Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bambara: A Niger-Congo language

As many of you know, France and West African countries have decided to invade Mali and push out Islamic militants responsible for the coup d’ état. Now is a good enough time to discuss Bambara, one of the largest indigenous languages of Mali.

As Mali was once a French colony, the official language of Mali is French. However about eighty percent of the population, 13 million people, speak Bambara.

The Bambara language is the mother tongue of the Bambara ethnic group, numbering about 2,700,000 people, but serves also as a lingua franca in Mali (it is estimated that about 80% of the population speaks it as a first or second language).

Linguistic Classification
Bambara is a Niger-Congo language. It is closely related to the languages Jula and Marka. Bambara belongs to a group of closely-related languages called Manding, within the larger Mandé group.

Bomara is an SOV language. This means: subject, object, verb usually appear in that order. If English were SOV, then "Sam oranges ate" would be an ordinary sentence, as opposed to the actual Standard English "Sam ate oranges".

Wrap your Mind around SOV
Sometimes, it is good to let certain kinds of syntax just grow on you a little. Here are a few more examples of how SOV syntax will look.

o      Naomi book wrote.
Cat mouse ate
Child cartoon watch
Mother food cook.
Father deer hunt.
Grandmother sweater knit.

Bambara has many local dialects. Some dialect variants: Somono, Segou, San, Beledugu, Ganadugu, Wasulu and Sikasso. Since the seventies Bambara has mostly been written in the Latin alphabet, using some additional phonetic characters. The vowels are a, e, ɛ (formerly è ), i, o, ɔ (formerly ò ), u ; accents can be used to indicate tonality. The former digraph ny is now written ɲ or ñ (Senegal). The ambiguous digraph "ng" represented both the[ŋɡ] sound of English "fi ng er" and the[ŋ] of "si ng er". The 1966 Bamako spelling conventions render the latter sound as "ŋ".
The N'Ko alphabet is a script devised by Solomana Kante in 1949 as a writing system for the Mande languages of West Africa; N’Ko means 'I say' in all Mande languages. Kante created N’Ko in response to what he felt were beliefs that Africans were a "cultureless people" since prior to this time there had been no indigenous African writing system for his language. N'ko came first into use in Kankan, Guinea as a Maninka alphabet and disseminated from there into other Mande-speaking parts of West Africa. The script is still in use for Bambara, although the Latin alphabet is much more common.

The Bambara phoneme inventory consists of 13 consonants and seven vowels, depending on the analysis. Bambara is a tone language comprised of two basic or underlying tones (High and Low) plus a hypothesized abstract “floating tone” (i.e. a High tone not directly linked to a particular segment, yet still affecting its tonal realization). These tones may combine in a number of ways, giving rise to such tonal contour patterns as Rising (High + Low) and Falling (Low + High) tones. The syllable structure of Bambara is CV (i.e. in native vocabulary items, syllable onsets are obligatory and codas are prohibited). As in languages like French, for example, nasalization is contrastive. That is to say, the presence or absence of a nasal vowel may minimally differentiate one lexical item from another. (For example la ‘there’ vs. lã ‘slow’ in French.) A number of French loan words (i.e. alimeti ‘match’ vs. French alumette, jauni vs. French jaune) and various aspects of French phonology (i.e. contrastive nasalization, as discussed above) have been absorbed into the language.

The surface word order in Bambara is SOV. The subject of the clause is typically followed by an auxiliary verb/inflectional particle that precedes the object and verb. In the case of the perfective aspect, the form and position of this element depend on the syntactic properties of the main verb. For example, the particle ra appears as a verbal suffix when the main verb is unaccusative. When the verb is transitive, however, the marker ye appears pre-verbally. This contrast is illustrated below. (The symbol * indicates that the sentence is ungrammatical.)

a. A taa-ra.
s/he go-PERF
‘She went.’

b.*A ra taa.
s/he PERF go

c. Den ye ji min.
child PERF water drink
‘The child drank water.’

d. *Den ji-ye min.
child water-PERF drink
Although objects precede verbs, a maximum of one object may appear before the verb in intransitive/double object constructions. Postpositions are attested, many of which are directional and based on body part nouns. (For example, the postposition bolo, which means ‘hand’ in Bambara, is used to indicate directions.) Negation is marked by a particle that follows the auxiliary, but precedes the verb. A number of clause-typing/discourse function-related particles are attested (particles, which for instance, encode whether the utterance is declarative, interrogative, or imperative, or whether an element within has been tropicalized or focused, etc.). Affixation is largely suffixed and reduplication is productive in the language. Bambara shows no case, person, or gender marking on nouns, nor overt subject-verb agreement.

Bambara is one of the Niger–Congo languages. Niger-Congo languages constitute one of the world's major language families, and Africa's largest in terms of geographical area, number of speakers, and number of distinct languages.  The language family stretches from West Africa, to Central Africa, all the way down to South Africa. It covers a very large area of land. Bambara is only one leaf in this tree.

As the French  move into this area, it would be worthwhile for their troops to become familiar with this language, at least at a rudimentary level. 

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