Words for Porridge in Bantuphone Africa.

Birgit Ricquier’s “The History of Porridge in Bantuphone Africa, with Words as Main Ingredients” (from Afriques 5 [2014], “Manger et boire en Afrique avant le XXe siècle”) is the kind of word-centric historical investigation I love; I’ll quote a few bits to whet your appetite. From the introduction:

Porridge as a mash is mostly prepared in West and Central Africa. The Éotilé of Ivory Coast, for instance, have a mash of boiled plantains and cassava called akoende. The most widespread name for this dish in West Africa is fufu, found in, for example, the Ghanaian language Ewe and in Liberian Grebo. An example from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a mash made of boiled pieces of sweet cassava and ripe banana, named litúmá in Lokele and mokóké in Songola.

Porridge is not an exclusively ‘African’ dish. Different types of porridge are found all over the world, even where bread is on the menu. McCann mentions the Venetian polenta, Serbian mamalinga, and Alabaman hominy grits, the latter being of Native American origin. And even some Asian types of porridge are reminiscent of this kind of preparation—for example, Himalayan tsampa, made with flour of toasted barley mixed with butter tea to form a sort of dough, and the dense paste called pa ba in Ladakh, made with flour of toasted barley and legumes.

Written documents reveal that porridge has a long-standing tradition in Europe. The ancient Greeks, for instance, prepared mâza and kóllix, ‘mashes’ of barley and wheatmeal; and the Romans prepared porridge both from barley and emmer (a type of wheat, Triticum dicoccum), the first named polenta, the second puls. What about the porridge of sub-Saharan Africa? Is it also several millennia old?

This paper will tell the history of porridge as prepared by Bantu speech communities. The focus on Bantuphone Africa is a consequence of the method of this study, namely historical-comparative linguistics. Few, if any, written documents are available predating the arrival of Europeans in Central and Southern Africa. Moreover, archaeology and archaeobotany mostly provide information on the history of tools and ingredients. As will be demonstrated, to study the history of preparations, historical-comparative linguistics—more specifically the Words-and-Things approach—is a welcome tool.

And from the conclusion:

But not everything could be revealed. The comparative method suffers from several drawbacks. First of all, the available lexical evidence could not indicate if and from whom the technique of stirring porridge was borrowed. Most of the vocabulary referring to new techniques, tools, and products were inherited Bantu words that underwent a semantic shift. Only one word, namely *NP14-gàdɩ̀, could be identified as a loan, and it appeared to be more recent than the change in cooking techniques. A second problem is semantic vagueness. No research could be done on nouns for ‘grinding stones’ since these objects are most often simply referred to as ‘stones’ or ‘stones for grinding’. The same is true for ‘stirring stick’ and ‘pestle’ in several West Bantu languages, both being called ‘stick’. However, the research also benefited from highly specialized vocabulary such as the verbs for ‘stirring flour in boiling water’ and the different ‘pounding’ verbs. Finally, more research is necessary on the historical background. Since many of the extra-linguistic referents discussed in this paper are not found in the archaeological record, the results of the linguistic analysis can be integrated into a historical framework based only on linguistic methods, namely the Bantu Expansion. Many aspects of the Bantu Expansion are still under discussion. Changes in the sub-classification of the Bantu languages and/or its historical interpretation may alter the presented historical narrative substantially.

Deeply satisfying stuff, and I thank infini for posting it at MetaFilter.


  1. There is something especially slippery about the semantics of food terminology. I think this has to do with ease and practicality of substitution of ingredients, and of techniques for that matter. Look at all the things that are called by variations on “pudding/boudin”. And because it’s about food and pleasure, there are often sexual connotations leading to new sexual terminology.

  2. How could the author talk about polenta and hominy grits and ignore Scots porridge, which built a nation !

  3. David L says:

    The true porridge of my youth was made with Scott’s Porage Oats. I’ve never seen that spelling anywhere else, and my ancient Chambers* Dictionary doesn’t even list the word.

