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31 May 2014| NewScientist | 43 42| NewScientist | 31 May 2014

HENWesterners sayTimbuktu, it is
as if wearetalkingabout theends of
theEarth. But thecitys remoteness is
nothingcomparedtothesmall villageof
Bounou, tuckedinsidearuggedcul-de-sac
valley150miles further south. NoEuropean
hadever visitedthesurroundingBandiagara
regionuntil Frenchcolonial officer Louis
Desplagnes reachedtheareain1904and
evenhedidnt get as far as Bounou.
Abbie Hantganis one of the fewWesterners
tohave reachedthe village inrecent years. She
canstill recall the last legof her journey, after
anarduous two-day-longbus triptothe small
market townof Konna (see map). It was the
height of the rainyseason, meaningthat a
5-hour journeybydonkeycart was the only
waytotraverse the canyonwhere Bounou
The trackwas floodedwaist-high,she
says. But the floodwater didnt keepthe cart
fromfindingeveryrockandrut inthe track
alongthe way.Eventually, theyreacheda
boulder markingthe endof the trackandshe
sawBounouhangingonthe cliff side. It was,
she says, a scene out of time.
For Hantgan, Bounous remoteness was one
of its mainattractions. She wantedto
document the words spokenbyits
inhabitants, the Bangande. Althoughthese
people share muchof their culture withthe
surroundingDogonpeople, their language,
calledBangime, is verydifferent andhas many
unusual properties. Understandingits origins
couldtherefore tell us a lot about the history
of this little-exploredarea of Africa, while also
offeringa waytoinvestigate the birthand
evolutionof languages.
As Hantganembarkedonher visit tothe
region, she knewit came withits share of risks.
She was takingover researchstartedbythe
youngDutchlinguist StefanElders, who
passedawaywhile workinginBounouthe
previous year. He hadcontracteda stomach
ailment andthe isolationof the village meant
he couldnt reacha hospital intime.
Elderss workwas part of the broader Dogon
Languages Project, headedbylinguist Jeffrey
Heathat the Universityof Michigan. The
project investigates relationships betweenthe
various languages spokenbythe Dogon
peoples livingonthe Bandiagara Escarpment
andthe adjacent SenoPlain. Some 80named
Dogonspeechvarieties exist, whichWestern
linguists categorise as 22 separate languages,
andmanymore dialects.
Hantgans experience meant she was ideally
qualifiedtotake Elderss place inthe project.
While volunteeringwiththe US Peace Corps in
Mali, she hadlearnt Fulfulde anda Dogon
language calledBondu-so. Bothwouldprove
useful inher doctoral researchintoBangime.
Fulfulde, alsousedas a lingua franca or bridge
language inBounou, providedher witha tool
totalktothe locals andelicit words in
Bangime, while Bondu-sohelpedillustrate
possible connections withthe other Dogon
Hantganbeganbycompilinga list of
commonwords inBangime a taskthat often
attractedderisionfromthe locals. Everyday,
villagers onthe waytotheir days workinthe
fields wouldsee me seatedinside withmy
notebookandpen, askinga consultant to
repeat the difference betweenmoon and
water over andover again,she remembers.
Withtheir hoes over their shoulders, they
wouldmake funof me for spendinganother
daysittinginthe shade insteadof goingout to
It was a lonelyandfrustratingtime for her,
beingcut off fromcontact withfamilyand
friends andwithout evena shortwave radioto
remindher of home. But she soonfoundan
allyinthe village chief eventhoughhe had
initiallybeenanxious about her research. He
saidit upset himthat visitors fromother
Dogonvillages oftenaskedwhythe Bangande
have different surnames anddont looklike
the rest of the Dogon, eventhoughthe
Bangande consider themselves tobe a Dogon
people. Despite concerns that the research
might emphasise those differences, he could
see howmucheffort Hantganwas puttingin.
Whenvillagers wouldchide her withinthe
chiefs earshot, he wouldsay: She is tending
her crops! The penis her hoe, andthe
notebookis her field.
Once Hantganhadcompileda suitable
number of words, her next taskwas to >
valley, wheretheyuse
buildings carvedfrom
In an almost inaccesible valley in Mali lives a language
that deceives as much as it communicates. How did this
anti-language emerge, asks Matthew Bradley
31 May 2014| NewScientist | 45 44| NewScientist | 31 May 2014
identifyanythat werecognateswiththe
other Dogonlanguages. Cognates are words
originatingfroma commonterm. For
instance, the wordlunainItalianis related
tothe wordluneinFrench, llunainCatalan
andluainPortuguese; all come fromluna
inLatin, the mother tongue fromwhichthese
Romance languages diverged. Identifying
cognates cantherefore helpdemonstrate
whether twolanguages hada commonorigin.
