Writing from the UK, where questions of exiting loom large, I can’t help being affected by the uncertainties of this country about its trajectory. For many, it’s clear what they want to move away from, but where they’re going seems completely in the dark. It’s not the English language that is at fault here, as English allows verbs of leaving to occur with source-denoting prepositions (exit from Brexit), path-denoting ones (exit through the gift shop), but also with prepositional phrases indicating a goal of motion (exit to nowhere).

In the Mande language Jalonke of Guinea, such generous conflation of meanings does not happen. Verbs of directed movement such as ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ are limited to the expression of only one particular direction. For ‘enter’, soo, this is motion towards the goal; and for ‘exit’, keli, it is movement away from a source. This is because in Jalonke, unlike in English, adpositions only express a particular location in space, and not the direction of movement. To express that component of meaning is left to the verb itself.

Have a look at these two sentences. Both feature the postpostion kwi ‘in’, but once with soo ‘enter’ to yield ‘enter into’, and once with keli ‘exit’ to give rise to ‘leave from within’:

Lüpke (2005: 115)

Still not convinced? Have a look at these two sentences. The first one doesn’t have a verb at all, only an object that is located (a jar) and its location. In this case, a static location is expressed. The second one has the compound verb sabaana soo ‘play’ (not to be confounded with soo by itself – its literal meaning is ‘enter the play’). There’s no movement in the verb, so again, location, rather than movement, is expressed.

Lüpke (2005: 115)

But in Jalonke, it is very uncommon to just specify where one leaves from – it is much more widespread to find sequences such as ‘we left there, and then we went here’, nxo keli na, nxo faa ji. Good linguistic forward planning, isn’t it?

Read more on Jalonke here:

Lüpke, Friederike.2005. A grammar of Jalonke argument structure. Nijmegen: MPI Series in Psycholinguistics 30

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.

West African keepers of words

Yesterday’s post focused on old yet often overlooked literacy practices. Today, inspired by a lecture of my colleague Lucy Durán, I look at oral transmission of language and memory, by zooming in on a particular social group widespread in most West African societies. There, a social category called griots in French, bards or praise singers in English and jeliw in Manding languages. is omnipresent. A three-partite society composed of nobles (hɔrɔnw in Manding), professional groups and artisans (nyamakalaw in Manding) and slaves (jɔnw) is typical for Mande societies and those in the realm of the Mali empire. Allegedly, this blueprint for a stratified society goes back to the founder of the Mali Empire, Sunjata Keita who ruled from 1217 to 1255, and who instituted them as a means for creating social cohesion in his newly founded state that brought together many different lineages and languages. We can’t know for sure whether this is a post-hoc explanation for the ways in which social relations are perceived and maintained through the roles of these social groups and norms of interaction between them, regardless of language or origin, but clearly, these social categories travelled through the spaces associated with Mali at different times.

Have a look at this table, which shows you the words designating some of the professional status groups in languages of the region:

Names for categories within the professional groups as presented in Tamari, Tal (1991): The development of caste systems in West Africa. In Journal of African History 32 (2), pp. 221–250.

I will have much more to say in future posts about these different groups and how many of them are associated with particular lineages and therefore indirectly with specific languages, and how this division of labour is the basis for coexistence in multilingual and multicultural settlements and societies. For today, let’s stay with bards, praise singers, keepers of genealogies and history. Members of this group are masters of verbal art. In Wolof societies, they are said to speak with much more care than members of other groups, and Judith Irvine reports that nobles often speak using simplified morphology and less elaborate style just to distinguish themselves from géwél. They are artisans, and their inherited craft is the word. In societies to the south and east of Mande, they are called ‘linguists’ – certainly a reminder to linguists to pay more attention to their registers of speech.

A wonderful portrait of a contemporary jeli, Mali’s famous Bako Dagnon, can be found in this film by Lucy Durán:

The voice of tradition: Bako Dagnon and family

You can read on Wolof géwél and their speech in this article:

Irvine, Judith T. 1975. Wolof speech styles and social status. Working papers in sociolinguistics 23

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