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date: 29 September 2023

Mande Languageslocked

Mande Languageslocked

  • Valentin VydrinValentin VydrinResearch Unit for Languages and Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations


Mande is a mid-range language family in Western Sub-Saharan Africa that includes 60 to 75 languages spoken by 30 to 40 million people. According to the glottochronological data, its genetic depth is between 5,000 and 5,500 years. The Proto-Mande homeland can be presumably localized in the western part of the southern Sahara. Lexical data suggests that the Mande family belongs to the Niger-Congo macrofamily, but some scholars doubt it, mainly because of the lack of morphological cognates.

The first division of Mande is binary, into Western and Southeastern branches. Further on, the Western branch is subdivided into nine groups: Manding, Mokole, Vai-Kono, Jogo-Jeri, Southwestern, Susu-Jalonke, Samogho, Soninke-Bozo, and Bobo. The Southeastern branch consists of Southern and Eastern groups. The biggest Mande languages, Bambara, Maninka, Mandinka, and Jula, belong to the Manding group.

Practically all Mande languages are tonal (two to five level tones), and the tones fulfil both lexical and grammatical functions. The typical syllable structure is CV; in many languages the type CVN is also attested, while CVC is rare (Soninke, Bisa). The metrical foot is a relevant unit for many Mande languages.

The typical basic word order in a verbal clause is Subject—Auxiliary—Direct Object—Verb—Oblique. Omission of a subject is possible in some Southern and Southwestern languages, where subject pronouns have merged with auxiliaries into Personal Pronominal Markers; otherwise an overt subject is obligatory.

Inflectional morphology is almost missing in some languages, mainly innovative in some others. Noun classes and grammatical genders are lacking. In most languages, there is only one plural marker (sometimes two); agreement in number is usually missing. Morphological case is most often absent, although it is attested in some pronominal systems; noun declination is emerging in Dan (Southern Mande). In Southern, Southwestern, and Eastern groups and Bobo, there are multiple series of personal pronouns expressing case, communicative status, and often verbal categories as well (aspect, mode, polarity).

Verbal lability (mainly P-lability) is highly productive in many Mande languages, including typologically rare passive lability.

Derivational morphology is relatively rich, only suffixal for nouns, but either suffixal or prefixal for verbs. In many languages, preverbs are still separable. Reduplication is productive in many languages for pluriactionality and intensity, sometimes for nominal plurality. Word compounding is highly productive.

The structure of noun phrase is N2 + N1 + Adj + Det (N1 is head noun, N2 is dependent noun). In most Mande languages, alienable and inalienable nouns are formally distinguished; the former are connected to the possessor by auxiliary words, and in some languages, they require a special possessive series of personal pronouns.

Nominative-accusative alignment is predominant; in the Southwestern group, split semantic or ergative alignments are attested.

For relativization, varieties of correlative strategy are mostly used.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Roman-based alphabets are used for nearly all languages of the family. Arabic-based writing systems (Ajami) are of limited use for Mandinka, Jula, Susu, and Mogofin. An original syllabic writing has existed since the 1820s for Vai; since the 1950s, an original alphabet, N’ko, is broadly used for Manding languages.


  • Language Families/Areas/Contact

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