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.

The sun, fire and bovine beings

I mentioned noun classes, one of the most prominent features of many languages of the Niger-Congo language phylum, in previous posts. I also introduced Fula, a language of the Atlantic family whose speakers are found across Africa from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa, and which has many different local varieties. Among them are Pulaar in Senegal, Pular in Guinea (yes, one vowel makes a lot of a difference, since Pulaar is associated withe the Futa Tooro region in northern Senegal, and Pular with the Futa Jalon in Guinea, both places where different Fula states were located). Further eastwards there are Maasiina Fulfulde in Mali, and Adamawa Fulfulde in Nigeria and Cameroon. Each of these languages has more localised ways of speaking. Fula spread because many of its speakers are or were cattle herders and coexist(ed) with sedentary farmers in a division of labour. Some of them were and continue to be members of mobile professional groups, for instance woodworkers and mobile merchants who travel around to sell their wares. And finally, mainly in the 18th and 19th century, many Muslim Fula groups conducted jihads and founded a number of theocratic states, into which slaves from many other groups were incorporated.

Because of the widespread nomadic way of life among Fula, with cattle herding as the main subsistence activity, cattle have a central place in the Fula universe, and this is reflected in language. In most Fula varieties, there is a special class for cows, the NGE class, in which nagge, the word for cow and cattle is realised. Have a look at the words in the NGE class in Maasiina Fulfulde:

The NGE class in Maasiina Fulfulde, in: Breedveld (1995: 71)

Look at the many and intricate words for different types of cattle, all in the NGE class! This class also contains a handful of other items, including sun and fire, and also the word yannge ‘ceremony’. Why would this be so? Which component of meaning binds these notions together? All of the terms, as Anneke Breedveld, who studied Maasiina Fulfulde, argues, are related to cows: fire attracts them and chases away mosquitoes. The sun governs their movement; and the ceremonies comprised by yannge involve the exchange of cows or milking rights. A beautiful demonstration of how a language’s vocabulary is structured according to what its speakers communicate about.

Read more about the meanings behind noun classes in Maasiina Fulfulde here:

Breedveld, Anneke. 1995. The semantic basis of noun class systems: the case of the KI and NG classes in Fulfulde. Journal of West African Linguistics XXV(2): 63-74.

Ways with gender

My second post on African languages to honour the UNESCO year of indigenous languages puts the noun class systems of Atlantic languages (a group of languages mainly spoken on the Atlantic coast of West Africa) into the spotlight. In languages with noun class or gender systems, nouns occur in a particular gender based on aspects of their meaning or on formal properties. The noun class systems of Bantu languages are best known to linguists, but Atlantic languages deserve attention because of the complexity and diversity of their noun class systems. Ironically, the two most well-known Atlantic languages, Wolof and Fula, are not representative for the group. Wolof, mainly spoken in Senegal, has only ten different noun classes, eight for the singular and two for the plural, and is the only Atlantic language that does not mark noun class on the noun itself. The different varieties of Fula, a language that stretches from the Atlantic shores to the horn of Africa because of the many nomadic pastoralists among its members, have 20+ noun class markers that combine into genders (singular-plural pairs). Fula marks noun classes on the noun itself, but unlike all other Atlantic languages, the noun class markers are suffixed (i.e. occur at the end of the noun), and not prefixed. Additionally, Fula is characterized by consonant mutation: the initial consonant of the noun changes in different noun classes. Consider the words for ‘Fula’: they are pull-o in the singular and ful-ɓe in the plural. The changes in the initial consonant explain why the English and French designations for members of this group sound so different: the French term Peul is based on the singular; the English denotation Fula on the plural. In many Atlantic languages, there are more than 30 different genders. Noun roots have a very general meaning, and the combination with different noun class markers creates nouns with specific meaning. Let’s have a look at the root lëb in the language Gujaher. Its vague meaning is translatable as ‘something to do with speaking’. Through prefixation of the noun class marker, the following concrete meanings are created:

u-lëb ‘speaker’
ñan-lëb ‘speakers’
bu-lëb ‘speak’
gu-lëb ‘language’
ha-lëb ‘languages’
kan-lëb ‘place of speaking’