Writing repertoires

People in Casamance in Senegal are famously multilingual. But what works seamlessly in the oral modality is quickly turned into a burden in writing though.

If literacy is taught based on a strict norm, a language-based standard, writing more than one language requires much effort, since the conventions of several orthographies need to be taught, learned, memorised and put to the task. Most literacy campaigns in national languages therefore introduce literacy in only one language in any given area.

But what to do if your village hosts speakers of many different languages, such as Agnack, where speakers of Baïnounk Gujaher, Mandinka, various Joola languages, Mankanya, Kriol, and other languages cohabit? What if you want to write a note to a neighbour with whom you communicate in Mandinka but also want to keep a diary in Baïnounk Gujaher and leave a comment on Facebook of a friend in Dakar in Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca?

Driven by this question, a team of local transcribers, teachers, and linguists came up with the LILIEMA method, which introduces literacy based on entire repertoires rather than basing its teaching on one language only. Using the official alphabet of Senegalese languages, writers learn sound-letter associations based on words from the entire repertoire in the classroom and are thus enabled to express themselves in any language they wish in writing.

You can see LILIEMA in use on the Donkosira blog, where inhabitants of Agnack blog on aspects of local knowledge they want to share, and were they regularly use several languages to reach a wide audience with their posts. Have a look at this post for instance, on rice cultivation, which features Baïnounk Gujaher and Mandinka in addition to French, which is the only language written in its own and distinct orthography, since its is firmly inscribed into a European standard culture. Other posts feature Kriol or Joola Fogny, liberating writers and readers from impossible choices and setting them free to express themselves in writing as flexibly as they would in speaking.

There might be West African languages in your beauty regime

Indulge in body butter? Look after your lips with a velvety lip balm? The chances are that your cosmetics contain an ingredient whose name betrays the origin of one of the oils used in them: shea butter or beurre de karité.

They are made from oil of nuts of the same plant, Vitellaria paradoxa. In English, it is called the shea trea, but guess where this designation hails from? I was reminded of its origins when watching Na baro kè’s brilliant video chat on the cold season, in which inhabitants of the city of Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso mentioned that they use body lotion, si tulu (literally shea oil, often pronounced with a sh sound, phonetic [ʃ]) in the Bambara language.

So how did shea oil or butter, si tulu, into beurre de karité? Whichever French-speaking person introduced this word to the French language took inspiration from Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal. In Wolof, the shea trea is called kaarite.

So whenever you use shea butter or beurre de karité, you’re connecting with a West African language linking the word to the area where the product is grown and harvested.

Setting free the tongues

It is International Mother Tongue Day today, and across the globe people are celebrating the languages that are important for their lives. Very often, these languages are marginalised and minoritised, deprived of prestige and recognition, and one of the purposes of Mother Tongue Day is to put them into the spotlight for at least one day.

But persistent imaginations of what a mother tongue is, carried over from the European context in which the concept was coined, through the choice of words and the language ideas behind them, actually penalise speakers of languages whose language lives don’t correspond to the expectations it creates. Most dictionaries capture these language ideologies by characterising a mother tongue as “the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult” (Cambridge English Dictionary”, as a synonym of “native language” (Marriam Webster). Collins offers a different interpretation, which potentially contradicts the former one: “Your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.” (Collins Online Dictionary) Wiktionary comes up with three definitions, one of which is similar to the Collins one: “the language spoken by your ancestors”, and a third: “the language spoken by one’s mother, when it differs from that spoken by one’s father”. Under the second and third definition, an individual can grow up not speaking their mother tongue (if they don’t learn their parents’ language), while under the first and most widespread one, this is a thing of impossibility, because by virtue of being a child’s first language, it becomes the mother tongue, even if it is not the one of parents or grandparents.

UNESCO, who initiated and continues to celebrate Mother Tongue Day, does not offer easily accessible definitions, and has made a multilingual turn, celebrating linguistic diversity and encouraging “mother-tongue based multilingual education”. This widening of perspective on repertoires and their diversity is welcome.

