My pronoun is: 3rd person singular

As a new resident of Finland and keen learner of Finnish, I was delighted when a Finnish personal pronoun appeared on ads all across Europe. Plastered on tube tunnel walls and advertising boards in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Stockholm and Sydney, witty posters thanked European languages for their lexical gifts to the Finnish language but also announced Finland’s gift to the world: hän.

A little word punching far above its weight according to the Finland Promotion Board and Finnish embassies across the world: “Equality forms a core value for Finland and its people, and the best symbol of Finnish equality is a personal pronoun from the Finnish language: hän. The third-person singular pronoun hän is neutral in terms of gender and social status, so it represents equal opportunity. It is “she” and “he,” all at once, and it has always existed in the Finnish language.”

Occasionally, commentators on social media pointed out that there are, of course, other languages that don’t distinguish between natural genders in their pronouns. But it has escaped attention that the vast majority of African languages does not make a difference between he and she, his and hers. So, really sorry to say it, but move over Finnish, here come the Niger-Congo languages!

This group of languages comprises thousands of languages and covers a huge area of the African continent. Which languages belong to this, the world’s largest, family beyond its inner core, is a matter of debate. But one thing unites them: the absence of natural gender in their rich and varied gender systems. The number of genders and of the distinctions on which they are based differs widely. Many languages have genders for nouns that denote referents with particular shapes, as does the Atlantic language Gujaher, on whose gender system I blogged earlier here and here. Most languages have particular genders for very big and very small items, and all of them have a class that collects most human beings. But within humans, no grammatical distinction between male and female referents that could give rise to masculine and feminine genders is made. In the third person, pronouns or agreement markers either encode the gender of the noun they refer to or simply the person and number – 1st, 2nd. 3rd, singular, plural, collective… Here are the six subject pronouns of Yoruba from Ayọ Bamgbose’s (2000 )grammar, with no sex distinction in sight:

Bamgbose (2000: 106)

Cross-linguistically, the absence of biological gender is rather unusual, as you can read in Greville Corbett’s gender overview in the World Atlas of Language Structures. But do gender-neutral languages advance gender equality, as claimed by the Finland Publicity Board? Some might say yes, including the Swedish campaigners who introduced the gender-neutral pronoun hen into this language, with otherwise marks biological gender in pronouns. Or the feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí , author of The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. She argues, based on evidence that includes linguistic organisation and the absence of the marking of natural gender going hand in hand with marking of seniority in the language system (on which I have written in this post) that male and female genders were no meaningful social categories in precolonial Africa.

Language can both be a symptom, a fossilised indicator, of deeply rooted social structures (since language encodes those categories best that speakers care(d) for most), and a driver for social change. But languages with and without natural gender distinctions co-exist in the same geographical spaces ad are spoken by multilingual populations with very diverse local cultures. This holds for Swedish and Finnish, and for Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic languages (many of which do have sex-based pronouns), among others.

Regarding their role in social change, then, languages can at best serve as a blank slate which can be co-opted in imagining it, as done by the Finland Promotion Board: “Finland wants to encourage international dialogue on equality by introducing a Finnish word to the world: hän. In this campaign, hän is a tool for telling the Finnish story about equality as a source of strength for society.” Billions of speakers of African Niger-Congo languages could lend their words to this endeavour. Because their pronoun is…. 3rd person singular.


Bamgbose, Ayọ. 2000. A grammar of Yoruba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Corbett, Greville. 2013. Sex-based and non-sex-based gender systems. In: Dryer, Matthew. S and Haspelmath, Martin (eds.): The World atlas of language structures. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Oyèrónkẹ́, Oyèwùmí. 1997. The invention of women: Making an African sense of Western gender discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

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.

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!

Diaspora dynamics and the creation of Yoruba

From a social point of view, languages come into being as a crystallisation of particular imaginations of identities linked to particular ways of speaking. Sometimes these ideas grow over long periods of times. In other cases, particular encounters, with people or ideas, act as catalysts for language movements that radically alter the status quo. In my first post, I looked at Sulemaana Kantè’s vision for West African Manding, a vision for the unity of this language that is gaining traction.

Today, I present another well-documented case of the birth of a language. The birth story of Yoruba is linked to Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c. 1809-1891). Crowther, originally from Lagos, had been captured by Fulani raiders to be sold into slavery as a child, but his slave ship had been captured and, as many freed slaves of the time, he had been brought to Sierra Leone by the British who intercepted his ship. In Freetown, became part of the growing Creole community of Sierra Leone, encountered missionaries of the Church Missionary Society and converted to Christianity. After a stay in England, he enrolled at Freetown’s newly founded Fourah Bay College, where he was the first student and later, teacher. Upon his return to Nigeria, he began charting the linguistic blueprint of what became Yoruba identity in 1843: the notion of a language based on a grammar, standard orthography and codified texts. This view, close to their own romantic language ideas, found the approval and support of British colonial actors and missionaries, which added to its spread.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Yoruba nationalism became an influential movement that was not just limited to Lagos or Nigeria but extended to Brazil, where it influenced the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. This change in turn had an impact on how this diaspora religion became linked to the newly established Yoruba identity. Rather than being vestiges of age-old languages and religions, standard Yoruba and Candomblé testify how, as J.L Matory put it, diasporas are not connected with homelands, but create homelands.

Read more on Yoruba genesis in this book:

Falola, Toyin & Ann Genova. 2006. Yorùbá identity and power politics (Rochester studies in African history and the diaspora, 1092-5228 [v. 22]). Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press; [Woodbridge : Boydell & Brewer]

You can find out more on Candomblé and its transatlantic entanglements here:

Matory, James L. 2005. Black Atlantic religion: Tradition, transnationalism, and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, N.J., Woodstock: Princeton University Press.