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: http://www.recherches-africaines.net, 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!

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: https://youtu.be/BMGeFuwr4lw

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: https://youtu.be/J5EdS92J4Ec

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):
27-55

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.