With massive borrowing resulting in systematic suppletion, the nomadic Northern Songhay languages, Tadaksahak and Tagdal, are some of the most striking products of intense language contact in Africa. While the importance of Berber in their formation is obvious, published comparisons have focused almost exclusively on Tuareg, the currently dominant Berber language of the region. This paper, however, demonstrates that Tuareg-Songhay contact alone cannot adequately account for their emergence. Tadaksahak at least seems to have as its substrate not Tuareg, but rather a Western Berber language closely related to Tetserrét, a small minority language of Niger; such a language also played a role in the development of Tagdal. Western Berber influence, however, is not reconstructible at the proto-Northern-Songhay level, despite being attested in most Northern Songhay languages individually. A closer look at the Western Berber stratum in Tadaksahak indicates that language shift there was accompanied by broader cultural changes, including a shift away from the regional norm of cross-cousin marriage towards the North African preference for patrilineal parallel cousin marriage. These linguistic and cultural changes may have been part of an effort to assert an identity as specialists in Islamic learning, following regional political shifts around the sixteenth century.A persistent problem for research in this domain is the inadequacy of the published data. A new article by Maarten Kossmann takes an important step forward in this regard, providing a sketch grammar of Tasawaq along with the first adequately transcribed published text in it: "A Tasawaq (Northern Songhay, Niger) Text with Grammatical Notes" (Linguistic Discovery 13:1, 2015). Conveniently, this article is freely downloadable - no subscription necessary.
[This article presents] a Tasawaq story with glossing and comments, recorded in Agadez in October 2003, told by Mrs. Ibrahim, born Nana Mariama Aweïssou, originary from In-Gall, but then living and working in Agadez. Mrs. Ibrahim speaks Tasawaq, Hausa and French; at the time of the recording her daily language was Hausa. [...] The text presented here is a well-known story in the region, a version of which appears, for instance, in Jacques Pucheu’s collection of Nigerien Hausa stories (Pucheu 1982:45ff.). There is a clear connection to Hausa stories in the name of one of the participants, the bóóráy tree.
Northern Songhay is just the most extreme example of a strong tendency to intense language contact throughout the Songhay-speaking world. Paulo Moraes Farias' article Bentyia (Kukyia): a Songhay–Mande meeting point, and a “missing link” in the archaeology of the West African diasporas of traders, warriors, praise-singers, and clerics (Afriques 4, 2013) - also freely available online - gives a historically oriented picture of some of the migration patterns that helped produce this, with a particular focus on a contact whose linguistic effects still need to be elucidated: between Soninke, the Mande language of the Kingdom of Ghana along the modern-day Mali-Mauritania border, and mainstream Songhay in places such as Gao.
The present tragedy in Mali draws our attention to the divisions, tensions and conflicts between West African ethnic groups, religious persuasions, and populations from different regions, in both the present and the past. But a long-term critical perspective on the past brings to light borrowings between cultures, and shows how the mobility of people across West Africa links regional and ethnic histories. The communication axis running from the Aḍagh to the Niger and, along the Niger Valley, from Gao to Busa (in Nigerian Borgu) and beyond, is a strategic locus for investigating this mobility and connectivity. It has linked together the Saharan, savannah, and forest zones of West Africa. It was a magnet for diasporas of Soninke praise-singers and Mande warriors and traders. Fishermen and other waterfolk along the river, oral traditionists and other craftspeople, priests and priestesses of African cults, and Islamic clerics, as well as armies, long-distance merchants, and enslaved human beings, moved along it. Although the archeological sites at Bentyia/Kukyia occupy a strategic position on this historical axis, they have not been excavated, whence a serious gap in our knowledge of the history of the eastern Niger Valley and of West Africa as a whole.
Much work remains to be done in this domain, but the picture is gradually becoming clearer, despite a political situation in the area which is not very conducive to research.