Table manners in Segou

During my recent stay in Bamako, I had occasion to revive some of my rusty Bambara. Many exchanges happened at lunch time, and now, back in London, I’m rereading a classic article to strengthen my practice. In “De l’alimentation au Mali”, Gérard Dumestre lays out the ceremonial sequence of eating and the Bambara formulaic expressions that go with them. The idealised template presented in the following will be familiar to inhabitants and visitors of many places in West Africa – a shared cultural script that makes the sharing of food with guests, and even strangers, a cornerstone of West African conviviality.

A table setting starts with the arrival of the meal, introduced by dúmuni fílɛ ‘here is the food’ or dúmuni nàna ‘the food has arrived’. The guests sit down, on a mat or around a table, and wash their hands in a container with water that circulates. It falls to the head of family or a senior member of the group to pour the gravy (ná, designating both a liquid ‘sauce’ and its contents in term of meat, fish, and vegetables) over the rice or fonio and to distribute morsels of meat or fish so that every guest finds their portion on their section of the plate.

With the words bìsìmilayi ‘in God’s name’, the meal is opened. Once a person has finished eating, they withdraw from the place of eating, thanking the household with the words ábarika ‘thank you’, the response to which is ábarika ala yé ‘thanks to God’.

Wait, you might think. What about the women behind the curtains who have prepared the food? Whether they will eat together with men or the entire family is a matter of regional and personal conventions. But whatever the case, it is possible to thank the always female cook with the words I ni gwá ‘You and the kitchen!’ To this, the answer will be Kà à súmaya ì kɔ̀nɔ ‘ May it [the food] cool inside you.’

Food is generously shared in many West African cultures, but often, it is not plentiful. What is shared communally , the sùman, ‘staple, everyday food’, is therefore often complemented by nègèlafɛnw ‘snacks’ – literally, ‘things of desire’. Those are eaten mainly out of the house, far from the realm of responsible sharing. The akara or syɔ̀furufuru I wrote about some time ago are a classic nègèlafɛn. And now I have to stop, I’m suddenly feeling very hungry…

Read more on the social aspects of eating in Mali here:

Dumestre, Gérard. 1996. De l’alimentation au Mali. Cahiers d’Études africanies, 144, XXXVI-4, 689-702

There might be West African languages in your beauty regime

Indulge in body butter? Look after your lips with a velvety lip balm? The chances are that your cosmetics contain an ingredient whose name betrays the origin of one of the oils used in them: shea butter or beurre de karité.

They are made from oil of nuts of the same plant, Vitellaria paradoxa. In English, it is called the shea trea, but guess where this designation hails from? I was reminded of its origins when watching Na baro kè’s brilliant video chat on the cold season, in which inhabitants of the city of Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso mentioned that they use body lotion, si tulu (literally shea oil, often pronounced with a sh sound, phonetic [ʃ]) in the Bambara language.

So how did shea oil or butter, si tulu, into beurre de karité? Whichever French-speaking person introduced this word to the French language took inspiration from Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal. In Wolof, the shea trea is called kaarite.

So whenever you use shea butter or beurre de karité, you’re connecting with a West African language linking the word to the area where the product is grown and harvested.

“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.

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.

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):

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.

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.