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 kɛ 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.
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:
‘shrub of the
species Dombeya quinqueseta (Delile) Exell’
‘vine of the Smilax
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.
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.
‘accompany each other’
‘hate each other’
‘exchange’ (lit.: cin-give-reciprocal)
‘greet each other’
‘have problems with each other’
‘divorce each other’
‘share with each other’
‘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!
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:
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.
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.
Because we’re so focussed on languages, we linguists tend to describe linguistic phenomena as if they belong to a single language (“In Urban Wolof…”, “In Gujaher…”). We know of course that features can be shared by languages – and this also means that languages are better understood as imaginary boxes drawn around a number of linguistic features, with some features possibly ending up in more than one box.
Some previous posts in this series have already shown how particular concepts can be shared widely among different languages, be they words with particular meanings, or entire counting systems. Today, I want to look at counting again, but not at the speech side of counting, as I have done when writing about counting money and describing how many speakers of Atlantic languages take the body as the semantic basis for number words, but on the gestures that accompany counting.
Every child knows that when counting on your fingers, you start with the thumb, right? Well, not so in Casamance. There, every child knows that when counting on your fingers, your pinkie finger comes first. You can watch speakers of Baïnounk Guñaamolo count in this video by Sokhna Bao Diop.
The differences in finger counting are a helpful reminder that “speaking a language” is an incomplete way of describing what it means to communicate successfully in a culturally appropriate way. Gestures and other features such as facial expression, posture, position towards interlocutors and many more are part and parcel of language, and of the manifold intricate things language users know and do, often without paying attention to them at all…
The Crossroads I’m going to write about today is a real junction situated on the road from Ziguinchor, the capital of Lower Casamance in Senegal to Cape Skirring on the Atlantic coast. Located at this junction are two villages, Brin (Jire in its local language) and Djibonker (alias Jibëeher). Only a couple of hundred meters apart from each other, each of these villages is nominally associated with a different language. At the Crossroads, the road divides and swerves north towards a peninsula, the realm of the kingdom of Mov Ëvi and home base to yet a different language, Banjal or Eegimaa, that in turn is further locally differentiated.
The villages are associated with particular languages because these are the languages of their founders, but people have been mobile and mixing with each other since the beginning of time. What is the impact of prolonged multilingualism, in languages that are also closely (Banjal and Kujireray) or remotely (those two and Gubëeher) genealogically related? The general design principles and divisions of labour for different counting systems appear to be identical: in all three languages, numbers up to twenty are based on the human body, with the basic units ‘five’ and ‘ten’ related to hands, ‘fifteen’ expressed through an added foot, and ‘twenty’ designated with a word that means ‘king’ – standing in for a person and all the digits of their hand and feet. From twenty to hundred, everything is organised around hand, feet and multiples of kings. Hundreds are counted decimally (with multiples of ten). Phone numbers are counted in French, and money, as we have seen in an earlier post, has its own counting system based on five as the basic unit, with larger sums are given in French.
Too complicated already? Then consider the more fine-grained nuances of the system: in Gubëeher, the word for ‘five’ is cilax ‘hand’. 200 meters down the road, in Brin, ‘five’ is not expressed with the word for hand, but with the word for ‘fist’, futox, which is also the form used in Banjal. But 10 is based on the word for ‘hands’ in all three languages – halax in Gubëeher, kuñen in Kujireray, and guñen in Banjal.
All three ‘Crossroads’ languages share the source language for ‘hundred’: teemeer (Gubëeher) or eteemir (Kujireary and Banjal), borrowed from Wolof. 1,000 is expressed with a word originating in Mandinka, another lingua franca of the wider area: it is wuli in Gubëeher, and euli/éuli in Kujireray and Banjal.
It’s not just languages that are located at a junction. Their speakers interact at the local level, but preserve tiny meaningful differences in language, despite high levels of multilingualism. Where they systematically converse with speakers of other languages, for instance in trade, this is reflected in the adoption of numerals form the languages used for these purposes – Wolof, Mandinka, French… After all, why limit yourself to one language, when you can tap into so many different concepts and notions, tailored to different needs?
The numeral systems of Gubëeher, Kujireray and Banjal are discussed in the following works:
Although they are not contained in most descriptive grammars, greetings are highly prominent in everyday interactions across West Africa. Much more than the mumbled answer ‘Not too bad, thanks’ to the question ‘How are you?’ or the two word sequences that are used in many European languages, greetings in West Africa are elaborate rituals that take time, are savoured, and structure every single encounter.
This video by Coleman Donaldson gives you a vivid idea of the importance of greetings in the Mande world, and also shows some greetings in Bambara straight from the capital of Mali, Bamako. As in the example from Ewe, a Gbe language of Ghana, below, greetings are realised in relatively fixed sequences that form part of a larger cultural script for visits, encounters, leave-taking, etc.
In this greeting, the interlocutors know each other. If they don’t, it is part and parcel of many greeting routines to find out the family name of the interlocutor. In fact, in Baïnounk languages, this is reflected in language to the extent that the word for ‘family name’, guram, contains the root ram ‘greet’. And knowing this name, which gives information on their clan or lineage, is essential in order to establish how to relate to strangers, as it gives information on their social status, their likely place or area of residence, and which language(s) they might speak. Greeting unknown people tends to involve additional evidence gathering, until both parties have established how they are related to each other.
But even people who know each other and see each other on a daily basis will take care to greet. It is common to pay visits to neighbours with the sole purpose of greeting them. You might think that this is changing in cities, but in places where there is less dense face-to-face interaction with people one might see again, virtual networks are maintained via phone calls, texts, or social media and complement direct exchanges in village-like local neighbourhoods. In Gubëeher, spoken in the village Djibonker in Casamance, a greeting question is Umoona? ‘Are you there?’ Far more than stating the obvious, greeting, then, is an immediate affirmation of existence.
Read more on access rituals in West Africa in this paper by Felix Ameka: