Last week, I attended a lecture given by a traveling professor, Dr. Mamarame Seck, who gave a talk about an African language, how it is unique, and how it has been misrepresented by French grammarians who sought to write a grammar for the language. Specifically, he spoke about Wolof, one of his native languages.
Africa contains an estimated 2,035 languages, but that number can go up or down by a substantial amount depending on how you define one language from another. “Splitters” who like to dice languages down into very fine categories would find 2,000 to be much too low. “Lumpers” who prefer to group many dialects into a single language might find that 2,000 to be much too high. Either way, Africa is a continent rife with languages that have many distinct features.
Greenburg, a famous linguist, classified African languages based on 4 phyla: Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, and Khosian. Niger-Congo is the largest phyla, containing about 1,400 languages. Afro-Asiatic is the second second largest with Nilo-Saharan and Khosian following. Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharah, and Afro-Asiatic are all named for the geographic area they cover; Khosian alone is named for the people who speak it in South Africa.
Dr. Seck continued to explain a little bit about each phyla before telling us that Wolof, his language of specialty, is a member of the Niger-Congo phyla, specifically in the North Atlantic subset of the Atlantic subrgroup of Niger-Congo. It is spoken in Senegal, and unlike many other African languages, it is not a tonal language. This is the point of distinction that the French grammarians have misrepresented.
Wolof does have fun feature called focus that is used to distinguish the word of emphasis in the sentence from the others. In English, we do this mostly by the intonation of our voice, but Wolof has specifically grammatical markers that are attached to the end of the word.
Dr. Seck explained that some grammarians who were writing about Wolof took this to mean that intonation plays no part in Wolof, that all emphasis comes from the focus markers. But Dr. Seck knows as a native speaker that this is not the case; intonation still plays a role, and it can help give a greater meaning to a word that would have been lacking otherwise.
Dr. Seck continued on to give us some more technical information about the language, and then wrapped up his talk by telling us Wolof is considered a critical language for the U.S., and as such, the government requires people who know and can speak this language. He pictures one day having African language programs in more universities around the country. He has already done so successfully at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For now though, Dr. Seck is going to be joining the OU faculty for a semester and teaching two courses in the spring: West African Experiences and Africa and the Diaspora. It would be a great opportunity for anyone interested in the people of Africa, their history, and the languages they speak.