Foundation for Endangered Languages
6. Reports on Field Research
A survey of Dogon languages in Mali: overview - Roger Blench
The languages spoken on the Dogon Plateau and adjacent areas in northern Mali are generally known to outsiders as ‘Dogon’, but this term is not used by individual groups. For a long time, research on the Dogon was dominated by the work of Marcel Griaule and his successors, which focused on a very specific group, the Dogon of Sangha. Bertho published short comparative wordlists of some Dogon lects but these made little impression. Calame-Griaule (1956) published a dialect map of Dogon, the relationship between the named communities and the TŤrŤ-SŤŤ represented in her dictionary (Calame-Griaule 1968) remained unclear in the absence of data. Until recently, Dogon was treated in reference books as if it were a single language (e.g. Bendor-Samuel et al. 1989), but Hochstetler et al. (2004) estimated there are no less than 17 languages under the Dogon rubric and that the family is highly internally divided.
The classification of the Dogon languages is a matter of considerable dispute. They have always been considered part of Niger-Congo, but their place in that family is difficult to determine. Hochstetler et al. (2004) review the various theories that have been advanced, which are essentially either Gur, Mande or an independent branch. Conventional wisdom now treats Dogon as its own branch of Niger-Congo (Williamson & Blench 2000).
Many Dogon languages are known to only have a small number of speakers, but information on populations, locations and language endangerment status was non-existent in most cases. Indeed. for many lects, the sole concrete data were hundred-word wordlists collected in 1998 and a list of villages with GPS-determined locations (Hochstetler et al. 2004). As a consequence, further survey of Dogon languages seemed to be a high priority. Roger Blench and Denis Douyon (ENSUP/FLASH, Université de Bamako) undertook this in February and March 2005, with funding from the Swiss Ethnoarchaeological Research Project . A list of all the communities surveyed follows and greater detail on individual groups from the point of view of language endangerment will appear in this and forthcoming issues of Ogmios.
One language in the Dogon-speaking area is apparently not Dogon but which is difficult to classify, Ba?gi me (see separate report). This language contains some Niger-Congo roots but is lexically very remote from all other languages in West Africa. It is presumably the last remaining representative of the languages spoken prior to the expansion of the Dogon proper. This is dealt with in a separate piece below.
2005 field surveys
Linguistic materials on: Ampari Pa, Ana, Bangime, Bunoge, Dogul Dom, Ampari Kema, Nyambeenge, Tebul Ure, Tommo So Pirő, Walo, Yanda.
Four languages, Ana, Bunoge, Tebul Ure and Walo were recorded for the first time.
A previously undocumented sign language was discovered among the Tebul people and a video record of sample sentences and narratives in sign language, Tebul Ure and French was made.
All these languages have only a small number of speakers and reports on the endangerment status of individual languages will appear in future issues of Ogmios.
Ba?gi me, a language of unknown affiliation in Northern Mali Roger Blench, Mallam Dendo, Cambridge
Language isolates are extremely rare in the world, and those in Eurasia, such as Basque and Burushaski, have received their fair share of scholarly attention. However, the few African isolates, Hadza, Laal, Jalaa are much less well known, which is surprising, given their overall importance in understanding the linguistic history of the continent. Another likely isolate is spoken among the Dogon language cluster in northern Mali. An annotated wordlist of the Ba?gi me language was collected with the assistance of Kabo Bamani from a group of villagers in Niana on the 2nd and 9th of March 2005. The informants were Yamba Babaji, Kunja Kasambara, Baba Tarawali. Ali Babbaji, Kola Basogo and Samba Babbaji, who all appear in this picture.
I would like to thank them for their patience as the elicitation sessions were long.
This language has quite a number of alternative names, given the small quantity of published research on the language. These are (Table 1);
The terms ‘Numadaw’ and similar were completely unknown. This survey found the language name to be Ba?gi-me and the name of the people to be Ba?ga-na. The intrusive –ri- is found in many records of endonyms in this area (e.g. Duleri for the neighbouring DulŤ Dogon and probably derives from Fulfulde.
Location and settlements Ba?gi-me is spoken in seven villages east of Karge and reached by turning off the Sevaré-Douentza road 38 km. north of Sevaré. Table 2 shows the names of these villages with map locations.
Visual observation does not suggest major increases in size since the 1987 census, but the uncensused villages are at least equal in size to those recorded. The population of Ba?gi-me speakers is likely to be 2-3000.
The Ba?gi me language is presently being transmitted to the children. However, there appears to be a loss of complex vocabulary. For example, the numbers above ten have been replaced in ordinary speech and some lexical items were only recalled by elder speakers. The second language of Ba?gi me speakers is Niononkhe, the Mande language spoken in Karge. Niononkhe is a dialect of Bozo or Sorko and is referred to as SŤgŤ. Fulfulde, a dominant language in the zone, is known to some individuals and there is a limited amount of French spoken, usually by migrant workers or students. These languages are the source of a small number of loanwords. There are no schools in the Ba?ga-na villages but some children go to the state school in Karge. The Ba?ga-na are now all Muslims, which represents a great cultural loss. Possibly aspects of their pre-Muslim culture are recoverable with more in-depth fieldwork.
