Show me how you count and I tell you where you’re from

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…

Counting at the Crossroads

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.

Villages and languages at the Crossroads

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:

Cobbinah, Alexander Yao (2013) Nominal classification and verbal nouns in Baïnounk Gubëeher. PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London

Sagna, Serge. 2008) Formal and semantic properties of the Gújjolaay Eegimaa (a.k.a Banjal) nominal classification system.
PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.

Watson, Rachel. 2015. Kujireray: morphosyntax, noun classification and verbal nouns. PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.

Counting money in West Africa

My post for today on African indigenous language is on counting. There is much to say on the many complex numeral systems found in West Africa, but one of their areal characteristics is all languages I’m aware of have two different ways of counting. I will get back to later to ‘normal’ numbers and the semantic underpinning of numbers used in counting objects. But today, I focus on the different way of counting money that is attested in these languages. When expressing a currency amount, the base number needs to be divided by five in order to arrive at the denominational amount. For instance, if I buy tomatoes for 100 Francs CFA, the price in Wolof, Bambara, Jalonke, Gujaher, etc., would be expressed with the number twenty. If the expression of the equivalent of 5,000 in monetary terms is desired, this would be the number 1,000. The probable reason for this dual system is that a five-francs piece has been the smallest coin in circulation since colonial times, so this became equivalent with one (unit of currency).

A 5 Franc coin from the West African Central Bank

Think about the mental gymnastics for learners of these languages which don’t have a different counting system for money! It makes haggling a high-risk enterprise… And it would be really interesting to study how the two systems are acquired by children, and whether they help their multiplication and division skills.