Tuesday update #3: ‘Oral literature in Africa’ available for free download

Ruth Finnegan, anthropologist and emeritus professor of sociology at England’s Open University, agreed to digitalise her seminal book ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ under a CC-BY license. This allows students of African studies, academics and interested readers, to download the e-book for free, thus broadening access to this remarkable piece of scholarship.

Oral Literature in Africa

First published in 1970, ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ had since gone out of print and was only available at some selected libraries. Even when ordering a physical copy was still an option, the price was so prohibitive that Ruth Finnegan’s book hardly made it into the hands of scholars on the African continent.

Crowdfunding campaign

Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign led by the start-up unglue.it, the book was not only saved from oblivion but propelled to near universal accessibility. It is now downloadable for free in mobi, epub and pdf format, thus enabling anyone with an Internet connexion to enjoy its content.

Under the CC-BY Creative Commons license, Finnegan’s work can be shared, reproduced, translated, quoted – the only condition being to give the author due attribution. She is convinced that this choice is completely in line with her mission as an academic…of the modern age:

Yet it seems to me that open access represents the future for academic publication. It is a form of free knowledge-dissemination, using the new opportunities afforded by the web, and is very much in keeping with the open and democratising spirit of The Open University.

And the e-book version is not without its perks – besides being free and accessible to all online. This new edition of ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, which is also the first title of the World Oral Literature Series, has been livened up by a new introduction as well as extra media, including photographs and original recordings collected in Sierra Leone in the 1960s. These precious appendices could not have been part of the book in 1970 due to obvious technical limitations at the time, and had thus far remained unpublished.

An ode to literary creativity

In ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, Ruth Finnegan explores themes common to anthropology, linguistics and sociology, debunking commonly held conceptions of the time and reestablishing the relevance of studying the oral arts of Africa with as much rigour as any other form of artistic expression. The author certainly was and remains committed to doing so.

Even though it is not per se part of the central argument, literary creation is placed against the particular linguistic background of Africa. In the introductory section of the book, Finnegan outlines the range of literary devices afforded by African languages, taking the Bantu group as an example.

For anyone who has ever juggled with multiple noun classes and verbal derivatives, it is illuminating to see these language parts coming together to aid literary creation. We enter a world where personification is only a prefix away, where verb gymnastics transform the mood of a scene, and where a whole story hides in a name.

But the scope for creative expression does not end there. One of the most striking features of Bantu languages is their generous use of ideophones in story-telling. Ideophones are words – most often interjections – whose sound brings to life an idea. Used to add texture and intensity to the tale, they can portray sounds but also, more surprinsingly, the rhythm of an action, colour, smell, character etc.

Here are my favourite examples of ideophones from the Shona language, as presented p. 66-67:

k’we—sound of striking a match.

nyiri nyiri nyiri nyiri—flickering of light on a cinema screen.

go, go, go, ngondo ngondo ngondo, pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka—the chopping down of a tree, its fall, and the splintering of the branches. (Fortune, 1962)

…and some Zulu ideophones:

khwi—turning around suddenly.

dwi—dawning, coming consciousness, returning sobriety, easing of pain, relief.

ntrr—birds flying high with upward sweep; aeroplane or missile flying.

bekebe—flickering faintly and disappearing.

khwibishi—sudden recoil, forceful springing back.

fafalazi—doing a thing, carelessly or superficially.

ya—perfection, completion            (Fivaz 1963)

The poetic potential of Bantu languages is exposed with such delicate eloquence that the thought kept me awake at night, murmuring bits of poems I had memorised from the book.

Beyond orality

Forty years after the book that essentially pioneered the field of ethnography of language, Ruth Finnegan published ‘The oral and beyond: doing things with words in Africa’. She looks back at almost half a century of research on orality, reviewing the intellectual debates taking place since the 1960s and opening up new perspectives for the study of orality, notably by questioning the long-held perception of Africa as the ‘oral continent’.

If you want to help unglue more books, have a look at the active campaigns and consider supporting the digitalization of a book under Creative Commons.

Photo credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Raymond Yee

Music break: Iddi Achieng (dholuo + kiswahili)

Back from a 3-year contract touring Europe, Iddi Achieng performed last May in Nairobi, once again warming the hearts of music buffs with her unctuous melodies. Always full of vitality, she interprets songs in Dholuo and Kiswahili.