    *11 Thistle Street, Edinburgh. You can’t get much more Scottish than that.

  4. Scottish National Dictionary:

    PARRITCH, n., v. Also par(r)i(t)ch, parra(t)ch, parech; porritch, purritch; parrage, -idge. Sc. forms and usages of Eng. porridge, the dish of oatmeal boiled in salted water (Sc. 1808 Jam.).

    I. n. 1. In Sc. freq. construed as a pl. From its being a staple of Scottish diet, the word came to be freq. used for food in gen., one’s sustenance, daily bread. Also attrib. in combs. parritch kettle, -pan, -pat (Ayr. 1789 Burns Grose’s Peregr. vi.), –time, etc. For special combs. and phrs. see below.

    Many fine citations, e.g. 1776 D. Herd Sc. Songs II. 182: “Ye’s get a panfu’ of plumpin parrage; And butter in them”; 1786 Burns Cotter’s Sat. Night xi.: “But now the Supper crowns their simple board, The halesome Porritch, chief of Scotia’s food”; 1953 Scots Mag. (Dec.) 170: “It was parritch in the mornin, oatmeal fried in creesh and tatties at dennertime, and parritch at nicht.”

  5. One of the earliest (16th-c.) examples of intervocalic /t/-tapping in English: pottage > porridge (porringer is still older, while paddock is a hypercorrect variant of parrock ~ park).

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Polenta, actually, is best fried in butter so it develops a crust.

  7. January First-of-May says:

    I’m honestly not sure what counts as kinds of porridge – the described dishes appear quite different from each other.

    I’m assuming the closest Russian equivalent is каша (kasha) – a general term denoting any of about half a dozen common dishes (and many more uncommon ones).

  8. For some reason we Americans have mostly dropped the word porridge, preferring oatmeal for the oaty breakfast dish. Like cottages and villages (a pattern?), it conveys a certain (ye) Old World quality to our ears.

  9. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    One of the earliest (16th-c.) examples of intervocalic /t/-tapping in English: pottage > porridge (porringer is still older, while paddock is a hypercorrect variant of parrock ~ park).

    Concerning park, is there somewhere a list of those words that went from Germanic to Latin/French and then back to Germanic (English)?

  10. Loans returned? There are many of them, since the Old French lexicon was at least 10% Frankish. Blue, war, garden, etc. There are also words like budget, which have been exchanged like ping-pong balls: in this case, a Gaulish word meaning ‘leather bag’ was borrowed into Late Latin, received an Old French suffix, was borrowed into Middle English, then from Modern English into French, and from French (or sometimes directly from English) into lots of other languages. The Celts got it back too: Irish buiséad comes from English, Breton budget from French. In Polish, the English “j” sound is substituted with the retroflex affricate /d͡ʐ/, but the “correct” pronunciation of budżet is /ˈbud.ʐɛt/ (as if it were spelt “budrzet”) because the word was borrowed at a time when French rather than English was the European lingua franca.

  11. “mentions the Venetian polenta, Serbian mamalinga…”

    What is mamalinga? The Matica srpska dictionary does not mention it. Some fact-checking is needed with this quote.

    The standard Croatian word for porridge is “kaša” (in Serbian каша). Croatians also have polenta. However, this is not a porridge in the sense of a thick liquid-like substance. The Croatian polenta (known as pura in Dalmatia and žganci in Zagorje) is corn flour cooked to a solid but soft consistency, and is eaten with milk. For an image of this, google “pura s mlikom.”

  12. What is mamalinga? The Matica srpska dictionary does not mention it. Some fact-checking is needed with this quote.

    Yeah, I wondered about that too. What I know is the Romanian term mămăligă, whose origin is disputed; I suspect that Ricquier simply got it wrong, since her specialty is Africa, not the Balkans.

