“My Songhay keeps growing”

My colleague Klaudia Drombowsky-Hahn and I have spent a week with students from the English Department at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines and staff members from AMALAN, The Academy of Malian Languages. As part of Klaudia’s course, all of us drew our language portraits. Developed by the Austrian linguist Britta Busch, language portraits have been developed and are now widely used as a method to evoke linguistic repertoires that, while still eliciting them in terms of codes or languages that can be named, avoids the straitjackets of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’, ‘L1’, ‘dominant language’, and so on. Rather, it is left to individuals to imagine and execute the task, which is to fill in (or draw and write around) a silhouette, through focusing on all languages that play a role in their lives.

Here you can see the language portrait of one of the course participants.





In terms of named languages, her repertoire comprises Songhay, Tamasheq, Arabic, Bambara, English and French. So, does this mean she speaks five languages? And is one of them her mother tongue? The silhouette, together with some explanations offered by her reveals that Songhai – to be precise two different Songhai varieties, Gao Senni – also callled Koyraboro Senni, the language of the town dwellers – and Tumbutu Chiini, aka Koyra Chiini ‘city language’, are important because the whole family lived in the two northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao, cities whose alternative language names set them apart from surrounding nomadic populations.

Tamasheq qualifies as her ‘mother tongue’ in the literal sense of being her mother’s language, different from her father’s. She uses it mainly when visiting the maternal side of the family, who follow a nomadic lifestyle. Arabic is an important language for her, but she feels constrained in it because of the way it was taught to her: the followed courses in Modern Standard Arabic at the university, where students were only taught to read and write it, and where oral language use had no place.

Bambara is a language she already spoke before coming to the south of Mali, to Bamako, to study. But it really only took off when she was exposed to it there, where it is spoken by everybody, so she is still learning it. Bambara is followed by English, the language we also use totalk to each other, because we are in the English Department and teaching takes place in English, in which the students are highly fluent. She learned Englishonly from 7 to 9 grade, and then at university when she enrolled in the English programme.

French somehow is mentioned last in the conversation we have about her language portrait, but this doesn’t mean that it is very remote fromher daily life. It is not only the main language of her formal educational experience, but also a language she speaks with friends, and spoke with her father during her childhood. English and Tamasheq are in her heart; French and Songhay in her head, and they keep growing

Language portraits vividly illustrate how important it is to let go of fixed assumptions about the role languages might play in people’s lives and to invite them (even if a frame and perspective can’t be avoided altogether) to develop their own metaphors on what languages mean to them.

Read on language biographies and language portraits in this article:

Busch, Brigitta (2006): Language biographies. Approaches to multilingualism in education and linguistic research. In PRAESA Occasional Papers, pp. 5–18.

Setting free the tongues

It is International Mother Tongue Day today, and across the globe people are celebrating the languages that are important for their lives. Very often, these languages are marginalised and minoritised, deprived of prestige and recognition, and one of the purposes of Mother Tongue Day is to put them into the spotlight for at least one day.

But persistent imaginations of what a mother tongue is, carried over from the European context in which the concept was coined, through the choice of words and the language ideas behind them, actually penalise speakers of languages whose language lives don’t correspond to the expectations it creates. Most dictionaries capture these language ideologies by characterising a mother tongue as “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult” (Cambridge English Dictionary”, as a synonym of “native language” (Marriam Webster). Collins offers a different interpretation, which potentially contradicts the former one: “Your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.” (Collins Online Dictionary) Wiktionary comes up with three definitions, one of which is similar to the Collins one: “the language spoken by your ancestors”, and a third: “the language spoken by one’s mother, when it differs from that spoken by one’s father”. Under the second and third definition, an individual can grow up not speaking their mother tongue (if they don’t learn their parents’ language), while under the first and most widespread one, this is a thing of impossibility, because by virtue of being a child’s first language, it becomes the mother tongue, even if it is not the one of parents or grandparents.

UNESCO, who initiated and continues to celebrate Mother Tongue Day, does not offer easily accessible definitions, and has made a multilingual turn, celebrating linguistic diversity and encouraging “mother-tongue based multilingual education”. This widening of perspective on repertoires and their diversity is welcome.

