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:

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:

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

The moving red eye

Emotions are not universal. They are expressed in cultural scripts reflected in language, sometimes over wide areas, but drawing on very diverse sources. The metaphors used to describe feelings often can focus on particular body parts as the locus of an emotion. In the Kwa language Ewe of Ghana, some emotional expression – those roughly corresponding to jealousy, envy and covetousness – are built on the image of a red/and or moving eye. Here some examples:

Examples for emotions expressed with ‘eye’ in Ewe (Ameka 2002: 28)

What is special about these expressions is that they feature a specialised and conventionalised use of the term ‘eye’. Ameka distinguishes a psychological and a physical use of eyes. Only the former features in the expression of emotions. It is recognisably different from the physical, body part, eye, which can occur in the plural – after all, we tend to have two eyes. The expressions of negative feelings in the example above can never be used in the plural. There are more differences between ‘ordinary’ and ’emotional’ uses of the word ‘eye’ in Ewe. Read Felix Ameka’s article to which I link below.

But I must go away now and research the origins and exact meaning of the Bambara phrase n sinamuso nyɛ fin ‘ the black eye of my co-wife’. I only know it from the textile design that is named after is, for instance for a wax like the one below. If I remember correctly, the black eye stands for the co-wife’s anger, provoked by her rival wearing such a beautiful wax. When wearing a wrapper bearing the design, the emotion is not evoked through language, but delicately and indirectly through talking fabrics. After all, communicating through speech only would be so limiting!

Wax of the type “N sinamuso nyɛ fin

Here the link to Felix Ameka’s article:

Ameka, Felix K. 2002. Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: On ‘jealousy’ and related emotions in Ewe. Pragmatics and Cognition 10(1):

Gender confusions in Somali

Warning: Somali is not a West African language. Still, motivated by various recent conversations and encounters, I’m venturing out of my comfort zone and look at an intriguing phenomenon in an Afroasiatic language of the Cushitic branch spoken in the Horn of Africa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Somali, and many other Cushitic languages with it, are kind of famous among linguists for having gender polarity – a kind of cross-dressing for nouns, where a noun that is feminine in the singular becomes masculine in the plural, and a masculine singular noun turns into a drag queen in the plural. This is how the gender switch supposedly works, based on the form the definite article takes in the two numbers:

Fom Nilsson (2016: 452)

This perspective on Somali nouns has been challenged recently. First of all, other agreeing words don’t follow the presumed polarity pattern. Secondly, the seemingly reversed patterns in the different number forms of nouns themselves can be explained on other grounds: feminine nouns take the article /k/ in the plural, and it gets realised as [h] between vowels; masculine nouns with monosyllabic stems also take /k/ in the plural; and masculine nouns with stems with two syllables or more take the definite article /t/ in their plural forms, realised as [d] between vowels (I simplify somewhat). Here’s another table that gives you an overview of the story:

From Nilsson (2016: 456)

Of course, the story of Somali nouns is more complex than this. If you want the full picture, with plenty of references to previous research on the matter, read this article:

Morgan Nilsson. 2016. Somali gender polarity revisited. In Doris L. Payne, Sara Pacchiarotti & Mokaya Bosire (eds.), Diversity in African languages, 451–466. Berlin: Language Science Press.

African advantages of age

Distinctions that are socially meaningful tend to be reflected in grammar. The huge importance accorded to age differences is hard-wired into lexical distinctions in many West African languages. In Bamanan (Bambara), siblings are differentiated primarily regarding age, and only secondarily according to gender: older siblings are designated kɔrɔ, younger ones dɔgɔ. The modifiers muso `woman’ and added to these words specify whether female or male siblings are referred to, but are not compulsory.

Wolof makes the same distinction: the term for elder sibling is mag, the one for younger sibling rakh. My personal favourite language Baïnounk Gujaher confirms the pattern: wanc is the word for older sibling, and udóón the one for younger sibling, without referring to the sex of these kin relations.

These terms do testify of a great sensitivity to age motivated by the link between age and superior social status. Being aware of age is important because the veneration of people of greater age, respect for their life experience and deference to them is common throughout the entire continent. It is therefore important to be aware of one’s age in relation to anybody one interacts with; and lexicalising this difference helps keeping track of where an ego is positioned with respect to others.

(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!

Liquid salt

Most languages of the Niger-Congo stock (a large grouping of languages that are likely to go back to one single ancestor language) have rich noun class systems, on which I’ve written before in several posts. Some families within this large group don’t, among them Mande languages, and this is one of the numerous reasons while the historical relationships between these languages are tenuous. The ways in which noun class systems are organised are really different from language to language, but one striking fact sticks out: the vast majority of Niger-Congo languages with noun classes dedicate a particular noun class to liquids, and, highly unusually, the affix that formally signals this noun class has a similar shape across them. Liquids bear a noun class marker with that has the initial consonant m.

Okay, some of you will say, so if I want to order a coke, I’ll just stick an m in front, and I’ll have a word that could belong to a Niger-Congo language. But you already have a hunch that this would be too easy, don’t you? In noun class systems, items are not put into a noun class based on a single criterion. Rather, these classification systems are built up over time, and while speakers may put an object into a particular class based on different and conflicting criteria (being a ‘natural’ liquid such as sap, blood or tears as opposed to being man-made, for instance) at any point in time, this is even more true over time. But many liquids, and in particular those that occur as liquids in the natural world, are marked with m. Here are the only six words I have found in this class in Baïnounk Gujaher to give you a taste:

Gujaher form Gloss
mun-saal ‘urine’
mun-jil ‘tear’
mun-yin ‘milk’
mul-leen ‘blood’
muŋ-xaana ‘oil’
mum-méér ‘salt

Clearly, all of these words denote liquids. All of them? Some of you may have stumbled over ‘salt’. Why would this crystal be categorised as similar to blood? Looking at how salt is made in Casamance provides the necessary clue. In this area close to the sunken coast line of the Upper Guinea Coast, rivers are tidal and carry salt water far inland. Out of the salty soil close to the rivers, salt is won by extraction through mixing it with water and then evaporating the repeatedly filtered salty water by putting it to the boil until the salt crystals remain. Imagine a future where everybody in Casamance buys salt in shops and this practice is lost. The language would still reflect the experiences of previous generations that salt arrived as water, got absorbed by the soil, and turned into a liquid again before being reduced to its final state.