    That Wikipedia article has a section on “Similar dishes” that says: “Known by different names in local languages (Abkhaz: абысҭа abysta, Adyghe: мамрыс mamrys, Georgian: ღომი ghomi, Ingush: журан-худар zhuran-khudar, Nogai: мамырза mamyrza, Ossetian: дзыкка dzykka or сера sera), it is also widespread in Caucasian cuisines.” Fun stuff; also, mamyrza is close enough to mămăligă that I’m sure people try to connect them.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Millet porridge is the staple where I used to live in NE Ghana. It’s one of those dishes that outsiders boast that they have actually managed to eat, to show their manhood (like haggis.)

    Teh hardcorez locally heat up yesterday’s porridge and fry it for breakfast, a practice not unknown in Glasgow …

    It’s called sa’ab in Kusaal, with obvious cognates in the neighbouring Gur languages e.g. Mooré sagbo. In local English it’s called “TZ”, from the Hausa tuwon zāfī “porridge-of-heat”; Francophones thereabouts call it , presumably also from the Hausa tuwō.

    Come to think of it, the words all mean “porridge” rather than “millet porridge” specifically; they are still used if you make the porridge out of something else; it’s just that millet is the default. “Oatmeal” would be sa’ab too.

  14. My Hausa dictionary has both tuwō ‘porridge, mash’ and kùnū ‘gruel.’

  15. Ah, my (clearly superior except for lack of diacritics) Russian Hausa dictionary has this entry for tuwō (my translation):

    tuwo m. (pl. -aye) tuwo (very thick kasha, the national dish of the Hausa); tuwan alaka tuwo from yam flour; tuwam ɓaure tuwo from wheat flour; tuwan ruwa dumplings; yi uwaa ~ to take meals with someone; sauran ~ war survivors; tuwan ƙas na kare ne ≅ there’s no smoke without fire; tuwam ɓarna (ethnog.) festival the day following a bride’s arrival at the house of the bridegroom; tuwan ƙasa lotion made from damp earth.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve never been clear on the porridge/gruel distinction. “Gruel” sounds even less appetizing, but that is presumably because of the literary associations and what-have-you. I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly eaten gruel.

    The description of kùnū in the Newmans’ dictionary sounds appropriately Dickensian. “Flavoured with potash…”

    “Gruelling” is of the same origin as the food, if Chambers is to be believed.

    Tuwan ƙas na kare ne ought to mean “Porridge on the floor belongs to the dog”, which seems unarguable, but I can’t follow the transition of meaning to “No smoke without fire.”

  17. SFReader says:

    Hundreds of millions of Americans eat oatmeal gruel for breakfast.

    At least that’s what I was told while being served with this unappetizing dish for several weeks.

  18. I have it only occasionally, but enjoy it with brown sugar and milk.

  19. IMO the keys to making oatmeal (porridge or gruel, I just call it “oatmeal”) is not to omit the salt, which is critical, and to make it with milk, which obviates the need to eat it with milk.

  20. Nogai: мамырза mamyrza

    I think it’s not this, but balamuq/balamyq/bulamyq that sounds sufficiently similar:



    Еще одна группы жидких блюд готовилась с мукой. Блюдо боламык/буламук,
    приготовляемое на основе воды и муки занимало пограничное положение между
    болтушками и кашами из-за существующих различий в соотношении основных

    Иные люди свой быламык считают вкуснее чужого дзыкка
    (Осетинская пословица)

    Касимовские татары

    Исключительно обрядовым блюдом являлась жирная мучная каша саламата
    (майлы буламык) из пшеничной муки и сливочного масла. Считалось, что ее
    приготовление должно обеспечивать благополучие и успех в начатом деле.
    Саламату варили перед началом полевых работ, во время строительства
    жилища. После установки первых венцов избы мулла читал молитву. В это
    время поспевала каша. Хозяева садились посередине избы, ели ре .сами и
    угощали рабочих.


