SCOPES - Lexicology of Eastern Mande Languages Final Report 2000-2004

SCOPES - Lexicology of Eastern Mande Languages Final Report 2000-2004


SCOPES - Lexicology of Eastern Mande languages – Final report 2000-2004

Lexicology of Eastern Mande languages

A project of the Universities of St. Petersburg and Zurich

(in co-operation with researchers from the Applied Linguistics Institute at the University of Cocody, Ivory Coast)

funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation

as part of the ScientificCo-operation Program between Eastern Europe and Switzerland (SCOPES) 2000-2003

Grant nr. 7SUPJ062156.00

Final report

Prof. Dr. Thomas Bearth

Dr. Valentin Vydrine

1. General information

1.1Lexicology of Eastern Mande[1] languages in the context of Mande linguistic comparison

1.2 NF 7SUPJ062156.00

1.3 1.10.2000 - 30.6.2004

1.4 Prof. Dr. Thomas Bearth, University of Zürich, Dept. of General Linguistics (African languages and linguistics).

Dr d'Etat, Valentin Vydrine, Senior Research Fellow in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg

2. Overview of activities

2.1 Recapitulaton of objectives

The purpose of the project as defined in the original statement may be restated as follows:

-create a lexical database suited to accommodate basic data from the little studied group of Mande languages spoken in Western and Central Ivory Coast (Eastern Mande languages, EML), for the primary purpose of filling a major gap in our knowledge of the linguistic profile of this area of West Africa;

-gather a backlog of materials which would allow to fully integrate these languages into the scope of comparative research which so far had largely, or even exclusively, privileged other parts of the Mande language family, in particular the Mandingo varieties (Bambara, Malinke, Jula, etc.);

-compile, for each of the languages being studied, a basic electronic dictionary for the benefit of the language communities themselves.

The project description stated, among other things, that "what is needed most in most EML, is basic descriptive and documentary work. Such basic work will serve current top priorities on the agenda of academically motivated research, descriptive as well as comparative. On the other hand, it will serve the practical purpose of valorisation of the languages which will be chosen as the objects of the study." (Scientific part of the Request, p. 7.)

In the original proposal, from the total of 9-10 EML spoken in Ivory Coast, three were to be given priority: the two demographically most important entities in Ivory Coast, i.e. Dan and Guro, and a rather well studied but smaller group in the West, Tura. It was stated then that "the inclusion of one of the probably genetically more distant smaller languages, i.e. Mano, Mona, Gban, Yaoure or Gban would be highly desirable. For the moment, this has to be kept in reserve."

2.2. Implementation of the objectives

For two out of the three priority groups identified in the original plan, the scientific goals can be said to have been fully attained, Dan (more precisely Dan-Blowo, see below), and Tura. Guro, on the other hand, may be considered to be the main casualty of the project, as far as lexical research on this language is concerned (but see below for descriptive work). This was due to two factors: (i) The junior researcher assigned to lexical research on Guro had to abandon the project for health reasons after two preparatory stays. (ii) After the eruption of armed conflict in Ivory Coast on Sept. 19, 2002, the Guro area became the scene of clashes and widespread insecurity; therefore resumption of lexicographic work on the field had to be postponed. (A researcher from St. Petersburg is now considering to fill this gap.)

A situation similar to Guro developed in the Dan-Gweta (Eastern Dan) subproject. The junior researcher assigned to work on this important piece of the Mande kaleidoscope dropped out after her second field stay, again mainly for health reasons. (Meanwhile, V. Vydrine himself has taken on the Dan-Gweta lexical research ad interim.)

While these two cases of attrition reminded us that extended field work in tropical Africa is not without its risks, dropout is not a necessary consequence of health hazards.[2] A third researcher, Tatiana Nikitina, who also suffered severe health problems directly linked to her stay on the field, has not only continued to work on her assignment, the Wan language, during her ongoing scholarship at Stanford University, but has also returned to Ivory Coast towards the end of the reporting period.

The other major factor which has modified the implementation of the project was the civil war, which after September 2002 led to the partition of the country. Under the persisting stalemate between the warrying factions, the Dan and Tura areas, as well as the recently added Mwan, have remained under rebel control; the other language areas, while remaining formally under government control, were heavily affected by fighting, making continuation of local field work impossible. The overall effect of the partition of the country has been the partition of the total project time – which includes an extension generously granted by the Swiss National Science Foundation on account of the unexpected disturbance - into two periods of about equal length:

(A)the pre-war period where research was located in the language areas (until May 2002);

(B)the period where all the work was concentrated in Abidjan (end of 2002 until end of June, 2004).

