Friday, December 06, 2013

19th c. Songhay sources from Tanzania and the US

A while ago, I posted about the earliest European source for Songhay. Shuichiro Nakao, who's been doing some interesting work on the 19th-century development of Arabic-based creoles, recently sent me a link to an early record of Songhay from an even more surprising source: the journal Tanganyika Notes and Records. The article in question is a summary autobiography of Adrien Atiman, who spent most of his life working as a Catholic missionary in central Africa. Apparently, as a child he was taken (sold or kidnapped? he would never know which) as a slave from Tindirma (modern Mali) and brought north to Metlili, where he was "ransomed" by a Catholic priest in 1876, converted, trained for priesthood, and finally sent off to a completely different part of Africa to be a missionary. He gives a few words, the only ones he could still remember of his native language after so many years: ""Coro" meaning lion, "Boro" man, "Elham" meat, "Bri" bone, and "Kunduhari" beer." These are easily recognisable as the Koyra Chiini forms (after Heath 2005): kooro hyena, boro person, ham meat (crossed here with Algerian Arabic lħəm "meat"), biri bone, and kundu "bourgou grass" + hari "water" (a syrup is traditionally made from bourgou grass). But it is striking that, even for these last holdouts, the meanings are not remembered exactly. Your first language is not necessarily the language you are most fluent in!

As it happens, another Songhay-speaking slave also left us his biography, from slightly earlier in the nineteenth century (1854): Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. A native of Djougou (modern Benin), he was taken prisoner while visiting a different town and sold south to the coast, ending up as a slave in Brazil, but eventually managed to escape while passing through New York, which had already abolished slavery. He gives the numbers from one to a thousand in Dendi, as well as a few vocabulary items scattered throughout the book. (Not all the latter are Dendi – some are Hausa, eg "cofa" (properly ƙofa) for "gate".)

I've managed to trace a few Songhay loanwords in North Africa, but as far as I know no one has ever reported a Songhay loanword in the Americas. That is probably to be expected, since most slaves there would have come from regions closer to the sea – but it would be interesting to look more closely...

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