We’re all in it together. But wait, are we really?

Some of you might think this is a post about British politics. But even for those to whom this post does not evoke elusive promises by politicians it might be useful to imagine a language that makes it crystal clear who is meant by a message such as “We’re all in it together.” Does it really intend to include speaker and all addressees, without any wiggle room? For those of you who’d prefer a language that unambiguously signals whether speakers makes an assertion that includes everybody they talk to and about or not, West African languages are here to help.

Many of these languages, for instance Fula, Jalonke, many Baïnounk and Joola languages and Casamance Creole, prove themselves useful by distinguishing in their first person plural pronouns (‘we’) whether the addressees are included (all of us, including YOU) or not (all of us, excluding YOU). In these languages, it makes a crucial difference whether somebody says, as in this example from Baïnounk Gujaher:

Ankëbëndoŋ kahar.
‘We eat meat (including you).’


Ankëbëminiŋ kahar.
‘We (but not you) eat meat.’

If you’ve ever walked away hungry from a dinner table, you’ll get the salience of this difference. Speakers of languages that mark it simply can’t be vague about who is included in the statement, as the languages don’t let them get away with evasiveness in the matter. Other related languages, some of them spoken by populations multilingual in languages with the inclusive/exclusive distinction, do not mark it. Among them are Mandinka, Bambara and Wolof. So clearly, if you’re a politician (or just a random cunning person), and you don’t want to commit to whom your assertion extends to, speak English, Wolof, or Mandinka – but better not Gujaher.

Persisting connections

In today’s post on African indigenous languages, I will look again at translatlantic connections. It is not only the Portuguese who have left their imprint across the globe from the first wave of globalisation onwards, which started when they landed on the shores of the Upper Guinea Coast in the 15th century. As we have seen in my post on the Bran community in Peru, Africans who were deported to the Americas and the Carribean as slaves took elements of material culture, languages and cultural techniques with them and adapted them in interaction with their new environment, even though this was a risky endeavour. The linguistic influences from West Central Africa on the Creoles of the Carribean are well researched. Those left by inhabitants of the Upper Guinea Coast are not well known at all. A large contingent of slaves from this geographical area was transported to northeastern Brazil, to the state of Maranhão, in the 19th century. Although no research on linguistic vestiges of their origins has taken place, one prominent souvenir sticks out: it’s the signature dish of Maranhão, arroz con cuxá [kuʃa]. It consists of rice with a sauce made from Guinea sorrel, which, as its English name signals, comes from the Upper Guinea Coast. Its Mandinka word is kucaa [kuʧa:].

When I visited Maranhão, I was struck by the eery resemblances in architecture, topography and vegetation between Maranhão and the Upper Guinea Coast. Both feature Portuguese colonial buildings and landscapes with sunken coast lines, swamps and tidal rivers whose banks are overgrown with mangrove. What feelings may this have triggered in slaves who found themselves in new, hostile, yet utterly familiar surroundings after the middle passage? The photos below give you a glimpse of the similarities. The bottom one shows the harbour of Gorée island, in present-day Senegal (It was taken in 1995 when I visited the island for the first time). The one below shows the old town of São Luis, the capital of Maranhão.

The old town of São Luis in Maranhão, Brazil in 2017
The harbour of Gorèe in Senegal in 1995