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

From the heart of Mali to the shores of the Atlantic

A while ago I posted on Sigismund Koelle whose Polyglotta Africana remains the earliest comprehensive word list of African languages. In mid-19th century Freetown, he had occasion to interview many liberated slaves, traders and brokers who flocked to this cosmopolitan place. I have decided to dedicate blog posts to his “informants”, as he called the people from whom he gathered linguistic information, so once in a while I will put not the collector, but the source of information, in the spotlight.

Differently to many of his contemporaries, Koelle took care to provide biographical information on his interlocutors, though it is not always complete, and he also recorded names of places and languages without superimposing his own perspective on theirs. The vignettes on informants thus offer rare insight into how they themselves described their provenance and labelled their languages and groups.

In today’s post, I present Mahammadu (no family name provided), a trader from Kaba. Kaba, or Kangaba, as it is called today, is located in present-day Mali. It is the legendary first capital of the Mali Empire, where members of the Keita lineage claiming descent from Sunjata, its first emperor, built a sanctuary whose construction is ceremonially restaged every seven years. Here is what Koelle has to say about Mahammadu and his language:

From Koelle (1854: 2)

It is interesting that Koelle observes the relationship between places and languages and groups – they are often associated to specific places. What he doesn’t capture is that nga in all likelihood is not a “patronymic termination” but corresponds to the word [kã], < kan>, ‘voice, language’ and used in present-day Bambara and other related languages to create language names. In Mahammadu’s testimony, kan is probably added to Manden, giving rise to Mandenkan ‘the Manden language’ or’ the language of Manden’, today commonly known as Maninka (malinké in French).

And yes, I know. Nobody heeded Koelle’s complaints about the erroneous i. He’d be outraged. It is firmly there in gloss Onyema such as Mandinka, Maninka and Manding, the most widely used names for the local variety of Kaba and the language cluster of which it is seen to be a part of.

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):

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.