Yet, this is still too often translated into an insistence on the singular in practice, and on the idea of a clear context in which a child grows up with one and only one language that occupies this particular role, at least in their early lives, but ideally through to adulthood. But what about situations where individuals have no, or several, mother tongues (understood both as ancestral languages and as languages in which they are primarily socialised)? These contexts are globally in the majority, and in them, an individual may grow up hearing and speaking many different languages throughout the first years of their lives: the languages spoken in the court yard, the different languages spoken by different members of the family, by mothers who marry into communities of their husbands, by fathers who joined their wives, the languages associated with religion, and the languages of secret societies. Children may identify with ancestral languages not present in their environment, so that spoken and claimed languages don’t coincide. Or they may grow up moving between different linguistic ecologies and adapt seamlessly to these contexts, which turns them into adults with enhanced linguistic capacities who go on to keep learning languages throughout their lives. Crucially, in these contexts, none of the languages in an individual’s repertoire will fulfil the exclusive role suggested by the term ‘mother tongue’. So, insisting on mother tongue in the singular, or on one language with this total importance in a person’s life, reduces the richness and complexity of multilingual life experiences and shoehorns them into a choice that does not represent the roles of languages in individuals’ repertoires.

In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why “mother tongue education” in Africa, despite great verbal support, is not really taking off – because it doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of linguistic settings and of multifaceted and fluid linguistic identities. Any language policy that requires the selection of on one and only one language in a particular region will exclude many of its inhabitants and their repertoires. So, on Mother Tongue Day, let’s set free the tongues, and strip our appraisal of the functions of languages from Eurocentric baggage so that we can truly comprehend what linguistic diversity means.

Multiple or impossible choice? multilingualism as or instead of mother tongue. The repertoires of children in two household in the village of Agnack Grand, Senegal

To read more on multilingualism and the role of multiple languages, in particular in rural African communities often presented as monolingual, read this article:

Good, Jeff; Di Carlo, Pierpaolo; Ojong, Rachel (forthcoming): Multilingualism in rural Africa. In Mark Aronoff (Ed.): Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Linguistics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If you want to be visually immersed in multilingual life in a West African village community, watch this film and check out the companion materials on its website:

Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack

“My language is unclassified. That can’t be.”

Today’s topic in class was the history and the metaphors behind the genealogical classification of languages. Comparing two family trees – one of the Niger-Congo language phylum and one of Sunjata Keita brought to the fore what underlies both these conceptualisations of these lineages, and what information is not considered relevant in them. Have a look. Do you have an idea about what is missing?

One view of Niger-Congo languages (Williamson 1989)
Sunjata’s lineage (after Niane 1960)

Both family trees trace genealogical relatedness – descent from a common ancestor – through time, the Niger-Congo tree from left to right, the Keita lineage from top to bottom (incidentally, family trees tend to show the trees uprooted and upside down, or lying down, but almost never growing from the roots, despite using the image of a tree… And both trees assume monoparental descent – languages have one ancestor, and lineage in Sunjata’s case is determined through the male line, until the very bottom of the tree, when some women come in, because of their importance for the plot development of the Sunjata Epos.

In class, a vivid discussion ensued: on the word lists and features used to establish the trees, on selections of words and features resulting in conflicting trees, and, crucially, on the metaphor underlying genealogical classification itself, on how it is intended to exclude contact-induced language change and on the historical background in which it was created, in a sociopolitical context focusing on racial and linguistic purity. We evoked the problems that keep appearing for Niger-Congo – the place of Mande languages, the integrity of Atlantic languages, the name for the Gur language family, the belonging of Dogon – and we discussed how the view that language is passed akin to asexual reproduction in biology conflicts with the way in which children learn languages, focussing on West African language socialisation in large families which in their majority unite speakers of several languages, creating a multilingual input from the outset. I stop here, because each of these topics deserves and hopefully will get its separate blog post.

