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.

We know the missionaries, but who did they talk to?

I bet many of you don’t know Sigismund Koelle. But I also bet that among those of you who know this German missionary of the Church Missionary Society, hardly anyone will know Sam Cole of Freetown. Of course you wouldn’t – the Reverend Koelle was the researcher, and his interlocutor was the informant. So far, so unsurprising.

Sigismund Koelle was a German missionary who spent much time in Sierra Leone from 1845 onwards, at a time when the Fourah Bay College became a hotbed for linguistic research and and turned into a catalytic environment for identity transformations of the African diaspora scholars studying and teaching there – among them Ajayi Crowther, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. In 1854, Koelle published a book entitled Polyglotta Africana, or a comparative vocabulary of nearly three hundred words and phrases, in more than one hundred distinct African languages. The Polyglotta Africana is one of the most comprehensive early sources available for words from a broad range of African languages, all collected in Freetown, which was a place in which many liberated slaves found themselves at the time. What sets Koelle’s work apart from many word lists published by Europeans is the care he took in identifying his sources. They are acknowledged with their names and a short biography, and Koelle also includes their perspectives, rather than just reporting his view on their repertoires and how the languages they reported should be named. Have a look at this statement, describing a group of languages commonly labelled Aku or Yoruba at the time:

Koelle on the problematic designations “Aku” and “Yoruba” (Koelle 1854: 5)

Rather than superimposing an outsider’s perspective on the classification of words offered by his interlocutors, Koelle tolerates variation, and deviation from the label that will become, under the influence of Yoruba diaspora nationalists like Crowther, the glossonym that will ultimately take precedence over more localised identities expressed in local language names and create a new ethnolinguistic identity through the activities of diaspora nationalists. Koelle lists 14 different ways of speaking, only one of them called Yoruba, and describes where the individuals who offered information on them came from, what their trajectories were, and how they themselves named the registers they reported. And here is the information given by Sam Cole:

Koelle’s biographical information on Sam Cole (Koelle 1854: 5)

I will have more to say on Koelle’s African collaborators, and how later linguists interpreted the information they offere. Stay tuned!