Hantganandher colleagues foundthat it
was not unusual for at least 50per cent of the
vocabularyof a givenDogonlanguage tobe
cognate withthe vocabularyof another Dogon
language whereas just 10per cent of
Bangimes vocabularyseemedtoshare roots
withDogonterms. Rather thanreflectinga
commonmother language, this small shared
vocabularymaysimplybe due toBangime
speakers borrowinga fewwords fromtheir
neighbours inthe same waythat English
borrowedwords like sushi, pergola and
pyjamas throughits cultural ties.
Inthis way, Hantgans researchseemedto
markout Bangime as the most recently
discoveredlanguage isolate a tongue that is
not relatedtoanyother spokenlanguage. That
is of interest tohistorical linguists like Lyle
Campbell at the Universityof Hawaii in
Honolulu, whopoints out that scholars tendto
classifyAfricanlanguages as belongingtoone
of four major families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-
Saharan, Niger-Congoor Khoisan. The
recognitionof Bangime as a language isolate
might suggest that the classificationsystem
needs a rethink, he says.
Orphan languages
Further evidence for Bangimes uniqueness
resides inthe fact that its grammar is radically
different fromthe other languages spokenby
Dogongroups. Togive anexample: while the
Dogonlanguages joinwords toform
compounds as does English, thinkfootball,
rainstormor driveway Bangime doesnt. On
the other hand, prefixes are foundinBangime,
while beingnotable bytheir absence inthe
These differences are somewhat surprising,
because inother ways, the Bangande and
Dogoncultures are verysimilar. The Bangande
dress themselves withthe same clothingand
jewelleryas the Dogonpeople, andbothuse
Tellemstructures buildings carvedinthe
cliffs for granaries andburial grounds.
Lookingat the archaeological record, it is
easytoassume that people whoshare such
material cultures are part of a single language
community. This has beenthe basis for
theories about the origins of the Indo-
Europeanlanguages we speakinEurope and
Asia, for instance. Yet the unusual relationship
betweenthe DogonandBangande reminds us
that we cant relyonthese assumptions.
What leads a language tobecome anisolate?
Campbell notes that isolates maybe the
orphans of larger linguistic families whose
other members have slowlydiedout perhaps
because the speakers adoptedother
languages. Manysocial, political and
economic factors probablyinfluence which
languages survive, andwhichperish but it is
possible that tongues like Bangime represent a
concertedeffort toresist shiftingtoothers
The first hint of this comes fromthe very
name Bangande. Bangtranslates as secret,
hidden, or furtive, and-ande is a plural suffix
like -s inEnglish sothe combination
translates asfurtive ones. The wordBangime
is formedina similar fashion, withthe suffix
-ime signifyinglanguage; thussecret
language. Clearly, theywere once keento
Hantgandiscoveredfurther clues as towhy
that might be whenshe movedfrom
compilingwords andphrases tocollecting
longer portions of continuous speech. Along
the way, she documentedoral histories of the
Bangande villages as places of refuge for
escapees fromFulani slave caravans, which
servedthe internal andtransatlantic slave
trades. Non-Muslims suchas the Bobo, Samo
andthe Bangande themselves were commonly
targetedbyslave traders because Islamic law
The oral histories describedmanyof these
escapees as childrenwhowere seizedwhile
theywere gatheringfirewoodandwater
outside their villages. Theyhadsacks placed
over their heads for several days tomake sure
theywere unable toorient themselves and
attempt escape backtotheir home village.
Some of those whodidescape eventually
foundtheir waytothe Bangande settlements,
where theywere integratedintothe
communityandlearnedthe Bangime
The integrationof individuals fromacross
the Sahel andVoltaic Basinmayexplainthe
physical distinctiveness of the Bangande
people. Beingjoinedbyrunaways seeking
sanctuaryfromslave raiders maybe one
reasonthe Bangande have come torefer to
themselves asthe furtive ones andmight
explainwhytheyhave beendeterminedto
keeptheir ownlanguage.
The Bangandes eagerness toretaintheir
secrecymayhave evenledBangime todevelop
what Britishlinguist Michael Hallidaycalls an
anti-language. Thats adistinct dialect that
serves tomarkoff a groupof speakers from
the larger society, resultinginananti-
society. Jargonis one commonelement of
suchdialects, but Bangimes anti-language
alsouses more elliptical tactics.
