Friday, July 05, 2019

A life lesson in Fulfulde & the internal voices of a multilingual

After another hiatus in posting here, will begin again. More on all that below, but I wanted first to take the opportunity to share a couple of short items relating to my experience with some African languages.

"God knows his friends..."


I still remember a particular session of Fulfulde instruction in Moribabougou, Mali, back in 1983. As in all Peace Corps language classes - whatever the country, it seems - we were seated in a small hut, big enough for maybe 4-5 people plus a blackboard. On the particular day I'm remembering, someone passed behind the hut - nothing extraordinary in that given the layout of the training facilities beween the village and the school. Our instructor, Mady Kamanta, asked "Giɗo Alla?" Literally, "Friend of God?" which is actually a kind of "Who goes there?" The unseen person answered "Ko min, __" (and his name), basically, "It's me, ___." It was a village elder.

Short greetings followed and after the elder had gone, Mady said that the proper way to answer "Giɗo Alla?" was actually something like "Alla anndi giɗo mun. Min ko ___." Basically, God knows who's his friend. I'm ___." (I think it could also have been "Alla anndi yiɗɓe mun..." - "God knows his friends...")

A simple turn of phrase but a whole culture behind it. In pulaaku or pulaagu (basically Fula culture*), to the extent I can claim to understand it, there is a certain amount of humility and avoidance of presumption. (But as in any culture, I find there's also duality in which one sometimes encounters the apparent opposite.)

By the response you not only know the identity of the person, but also get a measure of them. In Moribabougou that day, the elder was a Bambara, and however wise he may gave been, or steeped in the context of Manding language and culture he was, could not be expected to have mastered all the nuances of a second or third language. So without knowing anything more about him, you'd learn something just from his response. From my later (and admittedly still limited) experience with varieties of Fula, I recall there were other small ways in which native speakers of the language (especially in central Mali) would test your knowledge in it.

As a turn of phrase, the "proper" form of response to "Giɗo Alla?" is is a great example of answering a question while deftly stepping aside from the premise of the question (whether implicit as in this case, or explicit, as perhaps in the case of some forms of argument). Something potentially useful in many contexts and cultures.

So for some reason I recalled this recently - which does not mean I had forgotten it in the meantime - and thought I'd share it here.

The words that come to mind (multilingual version)


A recent article on multilingualism and perception (published in June 2019 in On Biology then in slightly revised version in Psychology Today) had me thinking of the internal verbal generation in response to stimuli. That is, the words that come to mind in diverse situations, when one speaks more than one language. In my case those are sometimes words or phrases in Fula or Bambara (which are very different from each other).

Here I don't mean the kind of code-switching you do when speaking, and a word in a different language just says it better (or maybe you didn't know the term in the language of the conversation). I'm referring to the internal voice when you think of something or react to a situation. Occasionally the words I think of in certain situations are not in my first, or even second (French), language.

I'm assuming this must be common among multilinguals, but am not aware of any research on it. The closest I've seen as a non-specialist in linguistics relates to the perception of sounds, and how one interprets those as meaningful utterances, as mentioned for example in the article linked above.

Multilingualism is of course more common than monolingualism, but since linguistics and psychology arose in monolingual (sub)cultures, multilingual experience is described somewhat incompletely, and treated as if it were somehow unusual.

One would hope that as African research and scholarship in these areas becomes more prominent, multilingualism will be treated more as the norm, and monolingualism as the exception.

15 years of Beyond Niamey


Since I began this blog as an experiment in January 2004, there have been periods where I've written more often, and periods where I've posted nothing. A year ago - last summer here in the northern hemisphere - I anticipated a more substantial "reboot" than actually happened (the linked post - which opens in a new tab - is still a good statement of my current thinking on this blog, aside from the 2018-specific section, and blogging in general, which I've come to appreciate more with time).

One additional factor, which has always been in the background, but I've been thinking about more lately, is the question of what are the appropriate angles for a non-African to write about African languages and the "information society." This question is, frankly, the source of some doubt the deeper I get into it.

African languages are part of my life, for reasons perhaps apparent from the above, but which I'll discuss further in a subsequent post. However none of them are my language in the senses of mother tongue or cultural heritage. So as much as I may have my opinions, I also try to maintain a sense of propriety and humility. As I see it now, that allows focus on asking questions, making comparisons, and sharing information, ideas, and observations.

Readers are invited to follow critically as this blog evolves.

* Pulaaku is a somewhat complicated topic, often presented as the "Fula way" and comprised of several key attributes or behaviors. One summary posted on the web offers a list (although they had trouble with the hooked letters - "neaaaku," "aum," and "enaam" should be "neɗɗaaku," "ɗum," and "enɗam"). In an academic article entitled "L'image des Fulbe : Analyse critique de la constgruction du concept de pulaaku," Anneke Breedveld and Mirjam De Bruijn argue that the meanings of pulaaku vary by region, and perhaps our understanding of a single concept (and Fula people) is derived from foreign scholarship. In this, as much as in variation of the language, I tend to think that there are core concepts that are drawn from and interpreted variously, and that these interpretations don't represent divergence so much as dynamics. In the realms of ideas and identity, these dynamics could also mean convergence.