My pronoun is: 3rd person singular

As a new resident of Finland and keen learner of Finnish, I was delighted when a Finnish personal pronoun appeared on ads all across Europe. Plastered on tube tunnel walls and advertising boards in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Stockholm and Sydney, witty posters thanked European languages for their lexical gifts to the Finnish language but also announced Finland’s gift to the world: hän.

A little word punching far above its weight according to the Finland Promotion Board and Finnish embassies across the world: “Equality forms a core value for Finland and its people, and the best symbol of Finnish equality is a personal pronoun from the Finnish language: hän. The third-person singular pronoun hän is neutral in terms of gender and social status, so it represents equal opportunity. It is “she” and “he,” all at once, and it has always existed in the Finnish language.”

Occasionally, commentators on social media pointed out that there are, of course, other languages that don’t distinguish between natural genders in their pronouns. But it has escaped attention that the vast majority of African languages does not make a difference between he and she, his and hers. So, really sorry to say it, but move over Finnish, here come the Niger-Congo languages!

This group of languages comprises thousands of languages and covers a huge area of the African continent. Which languages belong to this, the world’s largest, family beyond its inner core, is a matter of debate. But one thing unites them: the absence of natural gender in their rich and varied gender systems. The number of genders and of the distinctions on which they are based differs widely. Many languages have genders for nouns that denote referents with particular shapes, as does the Atlantic language Gujaher, on whose gender system I blogged earlier here and here. Most languages have particular genders for very big and very small items, and all of them have a class that collects most human beings. But within humans, no grammatical distinction between male and female referents that could give rise to masculine and feminine genders is made. In the third person, pronouns or agreement markers either encode the gender of the noun they refer to or simply the person and number – 1st, 2nd. 3rd, singular, plural, collective… Here are the six subject pronouns of Yoruba from Ayọ Bamgbose’s (2000 )grammar, with no sex distinction in sight:

Bamgbose (2000: 106)

Cross-linguistically, the absence of biological gender is rather unusual, as you can read in Greville Corbett’s gender overview in the World Atlas of Language Structures. But do gender-neutral languages advance gender equality, as claimed by the Finland Publicity Board? Some might say yes, including the Swedish campaigners who introduced the gender-neutral pronoun hen into this language, with otherwise marks biological gender in pronouns. Or the feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí , author of The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. She argues, based on evidence that includes linguistic organisation and the absence of the marking of natural gender going hand in hand with marking of seniority in the language system (on which I have written in this post) that male and female genders were no meaningful social categories in precolonial Africa.

Language can both be a symptom, a fossilised indicator, of deeply rooted social structures (since language encodes those categories best that speakers care(d) for most), and a driver for social change. But languages with and without natural gender distinctions co-exist in the same geographical spaces ad are spoken by multilingual populations with very diverse local cultures. This holds for Swedish and Finnish, and for Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic languages (many of which do have sex-based pronouns), among others.

Regarding their role in social change, then, languages can at best serve as a blank slate which can be co-opted in imagining it, as done by the Finland Promotion Board: “Finland wants to encourage international dialogue on equality by introducing a Finnish word to the world: hän. In this campaign, hän is a tool for telling the Finnish story about equality as a source of strength for society.” Billions of speakers of African Niger-Congo languages could lend their words to this endeavour. Because their pronoun is…. 3rd person singular.


Bamgbose, Ayọ. 2000. A grammar of Yoruba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Corbett, Greville. 2013. Sex-based and non-sex-based gender systems. In: Dryer, Matthew. S and Haspelmath, Martin (eds.): The World atlas of language structures. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Oyèrónkẹ́, Oyèwùmí. 1997. The invention of women: Making an African sense of Western gender discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Getting planes into Bijogo

After having been mainly engrossed with Mande languages recently it’s time to return to the Upper Guinea Coast for a bit. Today, I’m taking you to the Bijagos archipelago off the coast of Guinea Bissau, where Bijogo languages are spoken. Bijogo languages have noun classes, which in these languages mostly take the form of prefixes. For all languages with gender or noun class systems, the way in which loanwords (a silly name, since the words are there to stay) are integrated offers insight into the various ways in which words are assigned noun classes or genders.

