Persons of the night and special someones in Songhay

Back in London it is, sadly, much easier to write on African languages than from the continent itself. The obstacles do not only concern internet access, a major hurdle to equitably shared information, but also access to and awareness of printed research. In this regard, African researchers are much more excluded from information flows and access to repositories than their counterparts in the Global North, but the difficulties persist in both directions: it is often impossible to discover, let alone have access, to scientific publications authored and distributed on the African continent (especially if they were not created in South Africa). CODESRIA, the Council
for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, is a beacon in its various activities aiming at redressing this imbalance and making African research visible and accessible. There are other initiatives, such as ILISS Africa, a German library service providing information on and access to a broad range of information not only on but crucially also from, Africa, on an internet platform. But its funding is temporary, as is that of many initiatives aiming at overcoming the digital divide, and so it is often left to personal connections and sheer luck to fill in the cracks. In this case, serendipity took the form of a lunch conversation with my Malian host, Prof. Mohamed Minkailou, from the Department of English at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines.

I was reporting my taboo hunt form the previous week, and to my delight, Prof. Minkailou said that he had published an article on euphemisms in Songhay. The data are from Faraw! Mother of the Dunes, a film in standard Songhai (which is based on the Songhay variety spoken in Gao, Gao Senni). It turns out that snakes are seen as such distasteful entities that their names – salaamun and gondi – tend not to be pronounced at all. Instead, the euphemism gandarfu ‘a rope on the ground’ is used at all times. We didn’t have the time to explore the motivation for this taboo, or its relations to other items unsayable in the darkness. But the article also mentions the word for witch, carkaw, which cannot be said at night and has to be replaced by cijin boro – ‘person of the night’ – so the dangers of witchcraft seem to linger in Songhay taboos, as they do in other languages of the wider area.

But euphemisms in Songhai go much further, even prompting marriage partners to avoid calling their spouses ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ and making them employ the term filaana ‘someone’ (from Arabic fulaan), sometimes preposed by aru ‘man’ or woy ‘woman’. I would love to share the article with you – the journal in which it appeared even has a website:, but it had only a spurious existence – the link is broken. I have permission to share the paper, so here the link to the PDF and the reference:

Minkailou, Mohamed. 2016. Exploring euphemism in standard Songhay. Recherches Africaines. Annales de l’Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Bamako 16: 31-39.

And please, if you know of websites disseminating African research from the continent, please leave the link in a comment below the line!

“My Songhay keeps growing”

My colleague Klaudia Drombowsky-Hahn and I have spent a week with students from the English Department at Bamako’s Université des Lettres et Sciences Humaines and staff members from AMALAN, The Academy of Malian Languages. As part of Klaudia’s course, all of us drew our language portraits. Developed by the Austrian linguist Britta Busch, language portraits have been developed and are now widely used as a method to evoke linguistic repertoires that, while still eliciting them in terms of codes or languages that can be named, avoids the straitjackets of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’, ‘L1’, ‘dominant language’, and so on. Rather, it is left to individuals to imagine and execute the task, which is to fill in (or draw and write around) a silhouette, through focusing on all languages that play a role in their lives.

Here you can see the language portrait of one of the course participants.

In terms of named languages, her repertoire comprises Songhay, Tamasheq, Arabic, Bambara, English and French. So, does this mean she speaks five languages? And is one of them her mother tongue? The silhouette, together with some explanations offered by her reveals that Songhai – to be precise two different Songhai varieties, Gao Senni – also callled Koyraboro Senni, the language of the town dwellers – and Tumbutu Chiini, aka Koyra Chiini ‘city language’, are important because the whole family lived in the two northern Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao, cities whose alternative language names set them apart from surrounding nomadic populations.

Tamasheq qualifies as her ‘mother tongue’ in the literal sense of being her mother’s language, different from her father’s. She uses it mainly when visiting the maternal side of the family, who follow a nomadic lifestyle. Arabic is an important language for her, but she feels constrained in it because of the way it was taught to her: the followed courses in Modern Standard Arabic at the university, where students were only taught to read and write it, and where oral language use had no place.

Bambara is a language she already spoke before coming to the south of Mali, to Bamako, to study. But it really only took off when she was exposed to it there, where it is spoken by everybody, so she is still learning it. Bambara is followed by English, the language we also use totalk to each other, because we are in the English Department and teaching takes place in English, in which the students are highly fluent. She learned Englishonly from 7 to 9 grade, and then at university when she enrolled in the English programme.

French somehow is mentioned last in the conversation we have about her language portrait, but this doesn’t mean that it is very remote fromher daily life. It is not only the main language of her formal educational experience, but also a language she speaks with friends, and spoke with her father during her childhood. English and Tamasheq are in her heart; French and Songhay in her head, and they keep growing

Language portraits vividly illustrate how important it is to let go of fixed assumptions about the role languages might play in people’s lives and to invite them (even if a frame and perspective can’t be avoided altogether) to develop their own metaphors on what languages mean to them.

Read on language biographies and language portraits in this article:

Busch, Brigitta (2006): Language biographies. Approaches to multilingualism in education and linguistic research. In PRAESA Occasional Papers, pp. 5–18.