Mandingo Language and Culture Through the Looking-Glass

As the birthplace of humanity and the birthplace of human language, it is no wonder that Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent in the world, home to some two thousand extant languages, most identified with distinct ethnic groups. Of these, the continuum of languages or dialects collectively known as Mandingo has a unique history imprinted in its grammar, inflection, and vocabulary. Though I am neither linguist nor ethnohistorian, since I began to learn the Gambian dialect of Mandingo at Cornell University twenty years ago, I have picked up just enough of the language, and the culture and history behind it, to offer the interested reader some non-scholarly notes, which she is invited to follow up with further research.

The modern Mandingo originated in the Western Sahara region, around the border between the modern-day nations of Mali and Guinea. Their vast and wealthy empire, known in Mandingo (this and all italicized transliterations in the modern Gambian dialect) as Mandinkaduu, was at its height in the mid-14th century C.E. Already by that time, the king and most of his subjects had converted to Sunni Islam, the ethnic group’s dominant religion to this day. For a faithful transcription of an historical epic of this period, see D.T. Niane’s Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Longman, 1990).

Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Mali, itinerant traders from such clans as Jammeh and Bayo (whose descendants bear these surnames) traveled far and wide throughout West Africa, founding communities in what is now Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone. Over the centuries, at least four major dialects evolved, in much the same way that the Romance languages evolved in the wake of the Roman Empire’s disintegration. These are: the Malinke (also known locally as Maninke, Bambara, or Dyula) of Mali, Ivory Coast, southeastern Mauritania, and western Niger; Mandinka Mooré or Moosi of Burkina Faso; Guinean/Liberian Mandingo/Mandinka of Guinea and Liberia (also known locally as Koniaka); and the Gambian Mandingo/Mandinka (also known locally as Soosé) of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and a handful of communities of Sierra Leone. In the context of interpreting, I am constantly bedeviled by this diversity of dialects, which must be explained anew to each new client so as to excuse my inability to interpret for a native speaker of one of the non-Gambian dialects. (They may not realize it, but French and Spanish interpreters are spoiled, since all the world recognizes the distinction between those two Latin dialects; yet Ivorian and Gambian Mandingo are no more alike.)

Focusing on the Gambian dialect, its dominant system of orthography was published in the 1980’s by an English Christian mission organization known as W.E.C. International (originally Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade). The W.E.C. translators devised an ingenious and largely consistent method of transcribing Mandingo phonemes using the Roman alphabet, which any literate speaker can master with a little practice. However, hardly any native speakers are acquainted with the written form of the language, since it is never taught except in a few isolated outposts of W.E.C. mission activity—unless, of course, you have internet access, in which case you can browse their splendid website, mandinka.org, to read and hear the latest news in Gambian Mandingo, including sports.

From the perspective of an English-speaking student, Mandingo certainly has its share of false friends: adopted English words like kalasoo (“glass” but also “ice”) and lemunoo (“orange”) that have taken on logical, though novel shifts in meaning. But from a Mandingo speaker’s perspective, the English language takes betrayal to a whole new level, introducing the false sister, brother, mother, and father!—i.e., English words whose Mandingo counterparts are more specific in meaning, yet broader in application. More specific in meaning, because there is no word for both an older (kotomaa) and a younger (doomaa) sibling; hence any translation must incorporate both. Broader in application, because it is customary for the Mandingo speaker to refer to any blood or adopted relative as older sibling, younger sibling, father, or mother as a term of endearment and respect.

Time and again, when a native speaker whose speech I am interpreting has referred to some relative as “father” or “sister” whom later questioning revealed to be an uncle or cousin, I have either been suspected of mistranslating or the native speaker suspected—and even accused—of lying. When possible and appropriate, either one of us has tried to explain this cultural disparity in the use of kinship terms to the English-speaking client. But often there is either no opportunity to do so, or the English speaker simply cannot understand how such an ironclad concept as “father” can be so flexible, that one can casually apply it to any beloved elder male relative whom one has known since childhood. But every Mandingo will attest that it is so.

This broad and fluid concept of kinship is not limited to contemporary Mandingoes born and educated in Africa. When Mandingo men, women, and children were sold into slavery in the New World during the 16th through 19th centuries (among them Alex Haley’s legendary ancestor, Kunta Kinte, said to have hailed from Juffure, the Gambia), they brought this heritage along with them, along with their language and a syncretic mix of their ancestral religion and Islam. Contrary to popular belief among African- and non-African-Americans alike, this heritage was not obliterated by slavery and never will be, so long as African-Americans refer to one another as brother or “bro” (Mandingo, baa), and so long as we all refer to the music they invented as jazz—likely, according to “Bound to Africa: The Mandinka Legacy in the New World” by Matt Schaffer, History in Africa 32 (2005), derived from the Mandingo jahaasi (“to mix up”), in turn borrowed from the Wolof.

But the most notable English loan-word from Mandingo has regrettably been degraded in meaning over the centuries since it was brought here by forced migrants, retaining barely a hint of its original meaning: mumbo-jumbo, a corruption of the name of perhaps the most potent and feared Mandingo kankurango, maamajomboo (ma’-ma-jōm-bō’’). Space and my own knowledge are too spare to expatiate upon the subject of the kankurango, more than to say that it any one of a pantheon of spirit beings that visit the community of mortals from time to time, protecting children from evil, resolving disputes among men and women, entertaining, prophesying (one power of maamajomboo), or simply wreaking havoc and terror—all at their own good pleasure.

Spend enough time in the rural parts of the Gambia, and you will see one (and perhaps even be pursued by an angry, machete-wielding kankurang wulengo, as I was last year). Until then, to get a glimpse of kankurang wulengo, or the red kankurango, protector of boys during circumcision, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Su63W5xxzXY

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Category: Foreign Language

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