Mande languages

West Sudanic
Ethnicity: Mandé peoples
West Africa
Linguistic classification:


  • Mande
  • Manding–Kpelle (Central & Southwest)
  • Samogo–Soninke (Northwest)
  • Dan–Busa (East)
ISO 639-5: dmn
Glottolog: mand1469[1]

The Mande languages are spoken in several countries in West Africa by the Mandé people and include Mandinka, Soninke, Bambara, Dioula, Bozo, Mende, Susu, and Vai. There are millions of speakers, chiefly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. The Mande languages have traditionally been considered a divergent branch of the Niger–Congo family, though this classification has always been controversial.

The group was first recognized in 1854 by S. W. Koelle in his Polyglotta Africana. He mentioned 13 languages under the heading North-Western High-Sudan Family, or Mandéga Family of Languages. In 1901 Maurice Delafosse made a distinction of two groups in his Essai de manuel pratique de la langue mandé ou mandingue. He speaks of a northern group mandé-tan and a southern group mandé-fu. This distinction was basically done only because the languages in the north use the expression tan for ten whereas the southern group use fu. In 1924 L. Tauxier noted that this distinction is not well founded and there is at least a third subgroup he called mandé-bu. It was not until 1950 when A. Prost supported this view and gave further details. In 1958 Welmers published an article The Mande Languages where he divided the languages into three subgroups – North-West, South and East. His conclusion was based on lexicostatistic research. Greenberg followed this distinction in his The Languages of Africa (1963). Long (1971) and G. Galtier (1980) follow the distinction into three groups but with notable differences.


Various opinions exist as to the age of the Mande languages. Greenberg has suggested that the Niger-Congo group, which in his view includes the Mande languages, began to break up around 7000 years BP. Its speakers practised a Neolithic culture, as indicated by the Proto-Niger-Congo words for "cow", "goat" and "cultivate".[2]


Mande does not share the morphology characteristic of most of the Niger–Congo family, such as the noun-class system. Blench regards it as an early branch that—like Ijoid and perhaps Dogon—diverged before this developed. Dwyer (1998) compared it with other branches of Niger–Congo and finds that they form a coherent family, with Mande being the most divergent of the branches he considered. However, Dimmendaal (2008) argues that the evidence for inclusion is slim, with no new evidence for decades, and that for now Mande is best considered an independent family.[3]

Most internal Mande classifications are based on lexicostatistics, and the results are unreliable. See for example, Vydrin (2009), based on a 100-word list.[4] The following classification from Kastenholz (1996) is based on lexical innovations and comparative linguistics; details of East Mande are from Dwyer (1989, 1996) [summarized in Williamson & Blench 2000].

 East Mande 










Busa  languages 




West Mande 
Central West 
Central Mande


Jɔgɔ languages (Ligbi)


VaiKɔnɔ (and maybe Dama)


Manding languages

Mokole languages


 Southwest  Mande






 Northwest  proper





Samogo languages (partial: Duun–Sembla)


Paperno describes Beng and extinct Gbin as two primary branches of Southern Mande.


Mande languages do not have the noun-class system or verbal extensions of the Atlantic–Congo languages and for which the Bantu languages are so famous, though Bɔbɔ has causative and intransitive forms of the verb. Southwestern Mande languages and Soninke have initial consonant mutation. Plurality is most often marked with a clitic; in some languages, with tone, as for example in Sembla. Pronouns often have alienable–inalienable and inclusive–exclusive distinctions. Word order in transitive clauses is subjectauxiliaryobjectverbadverb. Mainly postpositions are used. Within noun phrases, possessives come before the noun, adjectives and plural markers after, while demonstratives are found with both orders. (Williamson & Blench 2000).


Some cognates from D. J. Dwyer (j is [dʲ] or [d͡ʒ] etc.):[5]

manding Kono-Vai Susu Mandé SW. Soninké Sembla Bobo San Busa Mano Dan Guro Mwa
'mouth' *da da da la laqqe jo do le le le Di le le, di
'saliva' *da-yi da-ji da- sɛ-ye la-yi laxan-ji jon-fago dibe se le-i le-yi Di-li leri liri
'water' *yi je yi yi ya ji jo ji, zio mun i yi yi yi yi
'breast' *n-koŋ sin susu sisi ŋeni konbe kye ɲiŋi ɲo ɲo ɲoŋ ɲoŋ ɲoŋ ɲoŋ
'milk' *n-kon-yi nɔnɔ susu-ji xin-yɛ gen-iya -xatti kye-n-dyo n-yan-niŋi n-yo- n-yoŋ-yi n-yoŋ-yi
'goat' *bo(re) ba ba ɓoli sugo bi gwa bwe ble bori
'buck' *bore-guren ba-koro gu-gura ble-sa bɔ-gon bɔ-gon gyagya bɔ-guren
'sheep' *saga saga bara-wa yexe ɓara jaxe sega sɛge sere sa baa bla bera bla
'ram' *saga-guren saga-koro segaba kekyere si-gula da-gu bla-gon bra-gon bla-gure

Note that in these cognates: 'saliva' = 'mouth'+'water', 'milk' = 'breast'+'water', 'buck (he-goat)' = 'goat'+'male', 'ram' = 'sheep'+'male'.

See also



  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Mande". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. D.F. McCall, "The Cultural Map and Time Profile of the Mande Speaking Peoples," in C.T. Hodge (ed.). Papers on the Manding, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1971
  3. Gerrit Dimmendaal, "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", Language and Linguistics Compass 2/5:841.
  4. D. J. Dwyer: "Toward a Proto-Mandé Morphology"

General references

External links

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