Table manners in Segou

During my recent stay in Bamako, I had occasion to revive some of my rusty Bambara. Many exchanges happened at lunch time, and now, back in London, I’m rereading a classic article to strengthen my practice. In “De l’alimentation au Mali”, Gérard Dumestre lays out the ceremonial sequence of eating and the Bambara formulaic expressions that go with them. The idealised template presented in the following will be familiar to inhabitants and visitors of many places in West Africa – a shared cultural script that makes the sharing of food with guests, and even strangers, a cornerstone of West African conviviality.

A table setting starts with the arrival of the meal, introduced by dúmuni fílɛ ‘here is the food’ or dúmuni nàna ‘the food has arrived’. The guests sit down, on a mat or around a table, and wash their hands in a container with water that circulates. It falls to the head of family or a senior member of the group to pour the gravy (ná, designating both a liquid ‘sauce’ and its contents in term of meat, fish, and vegetables) over the rice or fonio and to distribute morsels of meat or fish so that every guest finds their portion on their section of the plate.

With the words bìsìmilayi ‘in God’s name’, the meal is opened. Once a person has finished eating, they withdraw from the place of eating, thanking the household with the words ábarika ‘thank you’, the response to which is ábarika ala yé ‘thanks to God’.

Wait, you might think. What about the women behind the curtains who have prepared the food? Whether they will eat together with men or the entire family is a matter of regional and personal conventions. But whatever the case, it is possible to thank the always female cook with the words I ni gwá ‘You and the kitchen!’ To this, the answer will be Kà à súmaya ì kɔ̀nɔ ‘ May it [the food] cool inside you.’

Food is generously shared in many West African cultures, but often, it is not plentiful. What is shared communally , the sùman, ‘staple, everyday food’, is therefore often complemented by nègèlafɛnw ‘snacks’ – literally, ‘things of desire’. Those are eaten mainly out of the house, far from the realm of responsible sharing. The akara or syɔ̀furufuru I wrote about some time ago are a classic nègèlafɛn. And now I have to stop, I’m suddenly feeling very hungry…

Read more on the social aspects of eating in Mali here:

Dumestre, Gérard. 1996. De l’alimentation au Mali. Cahiers d’Études africanies, 144, XXXVI-4, 689-702

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.

Persons of the night and special someones in Songhay

Back in London it is, sadly, much easier to write on African languages than from the continent itself. The obstacles do not only concern internet access, a major hurdle to equitably shared information, but also access to and awareness of printed research. In this regard, African researchers are much more excluded from information flows and access to repositories than their counterparts in the Global North, but the difficulties persist in both directions: it is often impossible to discover, let alone have access, to scientific publications authored and distributed on the African continent (especially if they were not created in South Africa). CODESRIA, the Council
for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, is a beacon in its various activities aiming at redressing this imbalance and making African research visible and accessible. There are other initiatives, such as ILISS Africa, a German library service providing information on and access to a broad range of information not only on but crucially also from, Africa, on an internet platform. But its funding is temporary, as is that of many initiatives aiming at overcoming the digital divide, and so it is often left to personal connections and sheer luck to fill in the cracks. In this case, serendipity took the form of a lunch conversation with my Malian host, Prof. Mohamed Minkailou, from the Department of English at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines.

I was reporting my taboo hunt form the previous week, and to my delight, Prof. Minkailou said that he had published an article on euphemisms in Songhay. The data are from Faraw! Mother of the Dunes, a film in standard Songhai (which is based on the Songhay variety spoken in Gao, Gao Senni). It turns out that snakes are seen as such distasteful entities that their names – salaamun and gondi – tend not to be pronounced at all. Instead, the euphemism gandarfu ‘a rope on the ground’ is used at all times. We didn’t have the time to explore the motivation for this taboo, or its relations to other items unsayable in the darkness. But the article also mentions the word for witch, carkaw, which cannot be said at night and has to be replaced by cijin boro – ‘person of the night’ – so the dangers of witchcraft seem to linger in Songhay taboos, as they do in other languages of the wider area.

But euphemisms in Songhai go much further, even prompting marriage partners to avoid calling their spouses ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ and making them employ the term filaana ‘someone’ (from Arabic fulaan), sometimes preposed by aru ‘man’ or woy ‘woman’. I would love to share the article with you – the journal in which it appeared even has a website:, but it had only a spurious existence – the link is broken. I have permission to share the paper, so here the link to the PDF and the reference:

Minkailou, Mohamed. 2016. Exploring euphemism in standard Songhay. Recherches Africaines. Annales de l’Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Bamako 16: 31-39.

And please, if you know of websites disseminating African research from the continent, please leave the link in a comment below the line!