Here is a past performance recorded on International Women’s Day at Alliance Française de Nairobi:

In a recent interview for Sabahionline, she said:

My music is informed by my Luo and Kenyan culture. I sing 90% in Luo to fully express myself and the other bit in our Kenyan national language [Swahili] to pass important national social messages. I speak to Kenyans about their culture through music because I am also Kenyan so I know what Kenyan culture is.

Enjoy the music!

Interview in English: ‘Iddi Achieng: Music is the African Way of Life
Mahojiano kwa Kiswahili: ‘Muziki ni Mfumo wa Maisha wa Kiafrika’

International Translation Day 2012: Translation as Intercultural Communication

Today, we celebrate International Translation Day honouring translators and the work of translation on the feast of St Jerome, who is considered the patron saint of this profession. This event was initially promoted by the International Federation of Translators (FIT) as early as 1953 before its worldwide appeal gave rise to the 30th September as International Translation Day in 1991.

The theme for this year’s International Translation Day was revealed in an official communiqué (pdf) by FIT:

Indeed, one of the most important  activities  that  help  people  of  diverse  ethnic  origins  and  different  political  and  cultural backgrounds  to communicate  is  translation,  a  distinctive  feature  of  which  is  the  crossing  of  the  boundaries between  Self    and  the  linguistic  and  cultural  Other.  In  other  words,  translation,  as  intercultural communication, is a means of transporting the ways of life, customs, attitudes, mindsets and values of one particular culture across time and space to another culture or other cultures.

Facilitated by the major changes and shifts in the global economy, culture and information technology in the last three  decades,  we  now  have  a  radically  altered  linguistic,  socio-political  and  cultural  context  for intercultural communication. If “to be or not to be … global” is hardly a question for people and nations in the contemporary era, then “to live or not to live … in  translation” is no longer an option but a reality of our everyday life.

As  brokers  of  peace  and  mutual  understanding,  FIT  members  will,  in  various  ways  and  through different channels, celebrate International Translation Day (ITD) 2012  with the  theme of  “Translation as Intercultural Communication”.

(emphasis mine)

This is an occasion to salute the remarkable work accomplished by translators in Africa and around the world, which too often goes unacknowledged. A series of conferences and other events have been taking place over the weekend in London, Dublin, Thessaloniki, Manila, Yaounde, Cape Town,  Johannesburg…and several other cities!

Here is to translators:

I wish to conclude with a bit of fun: some excerpts from 100 facts about translation :

35. There is no such thing as the “perfect translation”.

36. Nabokov hated translation and tried once to translate one of his own novels into English, with hilarious results (he did it word-for-word).

37. Goethe said that translation is the most noble profession.


66. There is no such thing as an ugly language.

Happy International Translation Day to everyone!

Illustration ‘I ❤ Translation’ by Danielys Pulve

Pulaar: the colour spectrum [English translation]

This post by Oumar Bah is a follow-up on “Kikuyu: colour spectrum and kikuyunised words” which dealt with the expression of colours in Kikuyu, a language spoken in Kenya.

[Cliquer ici pour voir la version originale en Français]


In Peul language (referred to by its speakers as pulaar or fulfulde), colour is expressed by means of adjectival roots. These are placed after the substantive with which they agree in gender (or rather, in noun class) and in number. Here, Pulaar functions like most Niger-Congo languages and in particular like Bantu languages.

  • Basic colours in Pulaar

The basic colours are thus: black « ɓale- », white « rane- », red « woɗe- », yellow « ool- », green « haako- », grey « fur- ».

The adjective « haako- » – contrary to the other colour words above which are adjectival roots – is a secondary adjective formed from the substantive of the noun meaning leaves, canopy. (The link between the colour green and plants is present in many languages around the world).

Let’s have a look at two common noun classes, namely the ‘DAM class which contains many liquids (e.g. « ndiyam » water. Compare the class suffix –am to the Bantu prefix ma-) and the ‘O class in which fall mostly words for humans. We would hence have the following colour adjectives:

ndiyam ɓalejam (black water)
ndiyam ndanejam (white water)
ndiyam mboɗejam (red water)
ndiyam oolam (yellow water)
ndiyam haakojam (green water)
ndiyam puram (grey water)

For the ‘O class, we would have for example « boɗeejo », a light-skinned man (literally: a red person). It is worth noting that the initial consonants of certain adjectives change, for example /w/ → /mb/ or /f/→ /p/. One may also notice that the colour blue is traditionally unknown, which is the reason why Pulaar resorts to words borrowed from English or French, namely mbulu- or bule, depending on the region. As a matter of fact, many world languages do not distinguish between green and blue.