    Из варенной крупы делали также и каши – ботка, жидкую мучную кашу – заваруху – быламык (10). Такие же блюда известны и у других тюркских народов.

  21. Due to the eating of mamaliga in Moldavia and Bessarabia, the dish became known in the Soviet Union as well, but its origins were swiftly forgotten. One night while traveling in Georgia, I was invited to stay at the home of a local family. One of the dishes they served was mamaliga, and they even used that (Romanian) name for it. When I commented at my surprise that the dish had crossed the Black Sea, they got offended and said that surely the Romanians had taken it from them. (Naturally, maize is native to neither region.)

  22. January First-of-May says:

    (Naturally, maize is native to neither region.)

    I often wonder what was used in “national dishes” that now involve maize before that was a possibility. (Same for tomatoes and potatoes, which come up even more often.)

    In some cases, it is, in fact, known (IIRC, pizza was originally done with lard).

  23. Mămăligă used to be made with millet. The switch to maize was responsible for some pellagra epidemics, at least in rural Romania.

    I wonder, too, about what South-East Asian / Indian / West African cuisines were like before capsicum peppers.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    Tuwan ƙas na kare ne ought to mean “Porridge on the floor belongs to the dog”…

    I suppose (to be a bit more imaginative) the “No smoke without fire” sense arises from the implication that when you find porridge on the floor, you can conclude that it was the wicked dog that was responsible for spilling it. It’s probably totally obvious if you spend much time eating tuwō with hungry dogs about.

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    “pizza was originally done with lard”

    The invention of the pizza is clearly described in the seventh book of the Aeneid.

    Heus! Etiam mensas consumimus!

  26. David Marjanović says:

    “Flavoured with potash…”

    Laugenbrezeln! 🙂

    Etiam mensas

    I concur.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thinking about West African proverbs, it occurs to me that an awful lot of them are in fact jokes.
    In Kusaal, for example, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” turns into “When a donkey feels like throwing you off his back, his ears become invisible” and foresight is enjoined with “Measure your anus before you swallow that nut.” There are plenty of Hausa proverbs in a similar spirit, too.
    I hadn’t really thought about it before.
    I don’t think this is a cultural universal …
    In fact, I seem to remember Edward Sapir saying somewhere that indigenous American cultures don’t really do proverbs at all.

    Hilaire Belloc has a little riff somewhere where he affects to use the methods of Higher Criticism to reconstruct the personality of the Proverb Maker from his logia. On this basis, I think the West African Proverb Maker was a more genial sort than the European Proverb maker (while the Amerindian Proverb Maker may have felt that the greater wisdom lay in silence.)

  28. marie-lucie says:

    gruel vs porridge

    I think that gruel is thinner, more watery than porridge. Without milk and/or sugar it would be a very bland, unappetizing dish, cooked by people trying to stretch out a very meager portion of oats.

    There is a French counterpart le gruau (spoken in two syllables: gru-o) which I use when talking about English-style porridge. Before I became acquainted with oatmeal the word only had old-fashioned, negative connotations for me. I have never heard anyone else talking about eating du gruau.

  29. Lars (the original one) says:

    Proverbs as jokes — I think they used to be raunchier in Europe too. One Danish example: Slå ikke større brød op end du kan bage is the modern proverb used when someone might be overly ambitious (‘don’t shape a bigger loaf than you can bake’). The older equivalent was ej fjærter mus som hest uden røv revner — ‘if a mouse farts like a horse its arse will split’.

    Gruel — when I was little, the standard cure for an upset stomach was a very thin gruel of (rolled) oatmeal in (sweetened) blackcurrant juice, called ‘oatmeal soup’.

    Porridge — oatmeal porridge is havregrød, but grød is a word of very wide applicability, from boiled red fruits thickened with corn starch, the famous rødgrød med fløde (delimited from jam and jelly by not being reduced and less sweet and stiff) to things just short of risotto on the chewiness scale.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    the standard cure for an upset stomach was a very thin gruel of (rolled) oatmeal

    Known to me from reading as Haferschleim, which is explained on Wikipedia as the slime poured off after boiling flakes, or even as Haferschleimsuppe.

