You can leave your head on

Today, I want to look at a characteristic shared patchily by many languages of West Africa, across language families: the existence of two different possessive constructions. What this means is that in these languages, there are two formal ways to express ownership and relations between two entities, and they entail a difference in meaning. Have a look:

Jalonke (Guinea, Mande): n xunjaana ‘my younger sibling’

Bambara (Mali, Mande): anw teri ‘our friend’

Kujireray (Senegal, Atlantic): fuhow Damien ‘Damien’s head’

Do you get a hunch what types of relationships might be encoded in this construction? Perhaps it helps to look the second type and the contrast in meaning:

Jalonke: n ma xalisina ‘my money’

Bambara: i ka mobili ‘your car’

Kujireray: yaŋ ya Damien ‘Damien’s house’

You probably have concluded that ownership and social relations can be seen as more permanent, inherent, inalienable, and that this close relationship is reflected in language: in these cases, the possessor and the possessed object are adjacent to each other. If relationships and ownership are seen as less permanent, more loose, an element is inserted between the possessor and the possessed item, iconically signalling this larger distance. So if I say n ma xunna ‘my (alienable) head’, I’m necessarily talking about a severed head, perhaps of an animal, and not my own body part. Neat, isn’t’ it?

Now these heads would be alienably possessed…

But of course things aren’t quite that simple. The type of possessive construction chosen for a particular relation depends on how that relation is (or was, since languages change slower than society) construed in a particular culture. In Jalonke for instance, husbands are inalienable to their wives, and teachers to their students. But a man would say ‘my wife’, 
n ma ginɛna – a reflex of the greater power of men to end marriages and teachers to terminate apprenticeships that is not reciprocal. Children as well are seen as alienable in Jalonke – perhaps an index of the fact that children are often fostered in and out, so not seen as inalienable blood relatives so much than as temporary household members.

And last, but not least, nominalised verbs also occur in these two constructions. This means that a phrase such as ‘the killing of the hunters’ is not ambiguous in languages with two possessive constructions: the entity that undergoes a change of state will be the possessor of an inalienable construction (muxɛɛ faxaa ‘the killing of people’) and the entity that brings about a change of state will be the possessor of an alienable construction 
(n ma muxi faxa ‘my killing of people’). Should I tell you about intransitive verbs as well? Perhaps I should leave that to the intrepid linguists.

The data on Kujireray are from Rachel Watson’s thesis, referenced in the previous post. Bambara is always my very own rusty knowledge, and you can find out more about Jalonke possession (including intransitive verbs!) here:

Lüpke, Friederike (2007): It’s a split, but is it unaccusativity? Two classes of intransitive verbs in Jalonke. In Studies in Language 31 (3), pp. 525–568.

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.