Hantgandidnt become aware of the
existence of the anti-language until near the
endof her thirdyear of workinBounou, when
she hadgainedsome conversational
proficiencyinBangime. She startedtosee a
patterninwhichsome terms were the polar
opposites of the things theydescribed. For
example, a particular white-barkedtree was
referredtoasblack-eyed,anda particular
black-barkedtree aswhite-eyed.
As her masteryof the language improved
evenmore, Hantganbegantonotice that
manywords she hadaskedthe villagers for
didnt regularlyappear innatural speech,
where circumlocutions were oftenpreferred.
For example, she hadpreviouslyrecordedthe
termsnfor fence. Yet one day, she hearda
gardenfence beingreferredtoasstick(s) put
intothe groundsothat people maypass next
tothe rice. Similarly, cakes were sometimes
calledpowder whichhas beensweetened,
while sunglasses wereblackthings tohide
the eyes.
This sort of linguistic theatricalityand
deceptionare anexample of what MarkPagel
at the Universityof Readingcallsa powerful
social anchor. He has arguedthat languages
evolve todeceive andexclude others, as much
as toease communication. Aroundabout way
of describingobjects is just one strategythat
helps the Bangande set themselves apart from
other groups andperhaps helpedthemto
distance themselves fromthe passingtraders
whomayhave beguntopickuptheir everyday
A lasting legacy
The slave trade alsoseems tohave left its mark
inthe wayBangime distinguishes social class.
Thearistocracy, whoclaimtodescendfrom
the families whoharbouredthe escaped
slaves, speakina highregister associatedwith
a more complextonal system, comparedwith
the speechof theserfpopulation, whoare
thought tobe descendedfromthose escapees.
Aprocess knownas over-regularisationmay
account for the distinction. Learners tendto
assume regular patterns ina language until a
wealthof exposure or beingcorrectedshows
themthe nuances andexceptions. For
instance, non-native speakers of Englishmay
saycatchedinsteadof caught.
Sucherrors canbe difficult toovercome,
andtheysometimes feedbackintothe native
language. Indeed, manylinguists nowbelieve
this canexplainwhygrammar gets simpler
over time for languages that have a lot of
contact withoutsiders, like English. It is easy
toimagine that the escapees learningBangime
as a secondlanguage over-regularisedits tonal
system leadingtopatterns that are distinct
fromthose descendedfromthe native
The ongoingconflict inMali means that
fieldworkhas beenhaltedfor the foreseeable
future yet there is muchmore todiscover.
One of Hantgans long-termresearchgoals is
toinvestigate links betweenthe originof the
Bangande people andthe Dogoncultures.
Previous researchers hadsuggestedthat
whenthe Dogonarrivedabout 600years ago.
theydisplacedthe existingpopulations inthe
region. As evidence, theypointedout that
historical Tellemstructures andfunerary
remains dont seemtocorrespondtopresent-
dayDogonmaterial cultures.
The Ounjougouresearchproject at the
Universityof Geneva, Switzerland, however,
has revealedhowpre-DogonandDogon
material culture andfunerarypractices subtly
influencedeachother. Inother words, it is
possible that the cultural similarities the
Bangande share withthe Dogonmayjust as
well have flowedfromthe Bangandes
ancestors tothe Dogons as vice versa.
This is but one possibility, of course.
Alternatively, the ancestors of the Bangande
mayhave arrivedinthe regionalongwith
those of todays Dogon, but speakingan
unrelatedlanguage. Other groups mayhave
alsomovedtothe area, withonlythe
Bangande resistingthe shift tousinga Dogon
language. But until the securitysituationin
Mali improves, it wont be possible togather
freshdata relatedtothese hypotheses.
At present, Hantganis eagerlyworkingas a
newlymintedpostdoctoral fellowat the
School of Oriental andAfricanstudies in
London. Her positionwill see her beginning
fieldresearchsooninrural Senegal, but she
alsohopes toreturntoher friends and
researchinBounou. Despite the hardships,
her enthusiasmis as strongas ever.
Investigatingthe warpandweft of tone, the
rainbowof vowel harmonyandthe ladder of
consonant mutation, these are the intricacies
that make humanspeechsofascinatingto
me,shesays. n
MatthewBradleyis a writer basedinMassachusetts
distinct appearance
their turbulent history P
Being joined by
runaway slaves may
explain why the
Bangande were
determined to keep
their own language
LifeintheremoteBandiagararegioncomes with