The classification of Ba?gi me
Bertho (1953:413) considered that the affinities of the Dogon languages as a whole were with the ‘Voltaic’ languages (i.e. Gur) but placed Yeni in its own group. He says;
"The Dyeni or Yeni dialect of the Dogon from the Leol-Géou canton shows the highest deviation from the norm; nonetheless, it is clearly distinct from Bozo-Mande and Fulani. It also possesses as much Voltaic root vocabulary as the other Dogon dialects; but these items are not from the same Voltaic roots as those conserved by the other Dogon dialects, as if the Dyeni dialect had parted from Voltaic ancestor either in a different period from the other dialects, or at a different location within the Voltaic group, a group which as ifs well-known extends from Sikasso in the Sudan up to the borders of Nigeria."
Unfortunately, Bertho presents no data to justify his argument and no particular relationship with Gur is apparent in the present data. Calame-Griaule (1956:66) says;
"This is a dialect unique of its kind spoken in the Léolguéou-Nonnonké canton with fewer than 1,000 habitants; it is completely deviant and is unlike any other, although it sis more like Dogon in structure. The other villages of the region speak Bozo."
and again in Calame-Griaule (1968:viii):
"From another point of view, the study of the little dialect called /bá?eri mé/, spoken by a small Dogon group in in the utmost north-west of the country, and which, although recognized by the others as “Dogon”, seems to have some totally deviant features, would be very useful to establish the criteria for linguistic filiation in Dogon."
The lexicostatistical table in Hochstetler et al. (2004) records percentages below 10 with other Dogon lects and this would usually be taken to exclude a language from an established grouping. This survey, based on much more extensive material, finds no reason to alter this view, and as a consequence, Ba?gi-me is treated as a language isolate. Indeed, given that it is surrounded by Dogon speakers and has a grammatical structure similar to Dogon, it is remarkable that the percentage of Dogon words is not higher by the usual process of language interaction.
If Ba?gi me is isolated, where is it to be classified? It has slightly more links with common Niger-Congo vocabulary than Dogon, but as with Dogon, the morphology and syntax do not suggest Niger-Congo at all. Certainly it has no links with a particular family of Niger-Congo and for the moment, the best strategy is to treat it as a true isolate, like Hadza and Laal, with some contact with Niger-Congo but heavily influenced by Dogon. Clearly, more extended research is a high priority.
Data on Ba?gi me is published in full on the web at:
Dogon survey I: Tebul Ure, a language of the Dogon group in Northern Mali
Calame-Griaule (1956:67) says,
"This dialect (called ‘Tew Tegu’ en Dyamsay and ‘Bede So’ in Toro) is spoken in the villages of Upper Bamba. (Those of Lower Bamba speak Dyamsay Bama Tegu)."
Hochstetler et al. (2004) say ‘Oru yille is spoken in three tiny villages of Bamba du Haut. In addition to the xenonyms mentioned in Calame-Griaule (1956), Yanda-dom speakers call it ‘Tebl.’’ They give the population from the 1987 census as 400. This seems surprisingly inaccurate; the Tebul U live in twenty villages plus the recently-founded Dasalam [=Dar es Salaam]. The villages are mostly in the hill areas above Bamba and are often no more than hamlets. There are probably 3-4000 speakers. Table 3 shows the villages recorded by the survey and the locations of three that are listed in the
1987 census. The villages are so sub-classified.
The Tebul Ure language is presently being transmitted to the children. The second language of Tebul Ure speakers is Jamsay Tegu (another Dogon language) and many also know Yanda. Fulfulde, a dominant language in the zone, is not very well known and there is a limited amount of French spoken, usually by migrant workers or students. However, the nearby village of Bamba has recently been added to the Dogon Plateau hiking trail, and the isolation of the Tebul U villages will shortly end, with the usual outcome for the language. Nothing is known of Tebul U history, but today all villages are strongly Islamised.
In addition to the spoken language, a sign language exists in Uluban and related hamlets, which is used to communicate with a small number of deaf individuals. Almost all the inhabitants seem to have some fluency in this sign language and videos were made of a number of narratives with ‘translation’ into Tebul Ure and French.
The classification of Tebul Ure
Calame-Griaule’s observation appears to be quite false. Yanda is probably the closest relative of Tebul Ure on the basis of recent survey data. Despite the cognacy of many items, the degree of erosion in many words would make intercomprehension impossible and these are undoubtedly separate languages.
Calame-Griaule, G. 1956. Les Dialectes Dogon. Africa, 26(1):62–72.