NYAMAKALAW.

I was trying to discover the pronunciation and, if possible, origin of the place name Korhogo (why yes, I am editing an article on West Africa, why do you ask?) when my googling took me to Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande, edited by David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (Indiana University Press, 1995), and I fell in love. I’ll copy part of the section “The Dieli of Korhogo” (pp. 155 ff.), from Robert Launay’s chapter “The Dieli of Korhogo: Identity and Identification”:

It is certainly ironic that, although the debate hinges in principle on whether the Dieli language is related to Siena-re or to Manding, none of the scholars concerned is a trained linguist, nor has any linguistic evidence been cited in this literature substantiating any of the peremptory identifications which have been proffered with an air of authority. Pierre Boutin, who is a trained linguist familiar with the region, has, on the basis of word lists which he has personally collected as well as on lists collected much earlier by Louis Tauxier, expressed some skepticism about all of these assertions.[...]
There remains one last clue to their identity, a clue every bit as elusive, perhaps, as all the others: their very name, Dieli. The name is homonymous — or one might say identical — with that of the well-known “caste” of Mande bards, the jeli. Might the Dieli of Korhogo actually be descendants of the Mande jeli? Or is the resemblance between these two category labels simply one of those unfortunate linguistic coincidences that seem to breed so much idle speculation? Admittedly, both the Korhogo Dieli and the Mande jeli are among those West African populations often labeled as “castes.” On the other hand, the Mande jeli are usually associated in the scholarly literature with the occupations of music and praise singing [...] However, Barbara Frank has demonstrated conclusively that the Mande jeli are, on the contrary, very frequently involved in the activity of leatherworking, and are by no means confined to the occupation of bards.

There follows a detailed discussion of the weight that should be given to patronymics, which are frequently associated with traditional occupations (“Patronymic labels can and do change in the region. Such changes are invariably justified on the grounds that one name is ‘really’ equivalent to another. In particular, Senufo patronyms have roughly standardized Mande equivalents…”). The combination of thorough research and careful detail with an understanding of the importance of linguistics (and of course that wonderful sentence about “those unfortunate linguistic coincidences that seem to breed so much idle speculation”) wowed me. But maybe it was just the one article? I checked the reviews, and Thomas A. Hale’s in Research in African Literatures 27 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 148-150, convinced me: “For anyone who teaches or does research on African literature, the insights found in this volume call for a reexamination of the classic texts from the Mande world.” Oh, and that word nyamakalaw? It’s the plural of nyamakala; the review says:

Nyamakalaw—often translated as “possessors of occult power”—is a very complex term whose origin and meaning are extremely difficult to pin down because of the variations from one region to another and from one speaker and audience to another. Charles Bird, Martha Kendall, and Kalilou Tera explore the diverse origins that could be attributed to the term before concluding that “the meaning of the word nyamakalaw does not equal the sum of the parts” (28). They argue that “to appreciate what a word such as nyamakalaw means, we must closely attend to those who are using the term, how they are using it, and why they use it the way they do” (32).

There is a discussion of the terms used to describe Mande peoples and professions. In short, this is the kind of book I love: full of the details of words, names, and history. Another review complained that it wasn’t theoretical enough and thus didn’t advance scholarly debates about colonialization or some damn thing; in my mind that’s a plus. When I went to Amazon and found it was being sold at the bargain price of $5.98, I ordered it.
And if anyone knows about Korhogo (is the -h- pronounced? the Russian form is Корого [Korogo], so I’m guessing not), I’m all ears.

Comments

  1. Gordon Tisher says:

    I lived in Bouaké for a year, and always heard it like the Russian, without the “h”.

  2. If the Russian form is Корого, shouldn’t it be pronounced “Korovo”?

  3. Is импетиго pronounced “impetivo” ?

  4. The “h” could modify the preceding “r”, making a digraph. The “h” could represent a separate phoneme. The “h” could be Frenchily silent. The Latin-based alphabets of West Africa that I’ve seen abhor digraphs, and enjoy an IPAish alphabet soup. However, proper names tend to have a French alphabet best fit. I don’t expect local languages to have more than one rhotic. My best guess is that it represents non-consonantal syllable onset after a closed syllable: kor-(h)o-go.

  5. ‘Is импетиго pronounced “impetivo”?’
    Even if it were a native Russian word, импетиго would be pronounced “impetigo.” But Russian adjectival and pronominal genitives spelled -ого or -его are invariably pronounced “-ovo” and “-evo” (with appropriate vowel reductions, of course). Out of curiosity, does anyone know how this came about? Maybe by confusion with neuter forms -ovo and -evo of the possessive suffix -ov/-ova (with its allophone variant -ev/-eva), as in some toponyms such as Ivanovo?

  6. I lived in Bouaké for a year, and always heard it like the Russian, without the “h”.
    Thanks very much, that’s exactly the kind of informed answer I was hoping for!
    But Russian adjectival and pronominal genitives spelled -ого or -его are invariably pronounced “-ovo” and “-evo”
    But this isn’t a Russian adjectival or pronominal genitive, it’s a foreign place name. Were you making a joke?

  7. But Russian adjectival and pronominal genitives spelled -ого or -его are invariably pronounced “-ovo” and “-evo” (with appropriate vowel reductions, of course). Out of curiosity, does anyone know how this came about? Maybe by confusion with neuter forms -ovo and -evo of the possessive suffix -ov/-ova (with its allophone variant -ev/-eva), as in some toponyms such as Ivanovo?
    Short answer: Slavists still aren’t sure. But the influence of possessive adjectives in -ov- and -ev- (from which the toponyms you mention derive) is often quoted as a possible reason.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    GH: (the h in Korhogo): My best guess is that it represents non-consonantal syllable onset after a closed syllable: kor-(h)o-go.
    I agree with you in general, but “non-consonantal syllable onset” is more likely to be a glottal stop. French does not use either [h] or [?] as phonemes, but these sounds are indeed used in order to emphasize an initial vowel, [?] more commonly than [h]. For instance, my mother knew a little English but could not pronounce English [h] and substituted [?].
    On the other hand, you can sometimes hear a distinct prevocalic [h], for instance in a recording of Edith Piaf’s song “Milord”, where the word Allez, normally [ale] (or with emphasis [?ale]) is pronounced [hale]: this occurs in Allez, venez, Milord! ‘Come on, come, Milord!’, a phrase that comes after a slow, sad sequence and is intended to restore “Milord”‘s spirits by inviting him to dance with the singer, who has meanwhile taken a deep breath before starting the phrase. So it is plausible that Korhogo represents [kor?ogo], probably a careful or old-fashioned pronunciation, while [korogo] is the casual, everyday pronunciation.

  9. “Were you making a joke?” Well, I was trying to, but it was a pretty feeble one. At least I got an answer to a question that’s been haunting me since 1969.

  10. m-l: I remembered it as more of a sigh than an [h], but now that I play it again on YouTube, I hear that it’s definitely a speech sound, even if not phonemic.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    JC, glad to see you agree.

  12. Rodger C says:

    This is crackpot bait I know, but I was put in mind of the Yamacraw of South Carolina, a tribe formed (saith teh Wiki) only in 1728, and whose name has no known etymology.

  13. Rodger C says:

    Should have noted that at the time the nonnative population of SC was about 90% African, many of them recent arrivals.

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