But this is what I will end tonight’s story with: One course participant is Dogon, and he reports, very upset, that in the most recent classifications, the Dogon cluster of languages is seen as unclassified – there is not enough evidence to give it a place in any established language family or stock. But, he says, we have relationships – we belong into the Mande world! It pains me how a model developed in the nationalist and racist context of the late 19th century can continue to cause that much harm by denying people’s relationships to spheres with which they feel much social and also linguistic belonging – just not the one of the kind measured by the comparative method. But lets’s remind ourselves that this method calculates relatedness by computing the lexical similarity of 100 to 400 words from the most basic vocabulary only, sometimes complemented by features selected to support particular classifications, explicitly and by design discarding the wealth of culturally meaningful layered tapestries that emerge when we look at other areas of language. Perhaps we want to keep using the family tree metaphor. But we need to be clear about one thing: it tells a very limited story, leaving out some of the main protagonists, and we need to give more room to other stories.

What is ‘African’ African linguistics? Or what could it be(come)?

I’m excited this week, because I’m teaching African linguistics to Malian students at the Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Bamako. There is no degree programme in Malian or African languages and linguistics here, and therefore my colleague Ibrahima Cissé had the ingenious idea to invite colleagues from his network to come and teach as part of the English Master, in English. My colleague Klaudia Dombrowsky-Hahn, who teaches at Frankfurt and Bayreuth, is also here, and we follow each other’s classes.

African linguistics started out as a colonial discipline, when colonial administrators and missionaries started being interests in the languages of the the interior of the continent that they had conquered in the second half of the 19th century. As a discipline that is concerned with sub-Saharan Africa – an entity that only becomes meaningful through European eyes, adopting problematic racial and geographic boundaries – it still is very much inscribed into a paradigm dating back to colonial times, which coincided with particular racial prejudices, and also with the heyday of romantic ethnonationalism in Europe. The legacies of this lens, which led them to discover mini-peoples (aka ‘tribes’ or ethnic groups), united by a language and a territory, in societies governed by very different principles of cohabitation, loom large. So my course started by discussing visions of language inherent in the work of colonial actors and investigating alternative visions of Malian linguists. Surprisingly to many, lead-language writing transferring French writing norms to Malian languages was started by a Malian linguist, Moussa Travelé, and was frowned upon by French linguists, who according to their purist language logics wanted to keep languages separate and also did not want to ‘corrupt’ African languages or French by allowing transferences and similarities in writing – so the official alphabets of many African languages are closer to colonial language ideas than the French-based writing practices many Malians use until today. An example of the latter follows.

Moussa Travelé’s Bambara dictonary, using French lead-language writing

The writing conventions developed by the colonial administrator and linguist Maurice Delafosse, which aimed at writing Bambara different from French, can be seen here:

Content pages from Delafosse’s (1901) Bambara course book

The ensuing debate showed how important it is to lay bare these different visions and their motivations, which co-exist in different sociolinguistic spaces and in people’s imaginations. The debate will continue tomorrow!

To read more about the colonial history of linguistics in (French) West Africa, read these books:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun (2004): Vernacular palaver. Imaginations of the local and non-native languages in West Africa. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

van den Avenne, Cécile (2017): De la bouche même des indigènes. Échanges linguistiques en Afrique coloniale. Paris: Éditions Vendémiaire.

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.

Ö goes to Guinea

I’m still in Bamako, but a good connection means I can return to this blog just like a polygamous husband to his neglected other wife… And while not much happened in my online life, I spent a captivating week offline but directly connected to the various ways in which village residents from three West African countries – Mali, Senegal, and Guinea – present aspects of their diverse local knowledges.

Through recording local knowledge that is important to them on mobile phones and uploading it to the Donkosira blog if and when connectivity permits, it is their regard that determines what is deemed worthwhile documenting and sharing, and how it is presented. But blogs are a medium that requires use of the written modality in addition to photos and videos, and if this written information is to be offered in languages other than the colonial (and sole official) language of the three countries in the scope of the project, which is French, this causes great insecurity. Because the languages spoken in the villages Monzona, Damaro, Bouillagui and Agnack Grand and Agnack Petit are either locally confined or not taught at school, the first answer to the suggestion to write in them is: “But these languages are not written.”