  • Colour as a cultural phenomenon

At first sight, the Pulaar colour spectrum may seem limited in comparison to European languages for instance. The perception of colours is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon. Thus, if we consider the colours of cows fur, the vocabulary of this pastoral people is enriched with nuances, many of which have no equivalent in French or English.

As a way of example, we may mention « wane » a brown cow, « lahe » a cow whose fur is completely black, « naawe » a cow with an ochre fur, « saye » a cow whose fur is completely white, « sirge » a white cow with small black spots, « terkaaye » a cow whose fur is light brown, « saaje » a cow whose fur is black with a white stripe on the belly, « doobaaye » a cow whose fur is light grey etc. Examples abound.

However, moving away from livestock terminology, the colours brown, pink and orange are assimilated to red in Pulaar. We would thus say « tuuba mboɗeha »for brown trousers (using the adjectival root « woɗe- » meaning red, see above). This confirms our above claim pertaining to the cultural dimension of colours.

Written by Oumar Bah
English translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen

Peul: le spectre des couleurs [en Français]

Ce billet d’Oumar Bah fait suite à “Kikuyu: colour spectrum and kikuyunised words” qui portait sur l’expression des couleurs en Kikuyu, une langue parlée au Kenya.

[Click here to view the English translation]


En langue peule (appelée par ses locuteurs pulaar ou fulfulde), la couleur est exprimée par des racines adjectivales. Ces dernières se placent après le substantif et concordent avec lui en genre (ou plutôt en classe nominale) et en nombre. Le pulaar fonctionne ici comme une bonne partie des langues de la famille Niger-Congo notamment les langues bantoues.

  • Les couleurs de base en peul (pulaar)

Les couleurs de base sont donc : noir « ɓale- », blanc « rane- », rouge « woɗe- », jaune « ool- », vert « haako- », gris « fur- ».

L’adjectif « haako- » est, à l’opposé des autres ici qui sont des racines adjectivales primaires, un adjectif secondaire obtenu à partir du substantif de même nom signifiant « feuillage » (l’association entre la couleur verte et les plantes se rencontre dans beaucoup de langues du monde).

Prenons deux classes nominales fréquentes, la classe ƊAM qui regroupe un grand nombre de liquides (par exemple « ndiyam » eau, comparer le suffixe de classe -am au préfixe bantou ma-) ou la classe O où l’on retrouve surtout des humains. Cela donnerait les adjectifs de couleur suivants :

ndiyam ɓalejam (eau noire)

ndiyam ndanejam (eau blanche)

ndiyam mboɗejam (eau rouge)

ndiyam oolam (eau jaune)

ndiyam haakojam (eau verte)

ndiyam puram (eau grise)

La classe O donnerait par exemple « boɗeejo » un homme au teint clair (littéralement : un rouge). À remarquer que les consonnes initiales de certains adjectifs changent, par exemple /w/ → /mb/ ou /f/→ /p/.

À noter aussi que la couleur bleue est traditionnellement inconnue, raison pour laquelle le pulaar a recours ici à des emprunts, selon la région, à l’anglais ou au français, soit : mbulu- ou bule. En fait, dans beaucoup de langues du monde, il n’y a pas de distinction entre le vert et le bleu.

  • La dimension culturelle des couleurs

Le spectre des couleurs en peul peut sembler limité à première vue, comparé par exemple aux langues européennes. La perception des couleurs est avant tout un phénomène culturel. Ainsi quand on considère les couleurs du pelage des vaches, le vocabulaire de ce peuple pasteur s’enrichit de nuances dont beaucoup n’ont pas d’équivalents en français ou en anglais. Citons, à titre d’exemples : « wane » vache au pelage brun, « lahe » vache au pelage tout noir, « naawe » vache au pelage ocre, « saye » vache au pelage tout blanc, « sirge » vache au pelage blanc avec des petites taches noires, « terkaaye » vache au pelage tout marron clair, « saaje » vache au pelage noir avec une rayure blanche sur le ventre, « doobaaye » vache au pelage tout gris clair etc. Les exemples pourraient être multipliés.

