Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Talking funny: Fula

As I was writing my conference proceedings paper last week, I had the idea to write a bit about some of the unusual (to English speakers) features of one of the languages I worked on. I'm thinking of turning this into a series, if I can come up with enough material for it--it's cool to see how diverse languages really are!

Fula (aka Fulani, Fulfulde, Pulaar) is a language of sub-Saharan Africa, spoken by somewhere between 10 and 25 million people (estimates vary); that makes it one of the top 100 most widespread languages in the world. The homeland of Fula is somewhere around Senegal in West Africa, but since the speakers of Fula were originally nomadic herders--and sometime Islamic imperialists--they spread as far east as Sudan. So dialects of Fula are now spoken in a band across the continent.

Men of the Fula-speaking Wodaabe people in Niger (photo by Dan Lundberg)
Some early European scholars studying Fula found its grammar to be so complex that some wondered (half-seriously) how the language could ever have developed naturally. What could have gotten them so flummoxed? I'm going to tell you about two linguistic features of Fula that seem pretty bizarre, from a European point of view (neither of which are actually unique to Fula).

First off, like virtually all its relatives (including Swahili, Zulu and many many others), Fula has things called noun classes. If you've studied a language like Spanish, German, or French, you're already familiar with these--they're called genders in European languages. All nouns in the language are divided into groups that each get different markings. So in Spanish, you say:
  • el pulp-o 'the octopus', a masculine noun
  • la langost-a 'the lobster', a feminine noun
The two genders get different endings (-o for masculine, -a for feminine) and different articles (the two words meaning 'the').

OK, so Fula has genders too, except instead of two or three, it has twenty-something (the exact number depends on the dialect). And the classes have nothing to do with biological sex. Here are some examples:
  • ɗem-ngal 'tongue' (class 16)*
  • nagg-e 'cow' (class 13)
  • njaayrii-ji 'open spaces' (class 25)
  • loo-ngel 'little pot' (class 3)
One cool thing about the noun classes is that you can take a single noun and put it in any one of several classes to get different nuances of meaning. Let's take the root laam 'chief':
  • laam-ɗo 'chief' (class 1)
  • laam-ɓe 'chiefs' (class 2)
  • laam-ngel 'petty chief' (class 3)
  • laam-ngum 'worthless little chief' (class 5)
  • laam-kon 'petty chiefs' (class 6)
  • laam-nga 'mighty chief' (class 7)
  • laam-ko 'mighty chiefs' (class 8)

Pretty fun, right?

OK, so if you want to learn Fula, you have to learn what noun goes in what class, and also memorize the suffixes for each class. But that's not all! Look what happens to the root meaning 'compound' in different classes:
  • wur-o 'compound'
  • gur-e 'compounds'
  • ngur-on 'small compounds'

WHOA!! Not only did the suffix change, but the first consonant of the root changed too! This is known as initial consonant mutation, and it's a feature of Atlantic, the small subfamily that Fula belongs to (it's also found in the Celtic languages). The consonants of the language are arranged in sets of up to three, called grades (for example, w, g, ng), and the first consonant of any noun or verb root switches between the consonants in a set. Each noun class requires a noun to use a certain grade of consonant. Another example is the word for 'a Fula person', which is Pull-o in the singular but Ful-ɓe in the plural.

So when you learn Fula, not only do you have to learn which noun is in which noun class and the suffix for each noun class, you also have to know which consonant grade each noun class likes! Oh, and did I mention that the noun class suffixes also undergo consonant mutation?...

If you want to get a feel for how Fula sounds, here's a recording which I guess is of a Bible story.

*The symbols ɗ and ɓ stand for a special type of d and b that are made by drawing air into the mouth instead of expelling it.

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