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Number of Speakers: 3 million

Key Dialects: Standard Bambara, Somono, Segou, San, Beledugu, Ganadugu, Wasulu, Sikasso

Geographical Center: Mali

Bambara, known in the language itself as Bamanankan, is spoken by over two and a half million people in Mali and is widely considered the national language, although it is not officially recognized as such. Close to 500,000 people speak Bambara outside Mali in the West African countries Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, and Senegal. Bambara is closely related to Dioula, one of the most widely used trade languages in West Africa.

Bambara is a Niger-Congo language that belongs to the Manding group of Western Mande languages. Bambara is most closely related to Jula and Marka. Other Manding languages include Manya, Maninka, Mahou, Koyago, Koro, Worodoudou, and Wojenaka.

Numerous regional dialects are attested. Approximately 80% of the Mali population speak some dialect of Bambara (Gordon 2005). For the most part, these regional dialects are mutually intelligible, differing mainly along the phonological dimension.

Although the Mande script N’Ko (developed in 1949 by Solomana Kante) is still in use for Bambara, the most widely used script at the present time is a slightly modified Roman orthography. Tone is marked by way of placing accents (acute/grave) over vowels. Four symbols not found in the Roman orthography are used, including two variations on the symbol n, the lower-case Greek epsilon, and the mirror image of the symbol c. As of 1990, digraphs are no longer used in the Bambara orthography.

The Bambara phoneme inventory consists of 13 consonants and seven vowels, depending on the analysis. Bambara is a tone language comprised of two basic or underlying tones (High and Low) plus a hypothesized abstract “floating tone” (i.e. a High tone not directly linked to a particular segment, yet still affecting its tonal realization). These tones may combine in a number of ways, giving rise to such tonal contour patterns as Rising (High + Low) and Falling (Low + High) tones. The syllable structure of Bambara is CV (i.e. in native vocabulary items, syllable onsets are obligatory and codas are prohibited). As in languages like French, for example, nasalization is contrastive. That is to say, the presence or absence of a nasal vowel may minimally differentiate one lexical item from another. (For example la ‘there’ vs. lã ‘slow’ in French.) A number of French loan words (i.e. alimeti ‘match’ vs. French alumette, jauni vs. French jaune) and various aspects of French phonology (i.e. contrastive nasalization, as discussed above) have been absorbed into the language.

The surface word order in Bambara is SOV. The subject of the clause is typically followed by an auxiliary verb/inflectional particle that precedes the object and verb. In the case of the perfective aspect, the form and position of this element depend on the syntactic properties of the main verb. For example, the particle ra appears as a verbal suffix when the main verb is unaccusative. When the verb is transitive, however, the marker ye appears pre-verbally. This contrast is illustrated below. (The symbol * indicates that the sentence is ungrammatical.)

(1) a. A taa-ra.
s/he go-PERF
‘She went.’

b.*A ra taa.
s/he PERF go

c. Den ye ji min.
child PERF water drink
‘The child drank water.’

d. *Den ji-ye min.
child water-PERF drink

Although objects precede verbs, a maximum of one object may appear before the verb in ditransitive/double object constructions. Postpositions are attested, many of which are directional and based on body part nouns. (For example, the postposition bolo, which means ‘hand’ in Bambara, is used to indicate directions.) Negation is marked by a particle that follows the auxiliary, but precedes the verb. A number of clause-typing/discourse function-related particles are attested (particles, which for instance, encode whether the utterance is declarative, interrogative, or imperative, or whether an element within has been topicalized or focused, etc.). Affixation is largely suffixal and reduplication is productive in the language. Bambara shows no case, person, or gender marking on nouns, nor overt subject-verb agreement.

Although Bambara is spoken by 80% of the Mali population and is the most widely understood language in the country, it is not recognized as an official language. French has remained the official language of Mali since 1890. Despite the fact that the language is spoken primarily by members of the Bambara ethnic group, it serves as an interethnic lingua franca in Mali and as the lingua franca used by traders in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, and Senegal. In Mali, Bambara is used in mass communication (radio, newspapers), adult education (French is the official language of instruction in primary school), and in everyday communication.

The Bambara trace their history back to the old kingdom of Mali. Over time, a number of Bambara kingdoms emerged. By the 1700s, there were two such kingdoms: Karta and Segu. These were overthrown in the middle of the 19th century by militant Muslim groups who remained in power for 40 years until 1890 when the French arrived and colonized Mali. The French occupation of Mali lasted until 1960, at which time the country was granted independence. As a result, the influence of French on the language and culture is great. The Bambara orthography and lexicon in particular have been shaped to a considerable extent by French. To date, much of Bambara’s history remains unwritten. It is preserved mainly through oral tradition (i.e. through song and storytelling).

Bird, Charles. 1966. Aspects of Bambara Syntax. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bird, Charles and Mamadou Kanté. 1977. Bambara-English English-Bambara Student Lexicon. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Bird, Charles, John Hutchison, and Mamadou Kanté. 1977.An Ka Bamankan Kalan/Introductory Bambara. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Fofana, Amadou Tidiane and Mamery Traore. 2003. Bamanankan Learner’s Reference Grammar. Madison, WI: National African Languages Resource Center Press.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Koopman, Hilda. 1992. On the Absence of Case Chains in Bambara. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 10: 555-594.

Pool, Jonathan. 1983. The New Bambara Grammar. Bamako, Mali: Centre de Litterature Evangelique.

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