While the overall objectives as set out above remained unchanged, there was a clear shift of priorities as a consequence of the changed setting, including a number of achievements which were not necessarily, or at most conditionally, anticipated in the original plan:

  1. Even before the outbreak of civil war, the scope of research had been extended to include some of the languages spoken by smaller groups which had been very little studied (Gban), or not at all (Wan). In the course of the post 2002-period, ten distinct EML entities identified for Ivory Coast were included in the database, albeit to varying extent (see chart below), including material on closely related Mano spoken across the border in Eastern Liberia. Also included is the Kla group, previously considered to be the northernmost extension of the Dan dialect cluster, but now identified by V. Vydrine as a distinct language on the grounds of both sociolinguistic (self-assessment) and comparative criteria. (Among Ivorian EML entities, only Yaoure, a small language most closely related to Guro, remains to be accounted for.)

It should be observed that this broadening of the sample resulted not just from the changed situation in Ivory Coast, but perhaps even more from the "dynamization" of Mande studies in Russian Africanist circles (and even beyond), in turn a direct result of the launching of the Eastern Mande project. The latter created the material and intellectual conditions for a sustained field experience outside Russia under competent on-the-task supervision by the co-applicant. Whereas it had started with generally very young students, it became gradually a point of attraction for already experienced scholars on tenure track in the second period, as can be seen from the list of participants below (Zheltov, Perekhvalskaya).

  1. Descriptive work on various topics (such as pronominal systems, tense-aspect, nominal and verbal morphology) which would normally be considered to belong to the realm of grammar rather than the lexicon, and which, according to the original plan, was to be restricted to issues subsiduary to the field of lexicon, became an established goal for its own sake. This appears clearly in the chart below which shows the results in terms of publications for the individual languages.

The significant extension of analytical work was at least partially due to the changed working conditions obtaining in the urban setting of Abidjan. It would not have been possible without regular full day working sessions with language assistants, which in turn would not normally have been possible in the language area itself, particularly in a typical village setting.

  1. Concentration of the research in one place, although it was dictated by undesirable causes, had desirable effects in terms of quality and coordination of the work as well as more intense interaction with Ivorian scholars.

Drawbacks resulting, in part at least, from the new situation, must also be mentioned:

  1. Lexical research, too, rather than continuing to be carried on in a village environment naturally favorable to the incorporation of cultural aspects of lexis, was now pursued in displaced informant sessions. (In at least three of the languages, the regular informants during the B-period were persons displaced by the war.)
  2. In a francophone context, the return of benefits towards the language communities depends on the final product's adequacy in terms of locally received standards of written French. While sufficient competence in French for interaction with local speakers was an obvious minimal requirement for participating in the research, it became apparent that most Russian researchers could not be expected to meet the required standard for publishing their results in French. While all participating researchers developed the ability to communicate their results in French oral style, as repeatedly demonstrated in workshops and colloquia organized with participants from the host country, it became evident that with one or two exceptions, the gap between minimal oral performance and comprehensive proficiency could not easily be overcome, nor was the latter a primary target for students who saw their academic future in Russia or in the English-speaking world.

At an early stage, therefore, the involvemement of (possibly retired) teachers resident in the language areas, who could be expected to have a very good mastery of standard French but also be familiar with the local language and its culture, was envisioned for French editing and general checking of lexical content, and project money had been set apart for this. After the dislocation of the project, it seemed doubtful that this could be achieved within the set time frame, so it was decided to reinvest that money into basic research.

That the scheme outlined in the preceding paragraph could work was demonstrated in the case of the Tura dictionary. A Tura-speaking college teacher took on the task – now finished on paper - of revising and editing it after having become involved in lexical inquiry alongside with the Russian researcher after the October 2003 Colloquium in which he had taken part as an external participant. (Financing was ensured in this case through Alphatoura, the Tura literacy program.)

While the Tura case may be quoted as an example of successful carry-over, it had also been consistently pointed out by the Russian partner that, for the transfer scheme to work, local lexicographers would need, in addition to a high degree of competence in both French and their native language, intensive training in the principles of lexicography, including the handling of the Shoebox/Toolbox program ( which was used in setting up the Eastern Mande database. In the Tura case, basics of such training had been provided on a person-to-person basis by dipl. ing ETH/lic. oec. H. Hirzel, in cooperation with the main applicant.

A final remark concerns Swiss participation. According to the original plan, research on one priority language (Dan-Blowo) would have been carried out as part of a postgraduate program by a student from Zurich. Sensitivity towards security on the part of Swiss students – concerns over security were expressed to me even before the war started in Ivory Coast – and persisting institutional instability in the field of Swiss Africanistics may be part of the explanation for weak turnout from the Swiss partners. However, there may be more particular reasons for the change of plans, too, since the student in question has since changed her field of study.

There are compensating factors, too. The field work originally intended for the Swiss counterpart was taken over by a Russian partner (A. Erman) who, in view of the excellence of her field work on Dan-Blowo, was granted a one year Swiss Federal scholarship for the academic year 2004-05. She is currently in Fribourg, preparing for a year of study at the University of Zurich; with a main focus of completing analytical work on Dan-Blowo as part of her doctoral program. There is hope, therefore, that the Dan-Blowo project will after all come to be realized in its intended scope, and Swiss input will not have been negligible for that matter.

