Mande languages

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West Sudanic
EthnicityMandé peoples
West Africa
Linguistic classificationNiger–Congo?
  • Mande
  • Manding–Kpelle (Central & Southwest)
  • Samogo–Soninke (Northwest)
  • Dan–Busa (East)
ISO 639-5dmn
Linguasphere00- (phylozone)

The Mande languages are spoken in several countries in West Africa by the Mandé peoples and include Maninka, Mandinka, Soninke, Bambara, Kpelle, Dioula, Bozo, Mende, Susu, and Vai. There are "60 to 75 languages spoken by 30 to 40 million people",[2] chiefly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. The Mande languages have traditionally been considered a divergent branch of the Niger–Congo family, however that categorisation has been controversial.


Valentin Vydrin concluded: "the Mande homeland at the second half of the 4th millennium BC was located in Southern Sahara, somewhere to the North of 16° or even 18° of Northern latitude and between 3° and 12° of Western longitude."[3]


The group was first recognized in 1854 by Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, in his Polyglotta Africana. He mentioned 13 languages under the heading North-Western High-Sudan Family, or Mandéga Family of Languages. In 1901, Maurice Delafosse made a distinction of two groups.[4] He speaks of a northern group mandé-tan and a southern group mandé-fu. The distinction was basically done only because the languages in the north use the expression tan for ten, and the southern languages use fu. In 1924, Louis Tauxier noted that the distinction is not well founded and there is at least a third subgroup he called mandé-bu. It was not until 1950 that André Prost supported that view and gave further details.

In 1958, Welmers published an article The Mande Languages where he divided the languages into three subgroups: North-West, South and East. His conclusion was based on lexicostatistic research. Joseph Greenberg followed that distinction in his The Languages of Africa (1963). Long (1971) and Gérard Galtier (1980) follow the distinction into three groups but with notable differences.

Various opinions exist as to the age of the Mande languages. Greenberg has suggested that the Niger-Congo group, which in his view includes the Mande languages, began to break up around 7000 years BP. Its speakers practised a Neolithic culture, as indicated by the Proto-Niger-Congo words for "cow", "goat" and "cultivate".[5]

The Mande languages are considered to be an independent language family by Dimmendaal (2011).[6]


Mande does not share the morphology characteristic of most of the Niger–Congo family, such as the noun-class system. Blench regards it as an early branch that, like Ijoid and perhaps Dogon, diverged before it developed. Dwyer (1998) compared it with other branches of Niger–Congo and finds that they form a coherent family, with Mande being the most divergent of the branches he considered. However, Dimmendaal (2008) argues that the evidence for inclusion is slim, with no new evidence for decades, and for now Mande is best considered an independent family.[7]

Most internal Mande classifications are based on lexicostatistics, and the results are unreliable (see, for example, Vydrin (2009),[8] based on the Swadesh list).[9] The following classification from Kastenholz (1996) is based on lexical innovations and comparative linguistics;[10] details of East Mande are from Dwyer (1989, 1996), summarized in Williamson & Blench 2000.[11]

 East Mande 










Busa  languages 




West Mande 
Central West 
Central Mande


Jɔgɔ languages (Ligbi)


VaiKɔnɔ (and maybe Dama)


Manding languages

Mokole languages


 Southwest  Mande






 Northwest  proper





Samogo languages (partial: Duun–Sembla)


Paperno describes Beng and extinct Gbin as two primary branches of Southern Mande.

Languages in Nigeria[edit]

Mande languages spoken in Nigeria belong to the Busa subgroup. Below is a list of language names, populations, and locations (in Nigeria only) from Blench (2019).[12]

Language Alternate spellings Own name for language Endonym(s) Other names (location-based) Other names for language Exonym(s) Speakers Location(s)
Sorko (extinct) Bozo (not recommended) Sarkanci Sarkawa Most Sorko now speak only Hausa. Mainly in Mali Niger, Kwara and Kebbi States; fishermen on Kainji Lake
Busa Boussa Bìsã́ sg. Busa, pl. Busano Busagwe, Busanse, Boussanse, Busanci 11,000 in Nigeria (1952 W&B); 50,000 in Nigeria, 50,000 in Benin (1987 UBS) Kwara State; Niger State, Borgu LGA; Kebbi State, Bagudo LGA; also in Benin Republic
Kyenga Kyangganya Kyanggani pl. Kyanggana Kenga, Tyenga five villages on Nigeria side which speak the language; 7,591 (1925 Meek); 10,000 including Shanga (1973 SIL) Niger State, Borgu LGA, north of Illo; also in Benin and Niger Republics
Shanga Shonga 10,000 including Kyenga (1973 SIL): language dying out Kebbi State, Bagudo and Yauri LGAs
Boko Boo Boko 120,000 all populations (2004 est.) Niger State, Borgu LGA. Nikki–Kande area, Benin Republic.
Bokobaru sg. Busa, pl. Busano Kaama, Zogbme, Zugweya, Zogbeya Kaiama 30–40,000 (est. 2004) Kwara State. Kaiama town and surrounding villages


Mande languages do not have the noun-class system or verbal extensions of the Atlantic–Congo languages and for which the Bantu languages are so famous, but Bobo has causative and intransitive forms of the verb. Southwestern Mande languages and Soninke have initial consonant mutation. Plurality is most often marked with a clitic; in some languages, with tone, as for example in Sembla. Pronouns often have alienable–inalienable and inclusive–exclusive distinctions. Word order in transitive clauses is subjectauxiliaryobjectverbadverb. Mainly postpositions are used. Within noun phrases, possessives come before the noun, and adjectives and plural markers after the verb; demonstratives are found with both orders.[11]