Yet, this is still too often translated into an insistence on the singular in practice, and on the idea of a clear context in which a child grows up with one and only one language that occupies this particular role, at least in their early lives, but ideally through to adulthood. But what about situations where individuals have no, or several, mother tongues (understood both as ancestral languages and as languages in which they are primarily socialised)? These contexts are globally in the majority, and in them, an individual may grow up hearing and speaking many different languages throughout the first years of their lives: the languages spoken in the court yard, the different languages spoken by different members of the family, by mothers who marry into communities of their husbands, by fathers who joined their wives, the languages associated with religion, and the languages of secret societies. Children may identify with ancestral languages not present in their environment, so that spoken and claimed languages don’t coincide. Or they may grow up moving between different linguistic ecologies and adapt seamlessly to these contexts, which turns them into adults with enhanced linguistic capacities who go on to keep learning languages throughout their lives. Crucially, in these contexts, none of the languages in an individual’s repertoire will fulfil the exclusive role suggested by the term ‘mother tongue’. So, insisting on mother tongue in the singular, or on one language with this total importance in a person’s life, reduces the richness and complexity of multilingual life experiences and shoehorns them into a choice that does not represent the roles of languages in individuals’ repertoires.

In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why “mother tongue education” in Africa, despite great verbal support, is not really taking off – because it doesn’t do justice to the real complexity of linguistic settings and of multifaceted and fluid linguistic identities. Any language policy that requires the selection of on one and only one language in a particular region will exclude many of its inhabitants and their repertoires. So, on Mother Tongue Day, let’s set free the tongues, and strip our appraisal of the functions of languages from Eurocentric baggage so that we can truly comprehend what linguistic diversity means.

Multiple or impossible choice? multilingualism as or instead of mother tongue. The repertoires of children in two household in the village of Agnack Grand, Senegal

To read more on multilingualism and the role of multiple languages, in particular in rural African communities often presented as monolingual, read this article:

Good, Jeff; Di Carlo, Pierpaolo; Ojong, Rachel (forthcoming): Multilingualism in rural Africa. In Mark Aronoff (Ed.): Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Linguistics, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If you want to be visually immersed in multilingual life in a West African village community, watch this film and check out the companion materials on its website:

Kanraxël – the confluence of Agnack

Transatlantic beans

Another taster typed on my phone and posted while the internet gods are in a good mood. True to its name it brings you a snack straight from the streets of Bamako… or Lagos… or Accra… or even Salvador de Bahia:

Akara: the snack that conquered the Atlantic world

These little morsels made from black-eyed beans have travelled all over West Africa and beyond, to Brazil, where they are especially well known in Bahia.

And it’s not just the food that has traveled. Its name as well has come along. Said to originate in Yoruba, where the bean fritters are called àkàrá, they are called by the name akara in Ghana, Togo, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia… and as acarajé in Brazil.

So feasting on this snack in land-locked Bamako, hundreds of kilometres from the Atlantic, connects me with food stalls across the Atlantic world.

Snap me one!

Languages are often boxed in in our thinking, with items belonging to one language, and with language being tacitly understood as spoken and written forms of expression only. Gesture and sign language research questions both these premises, by looking at how manual and bodily gestures are used in communication. Research on gesture, probably because it is also interested in the question of how and to what extent speech and gestures are aligned, has looked at the speech of bi- and multilinguals, taking language out of its box so to speak. What speakers do when they speak and gesture in languages that have different expressive possibilities provides insight into how integrated or separated these languages are for them.

In multilingual West Africa it makes a lot of sense to look at how people use their linguistic resources to communicate regardless of their association with one language, and how these resources can be fluid and changeable vs. associated with more conventionalised registers that can be named. Gestures are a prime example of communicative devices that can be independent of particular languages but are often shared in particular cultural spaces. An example of such a gesture, which will be familiar to many West African readers of this blog, is the “snap and point” gesture used for spatial recall and other functions described in this blog post by Chelsea Krajcik. Check out the video to see these gestures being produced.

Another example of culturally shared conventions for gesture has been documented by James Essegbey and Sotaro Kita. They report on a taboo respected all across Ghana that forbids pointing with the left hand. This practice has led to particular constraints that are widely respected, irrespective of spoken language. When people want to point to the left, they often need to contort their body or use both hands in gesturing, as this is not seen as offensive.

Examples of using the right hand or both hand when pointing left (from Kita & Essegbey 2001: 84)

Do you have examples of regionally distributed gestures? Leave a comment below the line if you do, it would be great to discover more of them together!

Read more on the left hand pointing taboo in Ghana here:

Kita, Sotaro & James Essegbey. 2001. Pointing left in Ghana. How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice. Gesture 1:1: 73-95

(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!

Breathe out… breathe in. Or not?