One option is the form of the word. Bijogo has a noun class marker ka-, which forms its plural with ŋa-. If a a borrowed item starts in k(a)-, it is reanalysed as belonging to noun class ka-, and is given a plural form in ŋa-, as you can see in these examples, which all figure words from Portuguese-based Kriol (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
karta karta ŋa-rta ‘letter’
kalsa kadisa ŋa-disa ‘trousers’
kopu kɔp ŋa-ɔp ‘glass’
guuja kuuja ŋa-uuja ‘needle’

Misfits whose initial syllables don’t neatly match an existing noun class prefix, can retain their bare forms in the singular and get the prefix – in the plural, as do these three words (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
lebri dɛbri kɔ-dɛbri ‘hare’
mango mango kɔ-mango ‘mango’
boti boti ko-boti ‘boat’

This is also an option for words that start in a vowel, such as arupudanu ‘plane’, or aju ‘garlic’, – they can also enter the ko-class in the plural and turn into kɔ-aju and ku-rupudanu. Words whose meanings fit those of an existing noun class paradigm, as the ones for humans, they get fully integrated and get a noun class for the singular and the plural (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
soldadi ɔ-soɔndane ya-soɔndane ‘soldier’
fransis ɔ-paransis ya-ɔparansis ‘French person’
fula ɔ-puda ya-puda ‘Fula person’

Sometimes, these words unwittingly give their age away. Because arupudanu (from Portuguese aeroplano)is not used anymore in present-day Kriol but has been replaced by avion (from Portuguese avião), we can conclude that the word was most likely introduced into Bijogo in the first half of the 20th century according to Segerer (2002), from whose grammar of Bubaque Bijogo this information is taken.

Here comes the full reference:

Segerer, Guillaume. 2002. La langue bijogo de Bubaques (Guinea Bissau). Louvain/Paris: Peeters

(No) strings attached

The observation that many noun class systems – characterised by nominal inflections in which all nouns in a language are formally marked by so-called noun classes or gender – have plants and their classification at their core goes back to Brent Berlin. True to this finding, many Atlantic languages have genders (paired noun classes for singular and one or several plurals) for trees, fruit, seeds and smaller plant-based items. You can find some examples in this post. These noun classes can be extended to items that are similar to botanical items in various respects: they can have a longest vertical axis just like trees, be spherical or have a round diameter like many fruit, or occur in an extended assemblage or a mass just like creepers or beans. Many Baïnounk languages, spoken in and around the Casamance region of Senegal, have an additional gender for string-like objects. Have a look at these nouns that are among those that enter the ‘string’ gender in Baïnounk Gujaher:

Singular form Plural form Gloss
cin-niba ñan-niba ‘shrub of the species Dombeya quinqueseta (Delile) Exell’
ciŋ-ŋaarara ñaŋ-ŋaarara ‘vine of the Smilax anceps Willd.’
cil-lug ñal-lug ‘marrow plant’
ciŋ-kal ñaŋ-kal ‘tail’
cin-díít ñan-díít ‘intestine’
cin-tííb ñan-tííb ‘trace’
cil-líít ñal-líít ‘ribbon’

What is remarkable is the origin of the class marker cin-. It is transparently related to the word denoting ‘bark’, ‘rope’ and ‘string’ – cin-cind. So the root cind occurs with a noun class marker that is probably derived from it to classify rope as a string-like item. The link to the botanical domain is still very salient, as ropes and strings are made from the bark of trees and from the stalks of vines and creepers.

A climbing belt made from plant fiber and string

But what is even neater is the metaphorical extension of the prefix cin– into other domains. It is used to create the noun ‘family name’, cir-ram, literally cin-greet. Greeting is a reciprocal activity that connects two people, and verbal nouns and infinitives linking participants via social activities are created using cin-, in addition to being marked with the reciprocal suffix –ai.

