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

Words that sound their meanings

It’s the weekend, and time to have some fun with language in today’s post honouring African indigenous languages. Words that add expressiveness to utterances exist in all languages, (‘vroum vroum‘, ‘nee-no-nee-no‘, ‘zack‘…), but they are extremely widespread in African languages, to the extent that the term ‘ideophone’ (according to Welmers 1973 “a vivid representation of an idea in a sound”) was coined by the Africanist Clement Doke in 1935 to designate sound-symbolic words that convey in iconic fashion properties of objects and actions. Ideophones can add meaning on sound, colour, size, shape, pattern of movement, texture, intensity and much more. The Mande language Bambara of Mali has its own word class of expressive adverbs that are all ideophonic. Some ideophones in Bambara are very specialized and only occur with one single notion, for instance with colours. Po, pyan, pye, pas, pa, pelepele, poro and puli (pronounced with extra high pitch) all combine with the colour term ‘white’ and only with it to give rise to the meaning ‘very white’. Other ideophones occur with several notions and receive their contextual meaning from the combination with a verb or noun. To these belong bagibagi, which describes boiling water, high fever and generally high temperatures, kolokoto ‘totally’, used with expressions of failure, or burututu‘ ceaseless’. One of my all-time favourites is fugubɛfugubɛ, which combines with motion verbs to give an impression of quick, agitated motion. If you know Malian sartorial style, you can hear flapping robes trailing in the tailwind of a person taking great strides!

You can read more on ideophones in Bambara in this article:

Dumestre Gérard. Les idéophones : le cas du bambara. In: Faits de langues, n°11-12, Octobre 1998. Les langues d’Afrique subsaharienne. pp. 321-334

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’


Sulemaana Kantè: writing unity in difference

My first post on indigenous African languages is dedicated to Sulemaana Kantè, the Guinean inventor of the N’ko script for the writing of Manding languages. He has been called a cultural fundamentalist by Jean-Loup Amselle, because he created a script and linguistic standard aiming at unifying a Manding language out of a cluster of closely related and fluidly interwoven registers spanning several countries in 1949. But characterizing him as an ethnonationalist does not do justice to his vision, which is one of creating unity while respecting difference, making it very faithful to the many social exchanges that acknowledge and thrive on diversity in the Mande world. His version of a standard language does not erase variation or impose one lect to the exclusion of other local varieties, unlike its colonially created contemporaries. The forms of a ‘clear register’ called kángbɛ and mainly based on his native Maninka are taught to disciples of N’ko, but at the same time they receive profound knowledge of the etymologies of these forms, of their correspondences in other local varieties, and of regular sound correspondences between forms in different lects.

nko in nko
The word N’ko in the N’ko script. N ko means ‘I say’ in Manding language

Kantè’s legacy lives on, since N’ko has become a very influential alternative to the barely used colonial standard language Bambara, and because his philosophy connects writing and literary production to local experience and Mande political imagination.

You can read more about him and N’ko in the articles below, and in Coleman Donaldson’s PhD thesis, among several other references:

Vydrine, Valentin (2001): Souleymane Kante, un philosophe-innovateur traditionnaliste maninka, vu à travers ses ecrits en Nko. In Mande Studies 3, pp. 99–131. 

Donaldson, Coleman. 2018. Orthography, standardization and register: The case of Manding. In Pia Lane, James Costa & Haley de Korne (eds.), Standardizing minority languages, 175–199. New York and London: Routledge.