  31. Lars (the original one) says:

    Don’t call it slime if you want kids to consume it. Or maybe for some kids it will be just the word…

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Only if you dye it green.

  33. David Eddyshaw says:

    Filboid Studge.

  34. Lars (the original one) says:

    Slimy pease gruel?

    Even though I feel that mushy peas are de rigeur with fish and chips, green slime is a pretty good description of the thing.

  35. On mamaliga in the Caucasus – I’m currently reading a book with reminiscences about Isaak Babel, and his second wife mentions eating mamaliga while travelling with him in that area, in what must have been the early 1930s.

  36. Mămăligă is uncannily reminiscent of Hittite memal(l)- ‘coarse meal, groats’ — an archaic reduplicated derivative of *melh₂- ‘grind’. It just might be a very old substrate word, considering the perfect semantic match.

    The word was borrowed into Polish as mamałyga via Ukrainian and the dialect of Lwów/Lviv (it was a popular dish in Western Ukraine and southeastern Poland). Today it’s mostly used in the non-literal sense of ‘unpalatable mush’ (the reduplication gives it the right phonaestetic flavour), though the original meaning has survived in culinary usage. We have other loans from Romanian in the dialects of the Polish highlands (the Carpathian region), courtesy of the Vlach shepherds who colonised those areas in the late Middle Ages. Well-known examples (often shared with the neighbouring languages such as Ukrainian or Slovak) include bryndza ‘creamy sheep cheese’ (Standard Romanian brânză ‘cheese’), żętyca ~ żentyca ‘drink made from sheep-milk whey’ (Rom. jîntiţa), watra ‘an open-air fire’ (Rom. vatră ‘hearth’, Albanian (Tosk) vatër, (Gheg) votër) and others. They are often “substratal” (with cognates in Albanian) rather than Romance.

  37. It just might be a very old substrate word, considering the perfect semantic match.

    Do you believe in the “Anatolian substrate in Europe” theory, then?

  38. Do you believe in the “Anatolian substrate in Europe” theory, then?

    No, but *me-ml̥h₂- may be a PIE word inherited independently by Hittite and by some Palaeo-Balkan language (Proto-Albanian?) that influenced the Balkan Latin ancestor of Romanian.

    As for this type of reduplicated noun, see

  39. Marek Stachowski’s 2013 paper, European Balkan(s), Turkic bal(yk) and the problem of their original meanings, brings up more names for mămăligă-like porridge, Hungarian bálmos and Ukrainian bánuš. According to him, they go back to Turkish bulamaç ‘puree, mash, pulp, porridge’ < bula- ‘to roll in flour; to stir, mix’, but not to bal ‘honey’ as had been suggested.

    However, he does attempts to link the Turkish words for ‘honey’, ‘city’, ‘fish’, and the word Balkan all to one reconstructed word, Proto Turkic *bal, meaning something like ‘muck, thick substance’. From it he draws 1. ‘honey’, unsurprisingly; 2. balčyk ‘mud’ (lit. ‘muck-like’), and hence the attested ‘wall’ and ‘town, city’; 3. speculatively, balyk ‘tench’ (a mud-dwelling fish), and then ‘fish’ in general; 4. *balyk *‘swampland’, *‘swampy forest’, whence *balyk+an > balkan ‘wooded mountains’.

    There are a bit too many speculative steps for my taste, but the results are very pretty, if somewhat unproven.

    Stachowski has many more papers on his page on etymological subjects. The paper on the wanderings of the word ‘mammoth’ is interesting, as is the one on why the Yakut word for ‘fox’ is cognate to the Turkish one for ‘green’.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    Off the top of my head this looks as if *bal is a merger of several roots that were distinct at an earlier stage…

  41. http://altaica.ru/LIBRARY/ESTJA/estja2b.pdf
    Севортян, Этимологический словарь тюркских языков, Б

  42. Stachowski has many more papers on his page on etymological subjects. The paper on the wanderings of the word ‘mammoth’ is interesting, as is the one on why the Yakut word for ‘fox’ is cognate to the Turkish one for ‘green’.