Another factor of compensation for the lack of student enrolment form the Swiss side has been the active part played by ETHZ/lic. oec. Hannes Hirzel, who participated in the development of the e-learning program in African languages at the University of Zurich and is actively engaged in computer lexicography in several West African languages. His major interest in the EML project - generated during a computer lexicographic workshop held together with Dr. Vidryne in Abidjan in May 2002 – focused on its potential for transfer of lexicographic know-how in the host country, as well as on its implementation and dissemination by electronic means. (His contribution will be presented in more detail in the report on the valorization module which is currently being implemented in co-operation with him.)


Name / Date of birth / Affiliation
Anna Erman / September 22, 1975 /
  1. Faculty of OrientalStudies
    St. PetersburgStateUniversity: doctoral student.
  2. Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography: senior laboratory assistant.
Currently guest postgrad. at the Univ. of Zurich on a 1-year grant by the Swiss special allocation program.
Dmitry Idiatov / April 24, 1979 /
  1. Faculty of OrientalStudies
    St. PetersburgStateUniversity: doctoral student.
  2. Currently University of Antwerp (Prof. Ian van der Auwera) on a Postgraduate grant from the Univ. of Antwerp.

Irina Jouk / October 31, 1977 / Postgraduate student at St. PetersburgStateUniversity
Tatiana Nikitina / December 25, 1980 / Currently on a 4-year scholarship at the University of Stanford
Denis Paperno / October 18, 1983 / 3rd-year student at the Dept. of Philology of MoscowStateUniversity
Elena Perekhvalskaya / March 4, 1954 / Ph.D., assistant professor for General at St. PetersburgStateUniversity
Alyona Tcherdyntseva / January 11, 1978 / Postgraduate student at St. PetersburgStateUniversity
Valentin Vydrine / February 6, 1961 / Senior Research Fellow at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg
Alexandre Zheltov / July 31, 1967 / Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department of African Studies, St. PetersburgStateUniversity,
Thomas Bearth / May 18, 1937 / Professor of General and African Linguistics, University of Zurich

3. Overview of results

3.1 Main scientific results achieved and their scientific significance

As a direct result of the JRP, a whole branch of hitherto little known West African languages has been opened up for the first time to systematic research from a variety of complementary angles and viewpoints. Although the distinct status of Eastern Mande languages had been recognized for at least a century, there had been no comprehensive and systematic approach to their study apart from occasional surveys (Prost 1954, Halaoui et al. 1983) and very little descriptive let alone comparative work had been done on them. Without overstating the case, we can say that this has now changed as a result of the JRP funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation:

-Basic lexicographic work has been achieved in at least two languages and is well under way in almost all the other languages of the western subgroup of Eastern Mande (i.e. the Mande languages spoken in Ivory Coast and adjacent parts of Liberia.)

-Key areas of grammar have been studied and described in most languages and have been or are in the process of being published.

-Both a methodological framework and a human network have been established with a considerable carry-over potential for future research and applications in Mande studies. As a result of the project, a pool of individual researchers and institutions have become interested in following up the work begun under the auspices of the Mande lexicology project.

Among the specific insights generated through field research and analysis of data resulting from it, the following, listed according to their respective subfield of inquiry, deserve special mention:

Dialectology: Clarification of the position and relations of the different varieties of Dan and their complex interrelations. Status of Dan-Kla as a separate language.


-the pronoun systems fof all the languages included in the research;

-survey of the morphology of negation;

-evidence of emerging morphological cases and ergativity – both novel features as far as Mande is concerned - was found and described.

Phonological characteristics of ELM:

-proof of the presence of Advanced Tongue Root (ATR) type vowel harmony;

-clarification of moot points in the analysis of tonal systems (Guro, Dan),

Grammatical analysis and description:

-split syntax of numerals, verbs and intensifiers (Tura);

-submorphemic meaning correlates in pronominal systems (Gban);

-markers of individuation in nominals;

-reduplication of adjectives in plural formation;

-verbal systems, tense and aspect.


-reconstruction of the proto-ELM consonant system;

-vowel systems: proof of ATR in the proto-system;

-considerable advances in the reconstruction of proto-ELM tonology;

-integration of the ELM data into the Common Mande etymological dictionary (work in progress)

Previously established hypotheses on Proto-Mande (and Proto-Niger-Congo, for that matter), e.g. that nasal consonants have no phonological status, and the importance of implosives, were strengthened by evidence from the ELM segment.

3.2. Impact. The project started out as a bilateral venture between Russian and Swiss partners. In the course of ist implementation, it has taken a firm grounding in the host country, and perspectives for a heightened awareness and continued interest in the field have brightened up. Highlights of this development were workshops on lexicography at the University of Cocody and the Colloquium from Oct. 13-15 at the same University which attracted public interest beyond the scientific community (e.g. media coverage, see report on special grant IB 7610-103197. See also the forthcoming report on valorization grant ## for most recent developments in this respect.)

In Russia itself, it is worth mentioning that V. Vydrine has recently been entrusted with the edition of the volume on Mande of the Russian Language and Linguistics Encyclopedia.