Manding’s Islamic Scholarly Register: An Initial Look

A “way of speaking” particular to learned Muslims of West Africa.

As part of my work in the Ajami Lab, I am currently working to analyze and contextualize the existence and emergence of Manding’s scholarly Islamic register.

Manding is a West African trade language spoken by tens of millions of people. From one perspective, it is well documented. There are a range of linguistic grammars and dictionaries that describe both the four major varieties–Bambara, Jula, Maninka and Mandinka–as well as smaller local dialects.

While such studies are essential, they reduce variation in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar to a question of dialectology. Differences in the ways that we speak with one another, however, are never just a question of dialect.

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Connections between N’ko and Ajami

Today, one is more likely to come across Manding written in N’ko than in Arabic (or even Latin) script. But did N’ko stifle Ajami or emerge from it?

This post is related to this publication which was accepted in the African Studies Review in September 2019.

Robust traditions of Ajami exist and have been relatively well documented and studied for major West African languages such as Wolof, Hausa, and Fulani. It surprising then that thus far there have been few Ajami texts found for major Manding varieties such as Bamanan, Maninka and Jula1.

Today, in many Manding-speaking areas, one is more likely to come across the language written in N’ko than in Arabic (or even Latin) script.

Map of the Manding language continuum.png
By Coleman DonaldsonOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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  1. The exception is Mandinka, spoken at the western edge of the language-dialect continuum. In this case, there are at least two major scholarly works investigating local history through Ajami texts (Giesing & Vydrin 2007; Schaffer 2003). []