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.

Sulemaana Kantè: writing unity in difference

My first post on indigenous African languages is dedicated to Sulemaana Kantè, the Guinean inventor of the N’ko script for the writing of Manding languages. He has been called a cultural fundamentalist by Jean-Loup Amselle, because he created a script and linguistic standard aiming at unifying a Manding language out of a cluster of closely related and fluidly interwoven registers spanning several countries in 1949. But characterizing him as an ethnonationalist does not do justice to his vision, which is one of creating unity while respecting difference, making it very faithful to the many social exchanges that acknowledge and thrive on diversity in the Mande world. His version of a standard language does not erase variation or impose one lect to the exclusion of other local varieties, unlike its colonially created contemporaries. The forms of a ‘clear register’ called kángbɛ and mainly based on his native Maninka are taught to disciples of N’ko, but at the same time they receive profound knowledge of the etymologies of these forms, of their correspondences in other local varieties, and of regular sound correspondences between forms in different lects.

nko in nko
The word N’ko in the N’ko script. N ko means ‘I say’ in Manding language

Kantè’s legacy lives on, since N’ko has become a very influential alternative to the barely used colonial standard language Bambara, and because his philosophy connects writing and literary production to local experience and Mande political imagination.

You can read more about him and N’ko in the articles below, and in Coleman Donaldson’s PhD thesis, among several other references:

Vydrine, Valentin (2001): Souleymane Kante, un philosophe-innovateur traditionnaliste maninka, vu à travers ses ecrits en Nko. In Mande Studies 3, pp. 99–131. 

Donaldson, Coleman. 2018. Orthography, standardization and register: The case of Manding. In Pia Lane, James Costa & Haley de Korne (eds.), Standardizing minority languages, 175–199. New York and London: Routledge.