The contact of the lambs: From Latin pascha to Wolof tabaski

Happy Easter, dear readers! Whether you observe this Christian holiday or not, you may be interested in the regional entanglements and semantic changes of the Latin word pascha ‘Easter” as it travelled through the Mediterranean and beyond. With <ch> pronounced as [k] in Latin, the word bears resemblance to many words designating a major religious celebration, often particularly meaning ɛīd al-kabīr in a number of Berber languages. These languages, spread across the Maghrib and a number of sub-Saharan African countries, have forms such as tafaska (Central Moroccan Berber), tfaska (Ouargla and Djerba) or tăfaske (Tuareg).

In his book on Berber in contact, Maarten Kossmann suggests that the semantic bridge allowing the Judeo-Christian word for Easter to become used for the Islamic celebration of ɛīd al-kabīr is the central role of slaughtering sheep in both ceremonies.

Sheep on Goree

A sheep wandering in the streets of Gorée. Will it be eaten at Easter or Tabaski?

Via Berber languages, the word may have arrived in West African languages spoken further south and exposed to Islam and Christianity much later than their northern neighbours. And this may explain why ɛīd al-kabīr is known as tabaski in Wolof and many other languages of the region – an uncanny linking of two major religious holidays that at first sight do not appear to have much in common through historical connections reaching far into these languages’ past.


Read more on the contact history of Berber in this chapter:

Kossmann, Maarten (2013): Berber in Contact. The Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Periods. In Maarten Kossmann (Ed.): The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber: Brill, pp. 51–85.

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.

African advantages of age

Distinctions that are socially meaningful tend to be reflected in grammar. The huge importance accorded to age differences is hard-wired into lexical distinctions in many West African languages. In Bamanan (Bambara), siblings are differentiated primarily regarding age, and only secondarily according to gender: older siblings are designated kɔrɔ, younger ones dɔgɔ. The modifiers muso `woman’ and added to these words specify whether female or male siblings are referred to, but are not compulsory.

Wolof makes the same distinction: the term for elder sibling is mag, the one for younger sibling rakh. My personal favourite language Baïnounk Gujaher confirms the pattern: wanc is the word for older sibling, and udóón the one for younger sibling, without referring to the sex of these kin relations.

These terms do testify of a great sensitivity to age motivated by the link between age and superior social status. Being aware of age is important because the veneration of people of greater age, respect for their life experience and deference to them is common throughout the entire continent. It is therefore important to be aware of one’s age in relation to anybody one interacts with; and lexicalising this difference helps keeping track of where an ego is positioned with respect to others.

West African keepers of words

Yesterday’s post focused on old yet often overlooked literacy practices. Today, inspired by a lecture of my colleague Lucy Durán, I look at oral transmission of language and memory, by zooming in on a particular social group widespread in most West African societies. There, a social category called griots in French, bards or praise singers in English and jeliw in Manding languages. is omnipresent. A three-partite society composed of nobles (hɔrɔnw in Manding), professional groups and artisans (nyamakalaw in Manding) and slaves (jɔnw) is typical for Mande societies and those in the realm of the Mali empire. Allegedly, this blueprint for a stratified society goes back to the founder of the Mali Empire, Sunjata Keita who ruled from 1217 to 1255, and who instituted them as a means for creating social cohesion in his newly founded state that brought together many different lineages and languages. We can’t know for sure whether this is a post-hoc explanation for the ways in which social relations are perceived and maintained through the roles of these social groups and norms of interaction between them, regardless of language or origin, but clearly, these social categories travelled through the spaces associated with Mali at different times.

Have a look at this table, which shows you the words designating some of the professional status groups in languages of the region:

Names for categories within the professional groups as presented in Tamari, Tal (1991): The development of caste systems in West Africa. In Journal of African History 32 (2), pp. 221–250.

I will have much more to say in future posts about these different groups and how many of them are associated with particular lineages and therefore indirectly with specific languages, and how this division of labour is the basis for coexistence in multilingual and multicultural settlements and societies. For today, let’s stay with bards, praise singers, keepers of genealogies and history. Members of this group are masters of verbal art. In Wolof societies, they are said to speak with much more care than members of other groups, and Judith Irvine reports that nobles often speak using simplified morphology and less elaborate style just to distinguish themselves from géwél. They are artisans, and their inherited craft is the word. In societies to the south and east of Mande, they are called ‘linguists’ – certainly a reminder to linguists to pay more attention to their registers of speech.

A wonderful portrait of a contemporary jeli, Mali’s famous Bako Dagnon, can be found in this film by Lucy Durán:

The voice of tradition: Bako Dagnon and family

You can read on Wolof géwél and their speech in this article:

Irvine, Judith T. 1975. Wolof speech styles and social status. Working papers in sociolinguistics 23

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 money in West Africa

My post for today on African indigenous language is on counting. There is much to say on the many complex numeral systems found in West Africa, but one of their areal characteristics is all languages I’m aware of have two different ways of counting. I will get back to later to ‘normal’ numbers and the semantic underpinning of numbers used in counting objects. But today, I focus on the different way of counting money that is attested in these languages. When expressing a currency amount, the base number needs to be multiplied by five in order to arrive at the denominational amount. For instance, if I buy tomatoes for 100 Francs CFA, the price in Wolof, Bambara, Jalonke, Gujaher, etc., would be expressed with the number twenty. If the expression of the equivalent of 5,000 in monetary terms is desired, this would be the number 1,000. The probable reason for this dual system is that a five-francs piece has been the smallest coin in circulation since colonial times, so this became equivalent with one (unit of currency).

A 5 Franc coin from the West African Central Bank

Think about the mental gymnastics for learners of these languages which don’t have a different counting system for money! It makes haggling a high-risk enterprise… And it would be really interesting to study how the two systems are acquired by children, and whether they help their multiplication and division skills.

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’