Frequent commenter Jongseong Park wrote asking about a comment that never showed up in the thread (I had to rescue it from the spam bin; I encourage everyone suffering from disappearing-comment syndrome to write me — I can usually restore them) and added:

By the way, after seeing the news about the Congolese musician Aurlus Mabélé who passed away recently, I’ve been wondering about the name Aurlus. The name seems to be used across francophone West Africa, including Ivory Coast, Benin, and Cameroon, but doesn’t look like it’s from any local language. In French-language videos, it is pronounced [ɔʁlys] as you would expect it to be pronounced based on the spelling. Aurlus Mabélé’s real name was Aurélien Miatsonama or Miatshonama, and on Facebook there is a certain “Aurelien Tchouab” from Cameroon who also goes by the name Aurlus, so maybe Aurlus is being used as a nickname for Aurélien in these cases. But I can’t figure out where that name could have come from and why it is only apparently used in francophone West Africa. Perhaps your readership can help?

Mabélé by the way comes from the Lingala word for ‘earth’, mabele.

(I hadn’t been familiar with Mabélé’s music, but it’s delightful.) So: anybody know about this intriguing name?


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t see how any indigenous language could be involved, given the spread from Congo to Côte d’Ivoire at least.

    I wonder if “Aurlus” was just an idiosyncrasy of Mabélé’s, and the others are actually named after him (or have adopted the form in his honour)?

    Like being called “Elvis.”

  2. A higher quality video is at

    And the sad topical news is that he died of coronavirus. Obituary at

  3. I wonder if “Aurlus” was just an idiosyncrasy of Mabélé’s, and the others are actually named after him (or have adopted the form in his honour)?

    That makes sense.

  4. David Marjanović says

    A switch from Aurelianus to Aurelius? But the contraction of Aurélius would be completely irregular.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Mabele does indeed mean “earth” in Lingala, BTW; not to be confused with mabɛlɛ “breasts.”

  6. According to my little Lingala dictionary/phrase book, the stress (high tone?) is on the final syllable.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    High tone: yes, mabele is LLH, whereas mabɛlɛ is LHL. Both words have the stress on the second syllable.

  8. I don’t know anything about the name, but there is a long discussion of wordplay (and special attention to names) in Congolese music here:

  9. in conversation with John Nimis, linguist and scholar of Congolese popular music.

    Sounds promising — thanks for that!

  10. David Eddyshaw says
  11. David Eddyshaw says

    A strongly dissentient view (in English):

    Seems to know what he’s on about. I do (on first principles) rather like the thrust of Erik’s link, however: I have long maintained that if God ever decides finally to obliterate the human race, the last survivor will be an African (woman.)

  12. A strongly dissentient view

    Depressing and convincing.

  13. John Cowan says

    the last survivor will be an African (woman.)

    “In my beginning is my end.”

  14. @David Eddyshaw, I don’t know a thing about the onomastics of “Elvis,” but the name wasn’t originally unique to Elvis Presley. Just after Presley served in the Army (1958-60), the Secretary of the Army (1961-62) was another Southerner named Elvis: the Kentuckian Elvis J. Stahr, Jr.

  15. @ David Eddyshaw, I don’t know a thing about the onomastics of “Elvis,” but the name wasn’t originally unique to Elvis Presley. Just after Presley served in the Army (1958-60), the Secretary of the Army (1961-62) was another Southerner named Elvis: the Kentuckian Elvis J. Stahr, Jr.

  16. St. Elvis (aka Ailbe).

  17. It would be nice if there were an Emily of Elba to go with Ailbe of Emly.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    I would be prepared to offer a small wager (to be paid in PPE) that the great majority of world Elvides are nevertheless named in honour of the King.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    “In my beginning is my end.”

    Just so.

  20. Anonymous Coward says

    Seems that the difference between e and ɛ, as that between o and ɔ, is not present in today’s prestigious form of Lingala, le kinois. So the real difference between “earth” and “breasts” would be that between mabelé and mabéle.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s not present in the usual orthography, either (but then neither is tone marking.)

    On the whole, I would imagine that confusion between “earth” and “breasts” would arise rarely in practice. But I’ve led a sheltered life.