Here you can see salt and its transformation from solid to liquid and back.

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

We’re all in it together. But wait, are we really?

Some of you might think this is a post about British politics. But even for those to whom this post does not evoke elusive promises by politicians it might be useful to imagine a language that makes it crystal clear who is meant by a message such as “We’re all in it together.” Does it really intend to include speaker and all addressees, without any wiggle room? For those of you who’d prefer a language that unambiguously signals whether speakers makes an assertion that includes everybody they talk to and about or not, West African languages are here to help.

Many of these languages, for instance Fula, Jalonke, many Baïnounk and Joola languages and Casamance Creole, prove themselves useful by distinguishing in their first person plural pronouns (‘we’) whether the addressees are included (all of us, including YOU) or not (all of us, excluding YOU). In these languages, it makes a crucial difference whether somebody says, as in this example from Baïnounk Gujaher:

Ankëbëndoŋ kahar.
‘We eat meat (including you).’


Ankëbëminiŋ kahar.
‘We (but not you) eat meat.’

If you’ve ever walked away hungry from a dinner table, you’ll get the salience of this difference. Speakers of languages that mark it simply can’t be vague about who is included in the statement, as the languages don’t let them get away with evasiveness in the matter. Other related languages, some of them spoken by populations multilingual in languages with the inclusive/exclusive distinction, do not mark it. Among them are Mandinka, Bambara and Wolof. So clearly, if you’re a politician (or just a random cunning person), and you don’t want to commit to whom your assertion extends to, speak English, Wolof, or Mandinka – but better not Gujaher.

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

“How many languages are there in Africa?”

There is no cut and dried answer to this question, but it is worthwhile exploring what colours the different possible answers. There are sources that propose definite numbers of languages spoken on this continent, and these range between 2,100 and 3,000 languages. Crucially, there are different meanings to the word ‘language’, and they influence how idioms are counted. For most speakers, a language is a particular way of speaking that is related to a particular sociopolitical identity and tied to some extent to a place. Changing social and religious circumstances, political configurations and their consequences on imagining history can all result in changing how a language is conceptualised, how it is named, and what territory it is associated with. Outsiders tend to have their own perspectives on the languages they are aware of, too, and very often they will employ different categorisations that are less fine-grained. So, different people name languages differently at any given point in time, and naming practices can change over time, which makes enumerating languages really impossible

This is why linguists try to skirt the sociocultural dimensions of language and aim at definitions of language that are based on how similar or how dissimilar they are to their nearest neighbours. But this, too, is a really hopeless endeavour, because there are so many possible ways to decide on the cut-off point. Some linguists look at the number of shared words and say that if over 70% of vocabulary is shared, we are dealing with a single language. The problem with this approach is that depending on which vocabulary items are included, completely different percentages emerge. This is why many linguists only compare very short word lists (of 100 to 400) with words that are deemed to be universal – but that means discarding most of the words of a languages and not including those words that have the most cultural significance to speakers. Other linguists look at mutual intelligibility and say that if speakers who speak differently can understand each other, they are speaking dialects of one and the same language. But intelligibility is often dependent on the linguistic repertoire of a person, on their exposure to different languages and lects, and also on their attitude to a particular way of speaking, so it is not an exact measure either. And don’t even get me started on shared grammatical structure…

The names for languages that are contained in language catalogues, then, are mostly based on a mix of all these perspectives, and that means that they don’t offer an exact count but only a very rough approximation of Africa’s linguistic diversity. What we can safely state, though, is that this diversity is huge by global standards. Even the smallest country on the sub-Sahran African mainland, the Gambia, with a surface of 10,689 square kilometers and a population of a mere 1.2 million, counts 11 languages. The country with the largest surface area of 2,344,858 square kilometers, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hosts 212 languages, spoken by 81 million. The most linguistically diverse country is Nigeria, with 525 officially recognised languages for the 190 million inhabitants populating its 923,768 square kilometers.

In the mind of many Europeans, and also of many Africans themselves, sadly, the perception prevails that African languages are not really fully-fledged languages but simple ‘dialects’ or ‘patois’ without complex grammatical structures and with a very simple lexicon. (The same prejudice is applied to the ways in which Africans speak languages of European provenance, including so-called creoles and pidgins.) The posts on this blog showcase the complex lexicon and grammar of African languages and prove these judgements wrong. The reasons for these stereotypes range from sheer racism and patronising judgements stemming from colonial times that are still widespread to powerful ideas of language that are based on European romantic ideas of language: a language is a standardised idiom equipped with an orthography and an associated body of literature that expresses the identity of a people. Under this view, as the linguist Max Weinreich quipped, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, or referring to African language creators, “a language is a dialect with a missionary and a dictionary”, as I have said in Lüpke & Storch 2013). Multilingual and multiscriptual Africa has produced very different identity concepts that defy this ethnonationalist vision of language. Watch this space to find out more about them!

Read more on the history and social meaning of African languages in this book:

Lüpke, Friederike; Storch, Anne (2013): Repertoires and choices in African languages. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.