The Crossroads languages

The Crossroads project  investigated the social networks and communities of practice of three village communities connected through shared languages and a dense crossroads of linguistic and social exchange. The Crossroads  languages  are

  • Baïnounk Gubëeher, spoken in the village of Djibonker
  • Joola Kujireray, spoken in the neighbouring village of Brin
  • Joola Eegimaa (Banjal), spoken in the adjoining kingdom Mov Avvi that comprises a handful of villages.

A fourth language we looked at is Baïnounk Gujaher. This language is not in contact with the Crossroads languages, but is closely related to Baïnounk Gubëeher and therefore serves as a comparative setting.

All four languages are spoken in the  complex linguistic landscape of Lower Casamance. The area in Southern Senegal is a hotspot of linguistic and “ethnic” diversity in a country that already exhibits a high degree of multilingualism. Senegal has a population of ca. 14 million, most of who speak the major language Wolof as one language of their repertoire, although it is the “ethnic”, “vernacular” or “identity language” of only 40% of the population. The official language is French, the ex-colonial idiom, but French is only used in a small number of contexts and by ca. 10% of the population. The northern part of the country is located in the Sahel and is today highly Islamised, while in Casamance, Catholicism and local religions are widely practiced alongside Islam. The north of Senegal can be conceptualised as one overarching cultural space due to the widely shared religion and its location in the sphere of influence of a number of kingdoms and empires. This part of Senegal is dominated by three large language groups – Wolof, Pulaar, and Seereer-Siin. These and other smaller languages in its territory all belong to the areal Atlantic grouping. In the east of the country, bordering Mali, a number of Mande languages are also spoken.

The south of the country belongs to a very different cultural and linguistic sphere. South of the river Gambia, in an area that until recently was outside the reach of Christianity and Islam, a high number of languages are spoken by small Frontier communities in intensely multilingual settings. Among them figure the Joola and Baïnounk languages from the Atlantic group Mandinka, a Mande language, is an important language of the region and serves as one of the vehicular languages, alongside Wolof, Joola Foñ and French. Two Creoles of Portuguese provenance are also attested in Casamance: the Creole of Casamance, and the Creole of neighbouring Guinea Bissau.

The languages represented in the project belong to the Baïnounk and Joola clusters.  Joola and Baïnounk are now commonly used as ethnic labels, but do not have corresponding language communities. The labels hide massive linguistic differences. Joola comprises at least a dozen different and often mutually unintelligible varieties spoken in a continuum of lects. Baïnounk at least five, mostly mutually unintelligible, languages not spoken in contiguous areas.  Joola and Baïnounk languages have been shaped through massive contact with each other and with other languages of the area.