  22. Both are the roundness of Mother, but on utterly different scales.

  23. David, so how is stress expressed in Lingala, if not by higher pitch?

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Relative loudness and duration.

    Lots of languages disconnect pitch and stress. In Kusaal (to retreat rapidly to my comfort zone from the wilds of Central Africa) stress falls on the root syllables of full words, which show marked “positional prominence”: only root syllables can show the full nine-way vowel quality distinctions, can contain diphthongs, can show contrastive nasalisation, or can be glottalised (with some marginal exceptions.) However, many full words have low tones throughout (in fact, verbs of main clauses regularly have all tones low after third person subject pronouns, even if they have other tones underlyingly), and you can easily produce whole sentences in which every tone is low.

    I believe there are Scandinavian dialects in which low pitch regularly correlates with stress.

    There seem to be very few (if any) languages in which tone and stress are both contrastive, though.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    I do not have an authority, but it is my understanding that Ailbhe is used in Ireland independently from Elvis primarily for girls, where it is often anglicised as Elva. I suspect Olive may be another anglicisation, when it is not a feminine from Amhlaoibh (=Norse Olaf)

  26. I always thought Elvis had something to do with Alois.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    There is, cross-linguistically, a tendency for stressed syllables to attract high tone and for syllables with high tone to attract stress, but “tendency” is the operative word. There are myriad exceptions.

    As it happens, this interacts with a famous problem in Western Oti-Volta tonology (famous to the six people who have any interest in the matter, anyway.) The protolanguage seems pretty clearly to have had just two tones, high and low, with the (cross-linguistically very common) further constraint that a single stem can only have one high tone at most (Kusaal has three tones, but the historical development from a two-tone system is transparent.)

    However, there are not two, but three basic tone classes of nouns with stems which only carry one toneme, and one theory about this suggests that words which would otherwise have had all low tones instead surface as all-high when stressed:

    Unfortunately, this this doesn’t actually work when you try to apply it to verbs, and even for nouns it only works if you set up a notion of “stress” so abstract that it doesn’t reliably match the actual stresses of real words, and it all becomes circular.

    There’s a competing theory that this is not a question of stress at all, but due to tone-copying of the high tone of a suffix onto an intrinsically toneless stem:

    This also completely fails to work with verbs.

    Neither theory can plausibly account for the way roots change tone class when derivational suffixes are added,
    More research is needed …

  28. Trond Engen says

    David E: I believe there are Scandinavian dialects in which low pitch regularly correlates with stress.


    (It’s a little more complicated than that, and even a little more than a little more complicated… I’m not up to explaining the complexities now.)

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Ha! My Engen-invocation has succeeded!

    I have some dim memory that you’ve explained this already elsewhere, but I can’t find it.

  30. The audio programme on libanga was a great listen! We don’t seem to be much farther along on the origin of Aurlus, but for now I’ll assume it’s an idiosyncratic name that gained some popularity due to the singer. I wonder if the places where you find the name correspond well to where his music is popular.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a good ear for tonal languages and I’m more used to the sounds of Swedish, but both of the Standard East Norwegian tones sound confusingly like rising tones to me—the stressed part mostly corresponds to lower pitch. The difference between the first and second tones seems to be that the latter involves a falling pitch in the stressed part itself before the jump to the higher pitch so that the pitch contour is something like MLH.

    The exception is when the second tone is given emphatic stress, in which case the pitch can be high as well.

  31. John Cowan says

    There is a Filipino name which I don’t exactly know, but which anglicizes as something close to Elvie (my hair was cut by a male Elvie for a while). Dr. Google has been unhelpful here. There is also someone known as the Filipino Elvis, but that’s because he used to be an Elvis impersonator.

  32. PlasticPaddy says
  33. David Eddyshaw says

    The libanga motif reminded me of this (where the shout-outs, are, however, very much to the point):


  34. David Marjanović says

    I believe there are Scandinavian dialects in which low pitch regularly correlates with stress.

    Swiss German is famous for that, too. (Complete with high pitch on the following syllable, and falling pitch after that.)

    I also find it very noticeable in the English of Scotland and Ireland.

    We’ve speculated here before that this goes straight back to Proto-Germanic – and there, in a language without phonemic stress, I wonder if it was a natural consequence of the same phenomenon that puts low pitch on all word-initial syllables in Japanese (except the few that carry a phonemic high tone).