Gujaher infinitive Gloss
cinsukai ‘accompany each other’
cinfeyai ‘hate each other’
cinnannai ‘exchange’ (lit.: cin-give-reciprocal)
cinramai ‘greet each other’
cinyikai ‘have problems with each other’
cimbicai ‘divorce each other’
cimbutai ‘share with each other’
cimmaŋai ‘love each other’

I can hear some of you thinking aloud: “Why is ‘to marry’ not in the list when ‘love’ and ‘divorce’ are? It’s perhaps the most prototypical reciprocal activity!” Well, not in Gujaher (and in fact in many West African languages. While the verbs with cin– above denote activities that are thought about as involving a relationship or an exchange between two equally agentive participants, whose roles can be reversed, ‘marry’ is not construed in this way. The infinitive for ‘marry’ is bujax in Gujaher, taking a different noun class marker to signal the infinitive. The verb can only have men as agents – they are seen as taking women in marriage. Women can only be taken in marriage, so no reciprocity here. They are equal in love, hate and divorce though!

Liquid salt

Most languages of the Niger-Congo stock (a large grouping of languages that are likely to go back to one single ancestor language) have rich noun class systems, on which I’ve written before in several posts. Some families within this large group don’t, among them Mande languages, and this is one of the numerous reasons while the historical relationships between these languages are tenuous. The ways in which noun class systems are organised are really different from language to language, but one striking fact sticks out: the vast majority of Niger-Congo languages with noun classes dedicate a particular noun class to liquids, and, highly unusually, the affix that formally signals this noun class has a similar shape across them. Liquids bear a noun class marker with that has the initial consonant m.

Okay, some of you will say, so if I want to order a coke, I’ll just stick an m in front, and I’ll have a word that could belong to a Niger-Congo language. But you already have a hunch that this would be too easy, don’t you? In noun class systems, items are not put into a noun class based on a single criterion. Rather, these classification systems are built up over time, and while speakers may put an object into a particular class based on different and conflicting criteria (being a ‘natural’ liquid such as sap, blood or tears as opposed to being man-made, for instance) at any point in time, this is even more true over time. But many liquids, and in particular those that occur as liquids in the natural world, are marked with m. Here are the only six words I have found in this class in Baïnounk Gujaher to give you a taste:

Gujaher form Gloss
mun-saal ‘urine’
mun-jil ‘tear’
mun-yin ‘milk’
mul-leen ‘blood’
muŋ-xaana ‘oil’
mum-méér ‘salt

Clearly, all of these words denote liquids. All of them? Some of you may have stumbled over ‘salt’. Why would this crystal be categorised as similar to blood? Looking at how salt is made in Casamance provides the necessary clue. In this area close to the sunken coast line of the Upper Guinea Coast, rivers are tidal and carry salt water far inland. Out of the salty soil close to the rivers, salt is won by extraction through mixing it with water and then evaporating the repeatedly filtered salty water by putting it to the boil until the salt crystals remain. Imagine a future where everybody in Casamance buys salt in shops and this practice is lost. The language would still reflect the experiences of previous generations that salt arrived as water, got absorbed by the soil, and turned into a liquid again before being reduced to its final state.

Here you can see salt and its transformation from solid to liquid and back.

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.

On circular medicine

Thursday is noun class day in my developing routine to post on African indigenous languages throughout the year. I mentioned in my first post on noun classes last week that in many Atlantic languages, nouns are not assigned a gender, but rather, nouns are created from semantically general roots through the combination with multiple noun class markers, and that the meaning carried by noun class marker adds a concrete meaning component that gives rise to a noun. Consider the noun class prefixes bu- and i- in Gujaher, spoken in Southern Senegal. These noun class markers, for the singular and plural respectively, carry the meaning ’round, circular’. When combined with roots designing plant matter, the resulting nouns denote fruit or tubers, as in bu-liimo ‘orange’. Bu-diin, literally ’round-rain’ is the word for well or cistern.

Many spherical objects or entities with a circular diameter are realised in this gender, for instance the sun (bu-nëg), and words for round containers (e.g., bu-dux ‘pot for storing drinking water’). The words denoting other concepts related to the meaning of the root are realised in other genders. The word for orange tree, for instance, is created through the combination of the root liimo that we have seen above with the noun class markers for trees and elongated objects (ci‘- in the singular and mun- in the plural). Medicine is often made from plants, and therefore the root han ‘related to medicine’ turns into the lexeme ‘medicine’ when combined with ci’– and mun-. Bu-han, in the circular gender, means ‘medicine pot’. But who knows, maybe with the advent of pills and tablets bu-han ‘circular medicine’ will extend its meaning to denote them as well!

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’