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.

(No) strings attached

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:

Singular form Plural form Gloss
cin-niba ñan-niba ‘shrub of the species Dombeya quinqueseta (Delile) Exell’
ciŋ-ŋaarara ñaŋ-ŋaarara ‘vine of the Smilax anceps Willd.’
cil-lug ñal-lug ‘marrow plant’
ciŋ-kal ñaŋ-kal ‘tail’
cin-díít ñan-díít ‘intestine’
cin-tííb ñan-tííb ‘trace’
cil-líít ñal-líít ‘ribbon’

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.

A climbing belt made from plant fiber and string

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.

Gujaher infinitive Gloss
cinsukai ‘accompany each other’
cinfeyai ‘hate each other’
cinnannai ‘exchange’ (lit.: cin-give-reciprocal)
cinramai ‘greet each other’
cinyikai ‘have problems with each other’
cimbicai ‘divorce each other’
cimbutai ‘share with each other’
cimmaŋai ‘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!

On circular medicine

Thursday is noun class day in my developing routine to post on African indigenous languages throughout the year. I mentioned in my first post on noun classes last week that in many Atlantic languages, nouns are not assigned a gender, but rather, nouns are created from semantically general roots through the combination with multiple noun class markers, and that the meaning carried by noun class marker adds a concrete meaning component that gives rise to a noun. Consider the noun class prefixes bu- and i- in Gujaher, spoken in Southern Senegal. These noun class markers, for the singular and plural respectively, carry the meaning ’round, circular’. When combined with roots designing plant matter, the resulting nouns denote fruit or tubers, as in bu-liimo ‘orange’. Bu-diin, literally ’round-rain’ is the word for well or cistern.

Many spherical objects or entities with a circular diameter are realised in this gender, for instance the sun (bu-nëg), and words for round containers (e.g., bu-dux ‘pot for storing drinking water’). The words denoting other concepts related to the meaning of the root are realised in other genders. The word for orange tree, for instance, is created through the combination of the root liimo that we have seen above with the noun class markers for trees and elongated objects (ci‘- in the singular and mun- in the plural). Medicine is often made from plants, and therefore the root han ‘related to medicine’ turns into the lexeme ‘medicine’ when combined with ci’– and mun-. Bu-han, in the circular gender, means ‘medicine pot’. But who knows, maybe with the advent of pills and tablets bu-han ‘circular medicine’ will extend its meaning to denote them as well!

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.

Africans have been here earlier!

From yesterdays’ post on indigenous African languages, an interesting discussion emerged, focussing on differences between languages regarding their lexicalisation patterns. While everything can be expressed in every language, not every language has a single word for every notion. Languages tend to have words for notions which are central to their speakers, and which words these are is influenced by their environment and also shaped by the lexicalisation patterns of other languages present in it. West African languages are noteworthy for their many verbs and derivational affixes that specify particular phases of an event, and also for verbs that denote specifically doing something early. In Bambara (Mande, Mali), these are the verbs soli ‘do something early, do something in the morning’ (note how clunky the English translation equivalent is in comparison) and joona ‘ do something earlier than expected’. In Jalonke (Mande, Guinea), there is the verb kurun ‘leave early’, and the Atlantic language Gujaher (Senegal), also has a verb with the same meaning, fura.

Misty morning in Saare Kindia, in the Futa Jalon region of Guinea

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’