    There seem to be very few (if any) languages in which tone and stress are both contrastive, though.

    However, there are plenty where tone is only contrastive in stressed syllables, while the pitches of unstressed syllables are all predictable. That’s one meaning of the term pitch accent: Ancient Greek*, western South Slavic, Lithuanian**, Central Franconian** and Shanghainese*** come to mind.

    * And then only on long vowels and diphthongs.
    ** And then only on long vowels and sequences of vowel + i, u, l, r, m, n. Also, not Latvian, which is a register-tone language with fixed first-syllable stress.
    *** Only when the stressed syllable has a voiceless initial consonant. Voiced consonants erase the distinction between high and middle pitch and impose low pitch.

    This also completely fails to work with verbs.

    All finite verbs in main clauses are “unaccented” in Vedic Sanskrit, which means they don’t carry a high pitch, and their stress seems to default to the first syllable.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    I should have said independently contrastive (and was going to change it, but ran out of editing time.)

    The Proto-Western-Oti-Volta system has tantalising resemblances to a pitch-accent system, but at the end of the day I think you can only forcibly make it into one by abstracting away so far from the surface reality that it’s hard to see the point of doing so other than to demonstrate one’s theoretical virtuosity. In reality, of course, the fact is that there isn’t a neat division between pitch-accent systems and The Rest (as your examples nicely illustrate.)

    The analogy between the loss of tone contrasts in Kusaal main-clause verbs and Vedic occurred to me pretty much as soon as I recognised what was going on in Kusaal. It’s an interesting parallel (though it’s incomplete: the Kusaal phenomenon is blocked by any preceding VP particle with an intrinsic non-low tone, for example, and curiously is always absent in non-initial coordinated clauses too.)

    I haven’t been able to confirm a similar phenomenon in any other Western Oti-Volta language. I think it is actually absent in the Northwestern subgroup which includes Mooré; the tonal systems of other languages in the Southwestern group to which Kusaal belongs are unfortunately pretty much without exception too poorly documented for me to be able to tell for certain if main-clause verbs undergo tone neutralisation, but there are indirect pointers which suggest that they do (the neutralisation partly correlates with segmental features which do behave the same way in Kusaal, Mampruli and Dagbani.)

    One feature of of the WOV tonal systems which seems to be extremely common cross-linguistically is that verbs are much simpler tonally that nominals, with fewer distinct tone classes and much less in the way of tonal irregularities. That seems to be overwhelmingly more common in tone languages that the reverse; if nominals and verbs differ consistently at all tonally, nominals are more complex than verbs. Classical Greek is a good example: finite verb tones are pretty much predictable; nouns – not so much …

    It may go with the tendency of tonal alternations to be coopted into verb flexion, so that the role of tone tends to be more grammatical and less lexical in verbs.

    Never seen it in a list of “universals” …

  36. David Marjanović says

    IIRC, (Middle) Korean has also generalized low tone across most or all verb roots.

  37. IIRC, (Middle) Korean has also generalized low tone across most or all verb roots.

    I don’t know much about the pitch accent in Middle Korean, but this sounded intriguing so I tried to look it up and found this study:“Accent and underlying form of verbs in middle Korean” by Yoo, Pil-Jae (2003). It is in Korean, but it contains a couple of tables that illustrate the frequency of tone types in verb stems.

    Table 2 (p. 95) lists the known number monosyllabic verb stems for each consonant coda according to underlying tone—L, H, R, L!, H!, R!, for the low, high, and rising tones where the ! indicates a difference in the behaviour when combined with certain endings. Table 3 (p. 97) lists the monosyllabic verb stems that don’t have a consonant coda for each vowel according to underlying tone.

    From these examples, for monosyllabic verb stems, there seems to be a strong correlation between the consonant coda or the lack thereof and the tone. The stems without a consonant coda all seem to have H or H! tones. Overall, L or L! tones indeed seem to be the most frequent followed by the R or R! tones and the H or H! tones, but from this data I don’t know if we can really generalize a low tone for most verb stems.

  38. Allan from Iowa says

    I was very disappointed when I learned that Elvira is not the feminine form of Elvis.

  39. David Eddyshaw says


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