    Marek Stachowski, the founder of Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia is a brilliant Turkologist and historical linguist. His etymological studies are never superficial and always a pleasure to read. He is also a historian of the discipline. It’s a pity that (although he publishes mostly in English and sometimes in German) his long and wonderfully objective review of the Altaic dispute (or rather History of the Altaic Wars) is available only in Polish:


  43. SFReader says:

    “Udowodnienie, że języki zwane ałtajskimi tworzą rodzinę genetyczną, to nie jest kwestia życia i śmierci. Ale udowodnienie, że nie tworzą, też nie.”


  44. Sensible suggestions, like figure out whether Chuvash is one of the Turkic languages or a separate branch, and do separate reconstructions of pre-Turkic without Bulgarian, pre-Bulgarian, pre-Mongolian, and pre-Tungus and only then try to combine them.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    But read the paper anyway to appreciate this gem:

    Rumanian bali(e)mez ‘a very heavy howitzer’ < Turkish balyemez id. < German Faule Metze, an ironical name of a heavy howitzer in Brunswick (Kissling 1951: passim); if this Turkish word was connected with bal ‘honey’ the word balyemez would have literally meant ‘it does not eat honey’

    As for how PIE *e would show up in Proto-Turkic as *a, a question Stachowski raises but doesn’t try to answer, just route it through Indo-Iranian. Starting from *mélit- does have the problems that you’d need to find a way to lop the *-it- off, and that the word doesn’t seem to be attested in Indo-Iranian; but maybe you can start from *médʰu after all, derive a suspiciously Avestan-like *maðu, borrow the [ð] as [l] and find an excuse to drop the *u.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    his long and wonderfully objective review of the Altaic dispute (or rather History of the Altaic Wars)

    is too old to mention An Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages (Moscow school, 2003), on which see this later paper in German.

  47. IIRC, Scythian is supposed to show /l/ for Iranian intervocalic /d/. That would have been spoken in the right area for contact with Proto-Turkic.

  48. too old to mention An Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages

    Too old? The article is from 2012. It mentions the EDAL and the “inexcusable errors” therein (with reference to Stachowski 2005).

  49. Everything new is old again. We discussed Stachowski, Altaic, etc. in 2014.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    I remember that thread, and downloaded the paper back then. Maybe I misremembered the comment about it lacking most of the stir caused by Robbeets’s later attempt to “prove” Altaic while making only the minimal number of assumptions (which worked out terribly because the assumptions were far too few).

    I tried to read the paper back then, but gave up pretty soon. I’ll give it another try.

  51. I just saw this article, on the etymology of the words for ‘vampire’ in Slavonic languages, by Stachowski’s sons Kamil and Olaf, from the festschrift for their father (which is full of other goodies). The article is the sort of etymological candy I love to read. They review in detail the history of belief in vampires in Eastern Europe, and evaluate the dozens of etymologies proposed over the years, using data from every language and dialect imaginable. They settle on dual Turkic borrowings, from Bolghar into Southern Slavonic and from Kipchak into Northern Slavonic.

  52. Kamil Stachowski also has a “Phonetic battleships” game on his website, if you really like trying to pronounce difficult things with a friend. (It comes up easily on Google; I just filled my link quota.)

  53. This. To let the other person know the intersection you are aiming at, you pronounce the syllable composed of the consonant and the vowel corresponding to it. If you can.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    That’s hardcore… but some of the symbols don’t make sense. [ɦ] is already breathy-voiced, so [ɦʱ] is superfluous at best, and what is the “centralized” diacritic ([¨]) doing on top of a central vowel ([ɐ])?


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