Taking some lungfuls of icy sea air over the weekend made me think about speech sounds and what West African specialities there are among them. Plain vanilla speech sounds tend to be produced with a pulmonic egressive air stream, that is, with air being exhaled from the lungs. Some speech sounds are formed by forming an obstacle somewhere in the mouth that is then released, first increasing the air pressure behind the closure, then releasing it, pushing the air outwards. Try it with a [b]. Your lips form an obstruction, air pressure builds behind your them, and when it is released, air leaves your mouth. But a much rarer class of speech sounds, so-called implosives, bears this name because supposedly, the glottis is lowered and causes negative air pressure, before the air is subsequently released outwards, causing some air to be initially sucked inwards. Hence the word implosive.

You can listen to an implosive in Owerri Igbo here. Now try it youself: say [b] again, but this time lower your glottis. Implosive consonants are written with a rightward little hook on the letter – you’ve seen them in some Fula words in previous posts in this blog, for instance in the one on bards, which featured the word lawɓe ‘woodworkers’. [ɓ] is the implosive counterpart of [b]. Voiced implosives are quite common; voiceless ones (formed without the vocal cords vibrating) are extremely rare. Seereer languages, spoken in Senegal, are among the languages that have both voiced and voiceless implosives, but only one variety of the language, Seereer Siin, has words that are only distinguished through having a voiced vs. a voiceless implosive. Have a look:

Minimal pairs featuring voiced and voiceless implosives in Seereer Siin (Mc Lauglin 2005: 203)

What makes these sounds even more intriguing is that in many languages they aren’t actually produced by negative air pressure forming behind an obstruction at all. Rather, what distinguishes them from explosive stops is that there is no positive air pressure involved, just absence of air pressure – silence. So strictly speaking, ‘implosive’ is a misnomer for this type of sound. There’s much more to be said about implosives in Seereer, but I leave you to discover it by yourself!

You can find an overview of phonetic research on implovises in Seereer and an acoustic phonetic study of implosives in Seereer Siin here:

Mc Laughlin, Fiona. 2005. Voiceless implosives in Seereer-Siin. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 35(2): 201-214

Show me how you count and I tell you where you’re from

Because we’re so focussed on languages, we linguists tend to describe linguistic phenomena as if they belong to a single language (“In Urban Wolof…”, “In Gujaher…”). We know of course that features can be shared by languages – and this also means that languages are better understood as imaginary boxes drawn around a number of linguistic features, with some features possibly ending up in more than one box.

Some previous posts in this series have already shown how particular concepts can be shared widely among different languages, be they words with particular meanings, or entire counting systems. Today, I want to look at counting again, but not at the speech side of counting, as I have done when writing about counting money and describing how many speakers of Atlantic languages take the body as the semantic basis for number words, but on the gestures that accompany counting.

Every child knows that when counting on your fingers, you start with the thumb, right? Well, not so in Casamance. There, every child knows that when counting on your fingers, your pinkie finger comes first. You can watch speakers of Baïnounk Guñaamolo count in this video by Sokhna Bao Diop.

The differences in finger counting are a helpful reminder that “speaking a language” is an incomplete way of describing what it means to communicate successfully in a culturally appropriate way. Gestures and other features such as facial expression, posture, position towards interlocutors and many more are part and parcel of language, and of the manifold intricate things language users know and do, often without paying attention to them at all…

Kall – Wolof à l’envers

Thank you to Bamba Diop for reminding me of kall – a secret language and playful register of Wolof that inverts the syllables in a word. Kall means ‘speak’, lakk in ‘normal’ Wolof. This creative way of playing with language goes back to precolonial times and continues to be used, today more as a ludic register than a secret code that among other things was used to deform messages so that they were incomprehensible to colonial overhearers.

Let’s have a look at some words and utterances in ordinary Wolof (at the top) and their kall counterparts (below):


Samay doom lekk.
Masa mëdoo kële
‘My children eat’

It is not enough to simply reverse the syllables of a word. Speakers of kall need to be aware of the constraints that ban certain sounds and sound combinations from occurring in particular positions in the word. Consider lekk. Two identical consonants that follow each other (called geminates by linguists) can only occur at the end of a word, not at its beginning, and not more than two consonants can follow each other regardless of their position in the word. That’s why the kall form is not *kkle (linguists use asterisks to flag language forms that do not occur), but kële – there can only be one word-initial consonant, but the void left by the second consonant is filled with an added vowel so that the kall word has the same length. This, by the way, is the reason that lakk becomes kall and not *kkla when the syllables are transposed – the length or weight of the original word is preserved, but this time by doubling the final l.

