Language contact has played, and continues to play, an eminent role in language change in the entire Lower Casamance, because multilingualism is deeply anchored in its societies through a number of social practices. Multilingualism plays also a great role in shaping social identities. Social practices that nurture multilingualism in the entire region comprise exogamous marriage, widespread child fostering and ritual, professional, religious and economic mobility, all occurring across imaginary language borders.
The consequences of multilingualism and shared social and cultural features on cultural aspects of identity have been well studied for Casamance: Baum (1999), Brooks (1994), Bühnen (1994), de Jong (1999, 2005) and Mark (1985, 1992) unanimously describe how cultural patterns, myths of origin, religious practices, etc., have converged throughout the region. Ethnic groups, only recently introduced in the wake of French colonisation, have only limited relevance for linguistic and cultural patterns.
Our project has had the chance to build on previous research on individual languages in the Crossroads area. Involving a team of researchers, we can now overcome the limitations imposed by a research scope on individual languages and look in detail not only at corpus data of multilingual speech but also at the social networks and communities at practice in which it is produced, and at the ideologies that underlie it. One important first milestone was reached when we understood how language indexes identity at the local level. Hamlets, villages, or entire areas are nominally associated by their inhabitants with one language or language cluster, their patrimonial language. The association to a patrimonial lineage does not reflect actual language use but reveals the nominal or identity language of the founding clan or claims of particular groups to autochthony or land ownership. This status entails that this language is only made visible in contexts where this status is emphasised. Crucially, being a firstcomer is only of relevance when a contrast with latecomers is made – a dichotomy that underlies the entire known migrational history of the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa, where small groups continuously broke off and reorganised.