Here are some cognates from D. J. Dwyer (⟨j⟩ is [dʲ] or [d͡ʒ]):[13]

Manding Kono-Vai Susu Mandé (SW) Soninké Sembla Bobo San Busa Mano Dan Guro Mwa
'mouth' *da da da la laqqe jo do le le le Di le le, di
'saliva' *da-yi da-ji da- sɛ-ye la-yi laxan-ji jon-fago dibe se le-i le-yi Di-li leri liri
'water' *yi je yi yi ya ji jo ji, zio mun i yi yi yi yi
'breast' *n-koŋ sin susu sisi ŋeni konbe kye ɲiŋi ɲo ɲo ɲoŋ ɲoŋ ɲoŋ ɲoŋ
'milk' *n-kon-yi nɔnɔ susu-ji xin-yɛ gen-iya -xatti kye-n-dyo n-yan-niŋi n-yo- n-yoŋ-yi n-yoŋ-yi
'goat' *bo(re) ba ba ɓoli sugo bi gwa bwe ble bori
'buck' *bore-guren ba-koro diggeh gu-gura ble-sa bɔ-gon bɔ-gon gyagya bɔ-guren
'sheep' *saga saga bara-wa yexe ɓara jaxe sega sɛge sere sa baa bla bera bla
'ram' *saga-guren saga-koro jaxampade kekyere si-gula da-gu bla-gon bra-gon bla-gure
'head' * Koun-kolo yin-kola

Note that in these cognates: 'saliva' = 'mouth'+'water', 'milk' = 'breast'+'water', 'buck (he-goat)' = 'goat'+'male', 'ram' = 'sheep'+'male'.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Mande". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Vydrin, Valentin. "Mande Languages". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.
  3. ^ Vydrin, Valentin. "On the Problem of the Proto-Mande Homeland" (PDF). Journal of Language Relationship. Journal of Language Relationship.
  4. ^ Delafosse, Maurice (1901). Essai de manuel pratique de la langue mandé ou mandingue ... Institut national de langues et civilisations orientales. OCLC 461494818.
  5. ^ D.F. McCall, "The Cultural Map and Time Profile of the Mande Speaking Peoples," in C.T. Hodge (ed.). Papers on the Manding, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1971.
  6. ^ Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. (2011). Historical Linguistics and the Comparative Study of African Languages. John Benjamins. ISBN 978-90-272-8722-9.
  7. ^ Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. (2008). "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent". Language and Linguistics Compass. 2 (5): 840–858. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818x.2008.00085.x. ISSN 1749-818X.
  8. ^ Valentin, Vydrin. On the problem of the Proto-Mande homeland. OCLC 798912747.
  9. ^ "Mande language family". Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  10. ^ Kastenholz, Raimund (1996). Sprachgeschichte im West-Mande : Methoden und Rekonstruktionen. Köln: Köppe. p. 281. ISBN 3896450719. OCLC 42295840.
  11. ^ a b Heine, Bernd; Nurse, Derek, eds. (2000). African languages : an introduction. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521661781. OCLC 42810789.
  12. ^ Blench, Roger (2019). An Atlas of Nigerian Languages (4th ed.). Cambridge: Kay Williamson Educational Foundation.
  13. ^ Dwyer, David J. Towards Proto-Mande phonology.


  • Bimson, Kent (1976). Comparative reconstruction of Mandekan. In Studies in African Linguistics, Vol 7, No 3 (1976).
  • Delafosse, Maurice (1901) Essai de manuel pratique de la langue mandé ou mandingue. Paris : Leroux. 304 p.
  • Delafosse, Maurice (1904) Vocabulaires comparatifs de plus de soixante langues ou dialectes parlés à la Ivory Coast et dans les régions limitrophes, avec des notes linguistiques et ethnologiques. Paris : Leroux. 285 p.
  • Halaoui, Nazam, Kalilou Tera, Monique Trabi (1983) Atlas des langues mandé – sud de Ivory Coast. Abidjan : ACCT-ILA.
  • Kastenholz, Raimund (1996) Sprachgeschichte im West-Mande: Methoden und Rekonstruktionen. Mande Languages and Linguistics · Langues et Linguistique Mandé, 2. Köln : Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. 281 p.
  • Steinthal, Heymann (1867) Die Mande-Negersprachen, psychologisch und phonetisch betrachtet. Berlin: Schade. 344 p.
  • Sullivan, Terrence D. 2004 [1983]. A preliminary report of existing information on the Manding languages of West Africa: Summary and suggestions for future research. SIL Electronic Survey Report. Dallas, SIL International.
  • Vydrine, Valentin, T.G. Bergman and Matthew Benjamin (2000) Mandé language family of West Africa: Location and genetic classification. SIL Electronic Survey Report. Dallas, SIL International.
  • Vydrin, Valentin. On the problem of the Proto-Mande homeland // Вопросы языкового родства – Journal of Language Relationship 1, 2009, pp. 107–142.
  • Welmers, William E.(1971) Niger–Congo, Mande. In Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa (Current Trends in Linguistics,7), Thomas A. Sebeok, Jade Berry, Joseph H. Greenberg et al. (eds.), 113–140. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Williamson, Kay, and Roger Blench (2000) "Niger–Congo". In Heine & Nurse, eds., African Languages.

External links[edit]