Since the beginning of 2014, our project investigates the social networks andcommunities 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, spoken in the adjoining kingdom Mov Avvi that comprises a handful of villages.
A fourth language we look 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 control language.
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 (for all percentages, see Mc Laughlin 2009). The northern part of the country is located in the Sahel and was Islamized a long time ago It occupies one overarching cultural space due to the shared religion and its location in the sphere of influence of a number of kingdoms and empires, and is dominated by three large languages – Wolof, Pulaar, and Seereer-Siin. These languages 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 Fogny 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 ethnicity is a weak marker of identity in Casamance. The labels hide massive linguistic differences, as Joola comprises at least a dozen different and often mutually unintelligible varieties, and Baïnounk at least five. The status of these varieties as “languages”, “dialects”, “ethnic languages”, etc., is impossible to determine. Joola and Baïnounk languages have been shaped through massive contact with other languages. Language contact has played, and continues to play, an eminent role in language change in the entire geographical area, because multilingualism is deeply anchored in
Casamance societies through a number of social practices and plays a great role in shaping social identity.