And the Mande family — I like writing that — is but one example of this tendency to over-lump African languages. Modern linguists have been showing that a great many languages classified as Niger-Congo on the West African coast and beyond are almost certainly part of families of their own. As the linguist Roger Blench puts it:
Joseph Greenberg, whose classification of African languages remains the principal framework in use today, was a committed “lumper” and was inclined to ensure every language found a classificatory home, sometimes on the basis of extremely skimpy evidence. Recent years have seen a skeptical counter trend, to consider that some of the languages or branches classified by Greenberg and formerly accepted, are isolates.
That is, these languages are related to no other living ones — and they most likely tell us something about the past. Africa is slowly revealing a picture wherein its languages are different to such a degree indicating that human language has existed there for many thousands of years, evolving into ever differing configurations in the same way as the post-Cambrian tree of life so vividly described in our times by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. The languages reflect that Africa is the cradle of humanity, with awesomely ancient language families having shared space, waxing and waning, many of them having left but a single descendant, others like Mande leaving many more, with a few lucky ones having taken over large stretches of the continent, such as Niger-Congo and Hamito- — no, today we call it “Afroasiatic.”
How might we develop a richer sense of what West African languages are like? My basic blackboard lesson would go something like this: Start at Senegal. When you hear that someone speaks Fula, sometimes also called Fulani, Fulfulde or Pulaar, this is a language in which words are dazzling shape shifters, where first sounds in a word change according to how it’s being used. Then in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria, languages like Twi, Yoruba and Igbo are, to me, so like Chinese in how they put words together as well as how they use tones.
Then the Bantu languages spoken in the Congos and Angola are a different story again. This is the group that includes Swahili, that now-professor Maulana Karenga, of California State University, Long Beach, adopted in the 1960s as Black America’s heritage language of choice. (The names of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the holiday conceived by Karenga, are Swahili-derived, for instance.) But Swahili is an East African language likely spoken by relatively few of the enslaved people brought to America. West African languages played a larger role here, and one of the neatest things about them is that many of them divide the past tenses into rigorously fine grains. The Kongo language, for example, has different past tenses depending on whether you are talking about something that happened just now, earlier today, yesterday or before that — and in addition gave us the words “goober” and “zombie.”
It’s understandable that so often, in this country, we speak of “African” food, dance, traditions and languages even while technically aware that Africa is home to dozens of countries overlapping hundreds of cultures. The connection between most Black Americans and Africa is now so distant, and aspects of various African cultures were able to survive only briefly and faintly under the conditions enslaved people labored under in this country. We wind up with the idea of a generic Africanness that is about as peculiar as the idea of people donning berets, sitting in kilts, quaffing steins of lager and eating Swedish meatballs while reading “Anna Karenina” and saying they’re celebrating their European heritage. It’s much harder, of course, for previously enslaved people to preserve language, religion and genealogy over generations. But despite these obstacles, I hope we might develop a somewhat closer-up sense of what a West African language is, especially when a memorable name like Ketanji enters our linguistic consciousness — and the history books.