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ and making them employ the term filaana ‘someone’ (from Arabic fulaan), sometimes preposed by aru ‘man’ or woy ‘woman’. I would love to share the article with you – the journal in which it appeared even has a website:, but it had only a spurious existence – the link is broken. I have permission to share the paper, so here the link to the PDF and the reference:

Minkailou, Mohamed. 2016. Exploring euphemism in standard Songhay. Recherches Africaines. Annales de l’Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Bamako 16: 31-39.

And please, if you know of websites disseminating African research from the continent, please leave the link in a comment below the line!

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.

We know the missionaries, but who did they talk to?

I bet many of you don’t know Sigismund Koelle. But I also bet that among those of you who know this German missionary of the Church Missionary Society, hardly anyone will know Sam Cole of Freetown. Of course you wouldn’t – the Reverend Koelle was the researcher, and his interlocutor was the informant. So far, so unsurprising.

Sigismund Koelle was a German missionary who spent much time in Sierra Leone from 1845 onwards, at a time when the Fourah Bay College became a hotbed for linguistic research and and turned into a catalytic environment for identity transformations of the African diaspora scholars studying and teaching there – among them Ajayi Crowther, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. In 1854, Koelle published a book entitled Polyglotta Africana, or a comparative vocabulary of nearly three hundred words and phrases, in more than one hundred distinct African languages. The Polyglotta Africana is one of the most comprehensive early sources available for words from a broad range of African languages, all collected in Freetown, which was a place in which many liberated slaves found themselves at the time. What sets Koelle’s work apart from many word lists published by Europeans is the care he took in identifying his sources. They are acknowledged with their names and a short biography, and Koelle also includes their perspectives, rather than just reporting his view on their repertoires and how the languages they reported should be named. Have a look at this statement, describing a group of languages commonly labelled Aku or Yoruba at the time:

Koelle on the problematic designations “Aku” and “Yoruba” (Koelle 1854: 5)

Rather than superimposing an outsider’s perspective on the classification of words offered by his interlocutors, Koelle tolerates variation, and deviation from the label that will become, under the influence of Yoruba diaspora nationalists like Crowther, the glossonym that will ultimately take precedence over more localised identities expressed in local language names and create a new ethnolinguistic identity through the activities of diaspora nationalists. Koelle lists 14 different ways of speaking, only one of them called Yoruba, and describes where the individuals who offered information on them came from, what their trajectories were, and how they themselves named the registers they reported. And here is the information given by Sam Cole:

Koelle’s biographical information on Sam Cole (Koelle 1854: 5)

I will have more to say on Koelle’s African collaborators, and how later linguists interpreted the information they offere. Stay tuned!