“My Songhay keeps growing”

My colleague Klaudia Drombowsky-Hahn and I have spent a week with students from the English Department at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines and staff members from AMALAN, The Academy of Malian Languages. As part of Klaudia’s course, all of us drew our language portraits. Developed by the Austrian linguist Britta Busch, language portraits have been developed and are now widely used as a method to evoke linguistic repertoires that, while still eliciting them in terms of codes or languages that can be named, avoids the straitjackets of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’, ‘L1’, ‘dominant language’, and so on. Rather, it is left to individuals to imagine and execute the task, which is to fill in (or draw and write around) a silhouette, through focusing on all languages that play a role in their lives.

Here you can see the language portrait of one of the course participants.

In terms of named languages, her repertoire comprises Songhay, Tamasheq, Arabic, Bambara, English and French. So, does this mean she speaks five languages? And is one of them her mother tongue? The silhouette, together with some explanations offered by her reveals that Songhai – to be precise two different Songhai varieties, Gao Senni – also callled Koyraboro Senni, the language of the town dwellers – and Tumbutu Chiini, aka Koyra Chiini ‘city language’, are important because the whole family lived in the two northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao, cities whose alternative language names set them apart from surrounding nomadic populations.

Tamasheq qualifies as her ‘mother tongue’ in the literal sense of being her mother’s language, different from her father’s. She uses it mainly when visiting the maternal side of the family, who follow a nomadic lifestyle. Arabic is an important language for her, but she feels constrained in it because of the way it was taught to her: the followed courses in Modern Standard Arabic at the university, where students were only taught to read and write it, and where oral language use had no place.

Bambara is a language she already spoke before coming to the south of Mali, to Bamako, to study. But it really only took off when she was exposed to it there, where it is spoken by everybody, so she is still learning it. Bambara is followed by English, the language we also use totalk to each other, because we are in the English Department and teaching takes place in English, in which the students are highly fluent. She learned Englishonly from 7 to 9 grade, and then at university when she enrolled in the English programme.

French somehow is mentioned last in the conversation we have about her language portrait, but this doesn’t mean that it is very remote fromher daily life. It is not only the main language of her formal educational experience, but also a language she speaks with friends, and spoke with her father during her childhood. English and Tamasheq are in her heart; French and Songhay in her head, and they keep growing

Language portraits vividly illustrate how important it is to let go of fixed assumptions about the role languages might play in people’s lives and to invite them (even if a frame and perspective can’t be avoided altogether) to develop their own metaphors on what languages mean to them.

Read on language biographies and language portraits in this article:

Busch, Brigitta (2006): Language biographies. Approaches to multilingualism in education and linguistic research. In PRAESA Occasional Papers, pp. 5–18.

What is ‘African’ African linguistics? Or what could it be(come)?

I’m excited this week, because I’m teaching African linguistics to Malian students at the Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines in Bamako. There is no degree programme in Malian or African languages and linguistics here, and therefore my colleague Ibrahima Cissé had the ingenious idea to invite colleagues from his network to come and teach as part of the English Master, in English. My colleague Klaudia Dombrowsky-Hahn, who teaches at Frankfurt and Bayreuth, is also here, and we follow each other’s classes.

African linguistics started out as a colonial discipline, when colonial administrators and missionaries started being interests in the languages of the the interior of the continent that they had conquered in the second half of the 19th century. As a discipline that is concerned with sub-Saharan Africa – an entity that only becomes meaningful through European eyes, adopting problematic racial and geographic boundaries – it still is very much inscribed into a paradigm dating back to colonial times, which coincided with particular racial prejudices, and also with the heyday of romantic ethnonationalism in Europe. The legacies of this lens, which led them to discover mini-peoples (aka ‘tribes’ or ethnic groups), united by a language and a territory, in societies governed by very different principles of cohabitation, loom large. So my course started by discussing visions of language inherent in the work of colonial actors and investigating alternative visions of Malian linguists. Surprisingly to many, lead-language writing transferring French writing norms to Malian languages was started by a Malian linguist, Moussa Travelé, and was frowned upon by French linguists, who according to their purist language logics wanted to keep languages separate and also did not want to ‘corrupt’ African languages or French by allowing transferences and similarities in writing – so the official alphabets of many African languages are closer to colonial language ideas than the French-based writing practices many Malians use until today. An example of the latter follows.

Moussa Travelé’s Bambara dictonary, using French lead-language writing

The writing conventions developed by the colonial administrator and linguist Maurice Delafosse, which aimed at writing Bambara different from French, can be seen here:

Content pages from Delafosse’s (1901) Bambara course book

The ensuing debate showed how important it is to lay bare these different visions and their motivations, which co-exist in different sociolinguistic spaces and in people’s imaginations. The debate will continue tomorrow!