En revanche, si nous quittons le domaine de la terminologie de l’élevage, les couleurs brun, rose et orange se confondent en pulaar avec le rouge. Ainsi on dirait par exemple « tuuba mboɗeha » pantalon brun (racine adjectivale « woɗe- » rouge, voir en haut). Ce qui confirme ce qui a été dit plus haut : la dimension culturelle de la couleur.

Par Oumar Bah

Swahili: Kenyan vs. Tanzanian speak – round 3: Polite expressions

This is the third post of a series aiming at humorously outlining the differences between the way Kenyans and Tanzanians express themselves in Swahili.

The first two posts of this series can be found here:

Round 1 – Public Transport

Round 2 – Greetings


In Tanzania, there is this whole conception of Kenyans being impolite, arrogant and generally uncivilized while Kenyans usually perceive their southern neighbors as pleasantly warm but waaaay too slow. After hearing this litany for several months from quite a number of people on both sides of the border, I set out to find out what really lied behind these ideas. Below are my thoughts on this…

  •  Use of kinship terms

One endearing feature of Tanzanian (and, as far as I’ve seen, coastal) Kiswahili is the use of kinship terms. A waitress will be ‘dada‘ (sister), a taxi driver ‘Mjomba‘ (uncle) or ‘Baba‘ (Dad) if he is older or ‘kaka‘ (brother) if he is in the same age group as you are. An older person would address me as ‘mwanangu‘ (my child) etc.

As I was pointing out in an earlier post, establishing a connection with one’s interlocutor is one of the unspoken objectives of conversation and as such, it goes well beyond the content that one is to communicate. Being a ‘mama‘ (mother) or a ‘bwana‘ (Sir)* situates one’s position in society – with all the dignity attached to it – but also relatively to the interlocutor who directly acknowledges the bond as well as the boundaries by using appropriate kinship terms.

In Nairobi, Swahili kinship terms are rarely used other than with a humorous tone. Bwana has actually passed into Sheng’ (Baana) as a sort of interjection! However, Kenyans do use English-language kinship terms. A well-behaved child will call a woman ‘auntie’ and a man ‘uncle’ even when they are not related in any way. Especially upcountry, a lady in her 20s can easily be addressed as ‘Sister’ or ‘Mum’ which would be the equivalent of ‘Dada‘ or ‘Mama‘ (it is often assumed that, passed a certain age, one must have at least one child!)

Going back to the initial argument, seen with Tanzanian eyes, Kenyans may seem cold and distant in the way they express themselves in Kiswahili. Similarly, Kenyans will consider the ‘formal familiarity’ peppering Tanzanian Kiswahili to be a tad overbearing and odd if not altogether a waste of time.

  •  Attenuating orders

Let me just say this about Nairobians; they do not burden themselves with cumbersome courtesies and expressions that go along with them. Saying ‘Tafadhali‘ (Please) is already going out of one’s way to request for something. As far as orders are concerned, pretty much anything goes: on the more polite end, we would have ‘niletee‘ (Bring me…), ‘nipe’ (Give me…), ‘nisaidie na‘ (Assist me with…) all the way down to ‘leta kachumbari‘ (Bring salad! – quite rude).

The reason why Tanzanians may appear to border on the obsequious is that they take politeness very seriously. The sesame to asking for anything is ‘naomba‘ (literally, I beg or I pray) associated with the subjunctive tense: a huge contrast to Kenya, where this phrase is taken to mean that one wishes to get something for free! So if we take the previous example, after the mandatory greetings, you would go ‘naomba kachumbari‘ or ‘naomba uniletee kachumbari‘ (literally: I beg you to bring me salad). If you just walked into a restaurant bluntly ordering ‘leta…‘ you would most certainly be met with dumb-founded stares and a pout on the waiter’s mouth.

I have to say that the first time someone in Kenya asked me to come over by saying ‘Kuja‘, I was stuck between showing them my back and putting them in their place with an eloquent 5-minute speech. In the end, I did neither…See, I had learnt that the proper way to call somebody was ‘Njoo‘ while ‘Kuja‘ was quite rude and should be confined to calling your dog for instance. Apparently, not many Kenyans are aware of the nuance so I had to adjust but I have never come around to letting go of ‘njoo‘ myself.

From my observation, all these verbal niceties, essential to maintain smooth relations in Tanzania, tend to irritate Kenyans. Cultural mishaps, they said?

*It is to be noted that ‘Bwana’ or ‘Bwana mkubwa’ has colonial undertones as this is what white settlers used to be addressed as.