Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A Soninke loan in Songhay

There are a rather large number of words in Songhay, the language of the Niger River valley between Timbuktu and southern Niger, which are almost the same as in Soninke, the language of the semidesert regions around the Mali-Senegal-Mauritania borders well to the west. Since most of the basic vocabulary is very different, these must be considered loanwords. But how do we tell which language coined them and which one borrowed them from the other? In some cases, this can be tricky, but in others it's quite clear-cut.

Three years ago, I discussed a Songhay-Arabic poem including the Timbuktu-area word sete "caravan". This word is well-attested elsewhere in Songhay, from eastern Mali to northern Benin (though not in the Sahara proper):

  • Gao šeta "(camels) go on caravan", šetete "go in single file" (Heath)
  • Hombori sèt-ò "convoy, caravan", sétt-ó "pack of horses" (Heath)
  • Kaado sété "village delegation sent to seek food in times of famine" (Ducroz and Charles)
  • Zarma sátá "group, troupe, team" (White and Kaba)
  • Kandi sété "row" (Heath)
The root is also found in Fulani, eg Gambian Fula sete "caravan" (Gamble), Pular seteejo "traveller, caravaneer", setagol "go on a trip" (Bah), and Heath glosses it as a Fulani loan in his Hombori Songhay dictionary. In neither language, however, does it have an obvious derivation from some shorter or more basic form. For that, we need to turn to a third language - Soninke.

In Soninke, setú is the normal word for "to ride", glossed by Diagana "to be on top, to ride, to perch". By applying the productive morphological process C1V1C2V2 > C1V1C2C2V2, normally used to form imperfectives, we get sètté "caravan, cavalcade, group on horseback, riding". This etymology is not possible in Songhay, where "ride" is kaaru, nor in Fulani, where "ride" is maɗɗ- / waɗɗ-. We thus see that this commercially and politically significant word must have been coined within Soninke. That fits some aspects of the known history of the region: the early Soninke kingdom of Ghana played an important role in the development of the trans-Saharan trade, and even after its fall a diaspora of Soninke traders, the so-called Wangara, played an important role in tying the region together economically.

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