Are you there?

Although they are not contained in most descriptive grammars, greetings are highly prominent in everyday interactions across West Africa. Much more than the mumbled answer ‘Not too bad, thanks’ to the question ‘How are you?’ or the two word sequences that are used in many European languages, greetings in West Africa are elaborate rituals that take time, are savoured, and structure every single encounter.

This video by Coleman Donaldson gives you a vivid idea of the importance of greetings in the Mande world, and also shows some greetings in Bambara straight from the capital of Mali, Bamako. As in the example from Ewe, a Gbe language of Ghana, below, greetings are realised in relatively fixed sequences that form part of a larger cultural script for visits, encounters, leave-taking, etc.

Example for a greeting exchange in Ewe (Ameka 2009: 136)

In this greeting, the interlocutors know each other. If they don’t, it is part and parcel of many greeting routines to find out the family name of the interlocutor. In fact, in Baïnounk languages, this is reflected in language to the extent that the word for ‘family name’, guram, contains the root ram ‘greet’. And knowing this name, which gives information on their clan or lineage, is essential in order to establish how to relate to strangers, as it gives information on their social status, their likely place or area of residence, and which language(s) they might speak. Greeting unknown people tends to involve additional evidence gathering, until both parties have established how they are related to each other.

But even people who know each other and see each other on a daily basis will take care to greet. It is common to pay visits to neighbours with the sole purpose of greeting them. You might think that this is changing in cities, but in places where there is less dense face-to-face interaction with people one might see again, virtual networks are maintained via phone calls, texts, or social media and complement direct exchanges in village-like local neighbourhoods. In Gubëeher, spoken in the village Djibonker in Casamance, a greeting question is Umoona? ‘Are you there?’ Far more than stating the obvious, greeting, then, is an immediate affirmation of existence.

Read more on access rituals in West Africa in this paper by Felix Ameka:

Ameka, Felix K. (2009): Access rituals in West African communities: an ethnopragmatic perspective. In Gunter Senft, Ellen B. Basso (Eds.): Ritual communication. Oxford: Berg, pp. 127–151.

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!

Africans have been here earlier!

From yesterdays’ post on indigenous African languages, an interesting discussion emerged, focussing on differences between languages regarding their lexicalisation patterns. While everything can be expressed in every language, not every language has a single word for every notion. Languages tend to have words for notions which are central to their speakers, and which words these are is influenced by their environment and also shaped by the lexicalisation patterns of other languages present in it. West African languages are noteworthy for their many verbs and derivational affixes that specify particular phases of an event, and also for verbs that denote specifically doing something early. In Bambara (Mande, Mali), these are the verbs soli ‘do something early, do something in the morning’ (note how clunky the English translation equivalent is in comparison) and joona ‘ do something earlier than expected’. In Jalonke (Mande, Guinea), there is the verb kurun ‘leave early’, and the Atlantic language Gujaher (Senegal), also has a verb with the same meaning, fura.

Misty morning in Saare Kindia, in the Futa Jalon region of Guinea

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’