For at least the past 200 years, speakers of Wolof have interwoven Wolof with French, creating a register called Urban Wolof that first arose when French traders and later colonial actors began communicating with Wolof speakers, who populated the coast where the initial French trade posts were located. French has its own kall verlan, resulting from the transposition of the syllables in the word l’envers ‘the opposite’. In present-day Wolof, not only these two languages, but also their kall/verlan forms are fluidly mixed, as you can see in these utterances:

Damay dem jouer au basket.
An ma damay ouerjou sketba.
‘I’m going to play basket ball.’

The rules of kall (and verlan) are complex and as fluid as the different ways of speaking Wolof. And if you have every listened to Senegalese Rap, you’ve been exposed to a healthy dose of kall and verlan, even if you didn’t know it!

For an early account of Kall, see this article, which is also the source of the first two examples:

Ka, Omar. 1988. Wolof syllable structure: evidence from a secret code. In: Proceedings of the Eastern States Conference on Linguistics (5th, Philadelphia, PA,September 30-October 2, 1988).

For language practice, including kall, in a youth centre in Senegal, see this book, from which the third example is taken:

Köpp, Dirke. 2002. Untersuchungen zum Sprachgebrauch im Senegal. Hamburg: LIT

Counting at the Crossroads

The Crossroads I’m going to write about today is a real junction situated on the road from Ziguinchor, the capital of Lower Casamance in Senegal to Cape Skirring on the Atlantic coast. Located at this junction are two villages, Brin (Jire in its local language) and Djibonker (alias Jibëeher). Only a couple of hundred meters apart from each other, each of these villages is nominally associated with a different language. At the Crossroads, the road divides and swerves north towards a peninsula, the realm of the kingdom of Mov Ëvi and home base to yet a different language, Banjal or Eegimaa, that in turn is further locally differentiated.

Villages and languages at the Crossroads

The villages are associated with particular languages because these are the languages of their founders, but people have been mobile and mixing with each other since the beginning of time. What is the impact of prolonged multilingualism, in languages that are also closely (Banjal and Kujireray) or remotely (those two and Gubëeher) genealogically related? The general design principles and divisions of labour for different counting systems appear to be identical: in all three languages, numbers up to twenty are based on the human body, with the basic units ‘five’ and ‘ten’ related to hands, ‘fifteen’ expressed through an added foot, and ‘twenty’ designated with a word that means ‘king’ – standing in for a person and all the digits of their hand and feet. From twenty to hundred, everything is organised around hand, feet and multiples of kings. Hundreds are counted decimally (with multiples of ten). Phone numbers are counted in French, and money, as we have seen in an earlier post, has its own counting system based on five as the basic unit, with larger sums are given in French.

Too complicated already? Then consider the more fine-grained nuances of the system: in Gubëeher, the word for ‘five’ is cilax ‘hand’. 200 meters down the road, in Brin, ‘five’ is not expressed with the word for hand, but with the word for ‘fist’, futox, which is also the form used in Banjal. But 10 is based on the word for ‘hands’ in all three languages – halax in Gubëeher, kuñen in Kujireray, and guñen in Banjal.

All three ‘Crossroads’ languages share the source language for ‘hundred’: teemeer (Gubëeher) or eteemir (Kujireary and Banjal), borrowed from Wolof. 1,000 is expressed with a word originating in Mandinka, another lingua franca of the wider area: it is wuli in Gubëeher, and euli/éuli in Kujireray and Banjal.

It’s not just languages that are located at a junction. Their speakers interact at the local level, but preserve tiny meaningful differences in language, despite high levels of multilingualism. Where they systematically converse with speakers of other languages, for instance in trade, this is reflected in the adoption of numerals form the languages used for these purposes – Wolof, Mandinka, French… After all, why limit yourself to one language, when you can tap into so many different concepts and notions, tailored to different needs?

The numeral systems of Gubëeher, Kujireray and Banjal are discussed in the following works:

Cobbinah, Alexander Yao (2013) Nominal classification and verbal nouns in Baïnounk Gubëeher. PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London

Sagna, Serge. 2008) Formal and semantic properties of the Gújjolaay Eegimaa (a.k.a Banjal) nominal classification system.
PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.

Watson, Rachel. 2015. Kujireray: morphosyntax, noun classification and verbal nouns. PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London, Department of Linguistics.