To read more about the colonial history of linguistics in (French) West Africa, read these books:

Adejunmobi, Moradewun (2004): Vernacular palaver. Imaginations of the local and non-native languages in West Africa. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

van den Avenne, Cécile (2017): De la bouche même des indigènes. Échanges linguistiques en Afrique coloniale. Paris: Éditions Vendémiaire.

Transatlantic beans

Another taster typed on my phone and posted while the internet gods are in a good mood. True to its name it brings you a snack straight from the streets of Bamako… or Lagos… or Accra… or even Salvador de Bahia:

Akara: the snack that conquered the Atlantic world

These little morsels made from black-eyed beans have travelled all over West Africa and beyond, to Brazil, where they are especially well known in Bahia.

And it’s not just the food that has traveled. Its name as well has come along. Said to originate in Yoruba, where the bean fritters are called àkàrá, they are called by the name akara in Ghana, Togo, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia… and as acarajé in Brazil.

So feasting on this snack in land-locked Bamako, hundreds of kilometres from the Atlantic, connects me with food stalls across the Atlantic world.

The moving red eye

Emotions are not universal. They are expressed in cultural scripts reflected in language, sometimes over wide areas, but drawing on very diverse sources. The metaphors used to describe feelings often can focus on particular body parts as the locus of an emotion. In the Kwa language Ewe of Ghana, some emotional expression – those roughly corresponding to jealousy, envy and covetousness – are built on the image of a red/and or moving eye. Here some examples:

Examples for emotions expressed with ‘eye’ in Ewe (Ameka 2002: 28)

What is special about these expressions is that they feature a specialised and conventionalised use of the term ‘eye’. Ameka distinguishes a psychological and a physical use of eyes. Only the former features in the expression of emotions. It is recognisably different from the physical, body part, eye, which can occur in the plural – after all, we tend to have two eyes. The expressions of negative feelings in the example above can never be used in the plural. There are more differences between ‘ordinary’ and ’emotional’ uses of the word ‘eye’ in Ewe. Read Felix Ameka’s article to which I link below.

But I must go away now and research the origins and exact meaning of the Bambara phrase n sinamuso nyɛ fin ‘ the black eye of my co-wife’. I only know it from the textile design that is named after is, for instance for a wax like the one below. If I remember correctly, the black eye stands for the co-wife’s anger, provoked by her rival wearing such a beautiful wax. When wearing a wrapper bearing the design, the emotion is not evoked through language, but delicately and indirectly through talking fabrics. After all, communicating through speech only would be so limiting!

Wax of the type “N sinamuso nyɛ fin

Here the link to Felix Ameka’s article:

Ameka, Felix K. 2002. Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: On ‘jealousy’ and related emotions in Ewe. Pragmatics and Cognition 10(1):

Are you there?

Although they are not contained in most descriptive grammars, greetings are highly prominent in everyday interactions across West Africa. Much more than the mumbled answer ‘Not too bad, thanks’ to the question ‘How are you?’ or the two word sequences that are used in many European languages, greetings in West Africa are elaborate rituals that take time, are savoured, and structure every single encounter.

This video by Coleman Donaldson gives you a vivid idea of the importance of greetings in the Mande world, and also shows some greetings in Bambara straight from the capital of Mali, Bamako. As in the example from Ewe, a Gbe language of Ghana, below, greetings are realised in relatively fixed sequences that form part of a larger cultural script for visits, encounters, leave-taking, etc.

Example for a greeting exchange in Ewe (Ameka 2009: 136)

In this greeting, the interlocutors know each other. If they don’t, it is part and parcel of many greeting routines to find out the family name of the interlocutor. In fact, in Baïnounk languages, this is reflected in language to the extent that the word for ‘family name’, guram, contains the root ram ‘greet’. And knowing this name, which gives information on their clan or lineage, is essential in order to establish how to relate to strangers, as it gives information on their social status, their likely place or area of residence, and which language(s) they might speak. Greeting unknown people tends to involve additional evidence gathering, until both parties have established how they are related to each other.

But even people who know each other and see each other on a daily basis will take care to greet. It is common to pay visits to neighbours with the sole purpose of greeting them. You might think that this is changing in cities, but in places where there is less dense face-to-face interaction with people one might see again, virtual networks are maintained via phone calls, texts, or social media and complement direct exchanges in village-like local neighbourhoods. In Gubëeher, spoken in the village Djibonker in Casamance, a greeting question is Umoona? ‘Are you there?’ Far more than stating the obvious, greeting, then, is an immediate affirmation of existence.

Read more on access rituals in West Africa in this paper by Felix Ameka:

Ameka, Felix K. (2009): Access rituals in West African communities: an ethnopragmatic perspective. In Gunter Senft, Ellen B. Basso (Eds.): Ritual communication. Oxford: Berg, pp. 127–151.

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.

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