Yet, almost all of the project participants had actually already produced writing in languages other than French – for instance in text messages or in transcriptions of stories and other texts. You can see an example in this post on proverbs by Ansoumana Camara. If you look at the ways in which the proverbs are transcribed in Konianké, the local Mande language, a truly ingenious strategy emerges: Ansoumana Camara has transferred the spelling rule of the language of first literacy, French, to Konianké. This type of writing is extremely widespread in West Africa, and a very economical way of writing in a multilingual environment that doesn’t offer much support to languages other than the colonial one. Sadly, it is often dismissed as corrupted and improper, so that its practitioners themselves dismiss it. Yet, these writing techniques testify of a great understanding of phonic regularities in French spelling and their transfer to new languages is highly skilful, and not at all deficient. So of course their value is recognised and they have a place of honour on the Donkosira blog.

Today, however, I want to tell you about a local flavour present in Ansoumana’s writing that is very endearing to me as a German. Since I’d first seen him write in Konianké, I had been intrigued by one thing: the presence of the letter ö. Ö has no place whatsoever in French orthography, but of course we Germans are very fond of our umlauts. I knew that the letter ö had been introduced in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970s to write the the sound [ɔ] in national languages that had been officially standardised. But Ansoumana had stated that he had never learned to read and write a Guinean language. So how had the ö found its way into his spelling?

A Koniaké story transcribed by Ansoumana Camara from Damaro (Guinea)

Our workshop in Bamako offered the occasion to find out. It turned out that school teachers had introduced the letter ö because the sound [ɔ] appears in local names, such as Böbö [bɔbɔ], pronounced with a more open vowel than Bobo would be in French, and so a proper name served as a Trojan horse to introduce some aspects of writing national languages that otherwise had no right of existence in the Frenchg-based school curriculum. Thirty odd years after this school experience, the ö is still there – a tiny but persistent trace of spelling rules for national languages that still have no space in the school curriculum.

If you want to learn more about lead language writing, i.e. the transfer of spelling skills to repertoires in West Africa, you can find out more in this article:

Lüpke, Friederike (2018): Escaping the tyranny of writing. West African regimes of writing as a model for multilingual literacy. In Kasper Juffermans, Constanze Weth (Eds.): The tyranny of writing revisited. Ideologies of the written word. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 129–148.

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.

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

The real polyglots

From yesterday’s Polyglotta Africana it’s not a big jump to polyglots. There is a particular Northern idea of polyglots: slightly geeky, mostly male, individuals who speak multiple languages and often have their own
online and offline communities to learn languages. Some people even distinguish between ordinary polyglots and hyperpolyglots, starting somewhere above 10 languages. Without wanting to belittle their feat, that they are seen as so exceptional and equipped with special talents is a weird idea. Weird as in W.E.I.R.D (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), psychology’s acronym for the bias towards establishing expectations on normal and extraordinary behaviour based on this demographic.

Take a W.E.I.R.D polyglot to West Africa, and there will be many places where they will be outshone by most of the locals. And another difference will apply: not only will most people have repertoires that at least contain 5 or 6 languages (and I mean languages with considerable distance from each other, not closely related lects), but these repertoires will be grown and adapted without any formal language learning throughout an individual’s life, dependent only on their trajectories and networks.

Casamance is an obvious place for me to use for examples, so tonight I’ll defeat expectations and take you to Northwestern Cameroon instead. There, one area has been in the focus of in-depth research on rural multilingualism: the lower Fungom. This small and remote rural area, with 100 square kilometers approaching the size of a large European city, hosts 9 languages. Everybody is multilingual in Lower Fungom, and an average repertoires comprises 6 or 7 languages plus several of their lects, and in addition, Lower Fungomians speak languages of wider communiction, too. If this is the average, imagine how multilingual one would need to be in order to qualify as a polyglot!

My colleague Jeff Good has written an article on the research of his team in the Lower Fungom in The Conversation – follow him to Cameroon to find out more about how West African village dwellers use and imagine their languages:

Good, Jeff. 2017. Threatened languages and how people relate to them: a Cameroon case study. The Conversation

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!