I’ve been interested in West Africa, and specifically the Mali Empire and the Mande culture it helped spread throughout the region, for thirty years now, ever since a dear friend (hi, Lisa!) asked me to study Bambara with her to help her prepare for a trip to Mali (which she didn’t end up making). I also had a friend who went regularly to that part of the world to import beads and who told wonderful stories about his adventures, so between the two of them they got me hooked. But one thing I found confusing was the nomenclature: there’s Mande (also spelled Mandé), Manden, Manding, Mandinka, Maninka, Mandingo, Malinke, and Mali itself, which (as it turns out) is a variant of the same term, as the OED explains:
the place name Mali, probably < French Mali < Arabic Mālī (also in form Māllī (14th cent.)), probably < Soninke *Malli < Manding *Mandeŋ, the name of the traditional Manding homeland (see Mande n. and adj.). Compare Fula Mali (Mɛli, Malel) the Mande people. The older form of the place name, Melli, is probably < Italian Melli (1550 in Leo Africanus) < Arabic Māllī (perhaps via Spanish or Maghribi Arabic *Mēllī).
If we follow their advice and “see Mande n. and adj.,” we find:
< Mande (also Manden), the name of the traditional Manding homeland on the Upper Niger (in Manding dialects Mandeŋ, Mandẽ, or Mandiŋ; the form Mande is of limited distribution). […] For other forms derived from the same Manding root see Mali adj. and n.2, Malinke n. and adj., Manding n. and adj., Mandingo n. and adj., Mandinka n. and adj., and Maninka n.
For some historical info to tie it all together, here’s a passage from George E. Brooks’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630:
[T]he differentiation of Mandekan languages from other languages of the Northern Mande subgroup (that is, Soninke, Susu/Jallonke/Yalunka, and Vai/Kono) probably occurred during the latter part of the c. 700–c. 1100 wet period and reflected linguistic adaptations to historical developments. By the close of this era, groups speaking Northern Mande languages were widely dispersed: north to south from Saharan oases to trading communities along the upper Niger and upper Senegal rivers and their tributaries and east to west across extensive territories wherever traders and smiths had been accepted by communities in need of their services.
The land between the bends of the Niger and Senegal rivers, home of Mande speakers from ancient times, was the area in which Mandekan languages evolved. Based on analyses of linguistic data, Charles S. Bird hypothesized that proto-Mandekan developed approximately 1,000 years ago in a triangular-shaped area “stretching perhaps from Segou in the north down to the headwaters of the Niger in the south and across to the Faleme in the west” (1970: 149). This territory was traversed by many caravan and riverine trade routes and encompassed the Bambuk and Boure goldfields, the most productive in western Africa. Near the southern angle of the triangular Mandekan homeland is the Mande, an area along the upper Niger River that is recognized as the cultural heartland of the Mandekan world. The Mande is bordered on the north and west by the Manding Mountains, foothills of Futa Jallon, and extends south to approximately Kouroussa and east to the Sankarani River (Bird 1970: 149). Mandekan means “the language of the Mande,” and people speaking Mandekan languages call themselves Mandekalu, “the people of the Mande,” thereby tracing their origins to this heartland (Bird 1970: 146).
Bird speculated that “a form of proto-Mandekan came into being as a trade language and that, in a shift of cultural focus, the simplified rules of the trade language becaem the norms for the entire society” (1970: 154). The development of syntactic regularity and simplicity resulted from — and ultimately was strengthened by — the need for Mandekan speakers to communicate with people speaking other Mande languages or belonging to other language groups that they encountered in their far-ranging commercial diaspora. Circumstances changed with the conquests by the horse warriors [in the c. 1100–c. 1500 dry period] for they imposed Mandekan languages in conquered areas.[…]
From west to east there are three principal Mandekan languages: Mandinka; Maninka, including Kuranko; and Bamana, including Dyula.
Just yesterday, when I was thinking about this mess, I realized that there was a very similar situation in Europe, with Slav, Slavic, Slavonic, Slovak, and Slovene. To make things worse, ‘Slovakia’ in Slovak is Slovensko. Linguistics isn’t for the weak or slothful.