History of research on the Songhay language

Although the study of ancient Arabic manuscripts reveals some writings in the Fulfulde (Fulani) and soŋay (Songhay) languages, the systematic analysis of soŋay did not begin until the end of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the colonial period.

Delafosse is interested in the geopolitics of Songhay, with a perceptible fascination for its phonetic simplicity which, apparently, facilitates its adoption as a language of exchange in the Middle Niger area. Hacquard & Dupuis-Yakouba published a study on the dialect of Timbuktu in 1897; a lexicographic analysis followed in 1917. Thus, Western Songhay aroused a lot of interest at the beginning. Further east, Ardant du Picq published his study of zarma in 1933.

Prost began his research mission on the Gao dialect and zarma in the early 1950s. In La langue soŋay et ses dialectes (IFAN, 1956), he comes to the conclusion, on the one hand, that the dialects of the center (Gao) and of the east (from Tillabéri to Gaya) are closer, and on the other hand, that the speaking of Gao must be considered as the central dialect of the linguistic family.

In Mali, after independence, the soŋay unit of the Direction Nationale de l’Alphabétisation Fonctionnelle et de la Linguistique Appliquée (DNAFLA) will draw heavily on this rich publication, both from the soŋay-French lexicon and from texts collected from informants in Gao and surrounding areas. In the 1970s and 1980s, DNAFLA systematized spelling, added dialect variants to the Soŋay-French lexicon and wrote numerous writing guides and thematic manuals. In the early 1990s, the general adoption of national languages ​​in primary school created a new dynamic. Lexicography occupies a central place in the training system for instructors and in the production of didactic material for the first six classes of basic education.

Despite the limited means, the soŋay unit owes this exceptional productivity to the dedication of its staff, although small but engaged on several sites, often in collaboration with constant partners such as Norwegian Church Aid (NEA), World Vision (World Vision) and the USAID. On this level, it carried out its mission in functional literacy. The various lexicographical projects produced a general soŋay-French reference dictionary and a French-soŋay lexicon with six specialized glossaries (history and geography - politics, administration and justice - linguistics - mathematics - school environment - observation sciences).

However, linguistic analysis is experiencing worrying stagnation. The assignment of DNAFLA researchers to new centers and laboratories quickly dismembered the soŋay unit. Some of them had to partner independently to publish more recent texts on grammar, semantics and local knowledge. The current project considers all the existing documentation as a database for the revitalization of multidisciplinary research on the language. The development of a global terminology for computers and new communication and information technologies, its direct application to the translation of open source software and programs and the popularization of localization work among young people constitute the new stage of the lexical modernization of the language. Multimedia support makes it possible to create new types of specialized lexicons to illustrate cultural objects and concepts specific to a language, using images, sounds, videos and visual animations. In this sense, the dictionary serves as an illustrated encyclopedia accessible to different groups of users - both native speakers and learners of soŋay as a second or foreign language.

Some pioneers in soŋay language research:

  • Auguste Hacquard and Auguste Dupuis-Yakouba (structural study, lexicography)
  • André Prost (structural study, lexicography)
  • Charles Pierre Ardant du Picq (structural study, lexicography)
  • Charles, MC & JM Ducroz (lexicon on the kaado language of Gorouol)
  • Hamidou Seydou Hanafiou (linguistics)
  • Husseina Alidou & Ekkehardt Wolff (tasawaq, Niger)
  • Jeffrey Heath (soŋay dictionaries in dialects: Djenné, Hombori, Tombouctou, Gao)
  • Mohamed Youssouf Haïdara (linguistics)
  • Petr Zima (structural study)
  • Robert Nicolaï (structural study, philology)
  • Yves Bernard & Mary White-Kaba (Zarma-French dictionary)

Studies on the Nilo-Saharan hypothesis:

  • Christopher Ehret
  • Lionel bender
  • Robert Nicolai

Author: Mohomodou Houssouba