Mande languages

West Sudanic
Ethnicity Mandé peoples
West Africa
Linguistic classification Niger–Congo?
  • Mande
  • Manding–Kpelle (Central & Southwest)
  • Samogo–Soninke (Northwest)
  • Dan–Busa (East)
ISO 639-5 dmn
Linguasphere 00- (phylozone)
Glottolog mand1469[1]

The Mande languages are spoken in several countries in Africa by the Mandé people and include Maninka, Mandinka, Soninke, Bambara, Dioula, Bozo, Mende, Susu, and Vai. There are millions of speakers, chiefly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. The Mande languages have traditionally been considered a divergent branch of the Niger–Congo family, but that has always been controversial.

The group was first recognized in 1854 by Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, in his Polyglotta Africana. He mentioned 13 languages under the heading North-Western High-Sudan Family, or Mandéga Family of Languages. In 1901, Maurice Delafosse made a distinction of two groups in his Essai de manuel pratique de la langue mandé ou mandingue. He speaks of a northern group mandé-tan and a southern group mandé-fu. The distinction was basically done only because the languages in the north use the expression tan for ten, and the southern languages use fu. In 1924, Louis Tauxier noted that the distinction is not well founded and there is at least a third subgroup he called mandé-bu. It was not until 1950 that André Prost supported that view and gave further details.

In 1958, Welmers published an article The Mande Languages where he divided the languages into three subgroups: North-West, South and East. His conclusion was based on lexicostatistic research. Joseph Greenberg followed that distinction in his The Languages of Africa (1963). Long (1971) and Gérard Galtier (1980) follow the distinction into three groups but with notable differences.


Various opinions exist as to the age of the Mande languages. Greenberg has suggested that the Niger-Congo group, which in his view includes the Mande languages, began to break up around 7000 years BP. Its speakers practised a Neolithic culture, as indicated by the Proto-Niger-Congo words for "cow", "goat" and "cultivate".[2]


Mande does not share the morphology characteristic of most of the Niger–Congo family, such as the noun-class system. Blench regards it as an early branch that, like Ijoid and perhaps Dogon, diverged before it developed. Dwyer (1998) compared it with other branches of Niger–Congo and finds that they form a coherent family, with Mande being the most divergent of the branches he considered. However, Dimmendaal (2008) argues that the evidence for inclusion is slim, with no new evidence for decades, and for now Mande is best considered an independent family.[3]

Most internal Mande classifications are based on lexicostatistics, and the results are unreliable. See, for example, Vydrin (2009), based on a 100-word list. The following classification from Kastenholz (1996) is based on lexical innovations and comparative linguistics; details of East Mande are from Dwyer (1989, 1996), summarized in Williamson & Blench 2000.


 East Mande 













Busa  languages 




West Mande 

Central West 

Central Mande




Jɔgɔ languages (Ligbi)


VaiKɔnɔ (and maybe Dama)


Manding languages

Mokole languages


 Southwest  Mande








 Northwest  proper






Samogo languages (partial: Duun–Sembla)


Paperno describes Beng and extinct Gbin as two primary branches of Southern Mande.


Mande languages do not have the noun-class system or verbal extensions of the Atlantic–Congo languages and for which the Bantu languages are so famous, but Bobo has causative and intransitive forms of the verb. Southwestern Mande languages and Soninke have initial consonant mutation. Plurality is most often marked with a clitic; in some languages, with tone, as for example in Sembla. Pronouns often have alienable–inalienable and inclusive–exclusive distinctions. Word order in transitive clauses is subjectauxiliaryobjectverbadverb. Mainly postpositions are used. Within noun phrases, possessives come before the noun, and adjectives and plural markers after the verb; demonstratives are found with both orders (Williamson & Blench 2000).


Here are some cognates from D. J. Dwyer (j is [dʲ] or [d͡ʒ]):[4]

MandingKono-VaiSusuMandé (SW)Soninké SemblaBoboSanBusaManoDanGuroMwa
'mouth'*dadadalalaqqe jodoleleleDilele, di
'saliva'*da-yida-jida-sɛ-yela-yilaxan-ji jon-fagodibesele-ile-yiDi-lileriliri
'water'*yijeyiyiyaji joji, ziomuniyiyiyiyi
'breast'*n-koŋsinsususisiŋenikonbe kyeɲiŋiɲoɲoɲoŋɲoŋɲoŋɲoŋ
'milk'*n-kon-yinɔnɔsusu-jixin-yɛgen-iya-xatti kye-n-dyon-yan-niŋin-yo-n-yoŋ-yin-yoŋ-yi
'goat'*bo(re)babaɓolisugo bigwabweblebori
'buck'*bore-gurenba-koro gu-gurable-sabɔ-gonbɔ-gongyagyabɔ-guren
'sheep'*sagasagabara-wayexeɓarajaxe segasɛgeseresabaablaberabla
'ram'*saga-gurensaga-koro segabakekyeresi-gulada-gubla-gonbra-gonbla-gure

Note that in these cognates: 'saliva' = 'mouth'+'water', 'milk' = 'breast'+'water', 'buck (he-goat)' = 'goat'+'male', 'ram' = 'sheep'+'male'.

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Mande". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. D.F. McCall, "The Cultural Map and Time Profile of the Mande Speaking Peoples," in C.T. Hodge (ed.). Papers on the Manding, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1971
  3. Gerrit Dimmendaal, "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", Language and Linguistics Compass 2/5:841.
  4. Dwyer, David J. Towards Proto-Mande phonology.


  • Bimson, Kent (1976). Comparative reconstruction of Mandekan. In Studies in African Linguistics, Vol 7, No 3 (1976).
  • Delafosse, Maurice (1901) Essai de manuel pratique de la langue mandé ou mandingue. Paris : Leroux. 304 p.
  • Delafosse, Maurice (1904) Vocabulaires comparatifs de plus de soixante langues ou dialectes parlés à la Ivory Coast et dans les régions limitrophes, avec des notes linguistiques et ethnologiques. Paris : Leroux. 285 p.
  • Halaoui, Nazam, Kalilou Tera, Monique Trabi (1983) Atlas des langues mandé – sud de Ivory Coast. Abidjan : ACCT-ILA.
  • Kastenholz, Raimund (1996) Sprachgeschichte im West-Mande: Methoden und Rekonstruktionen. Mande Languages and Linguistics · Langues et Linguistique Mandé, 2. Köln : Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. 281 p.
  • Steinthal, Heymann (1867) Die Mande-Negersprachen, psychologisch und phonetisch betrachtet. Berlin: Schade. 344 p.
  • Sullivan, Terrence D. 2004 [1983]. A preliminary report of existing information on the Manding languages of West Africa: Summary and suggestions for future research. SIL Electronic Survey Report. Dallas, SIL International.
  • Vydrine, Valentin, T.G. Bergman and Matthew Benjamin (2000) Mandé language family of West Africa: Location and genetic classification. SIL Electronic Survey Report. Dallas, SIL International.
  • Vydrin, Valentin. On the problem of the Proto-Mande homeland // Вопросы языкового родства – Journal of Language Relationship 1, 2009, pp. 107–142.
  • Welmers, William E.(1971) Niger–Congo, Mande. In Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa (Current Trends in Linguistics,7), Thomas A. Sebeok, Jade Berry, Joseph H. Greenberg et al. (eds.), 113–140. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Williamson, Kay, and Roger Blench (2000) "Niger–Congo". In Heine & Nurse, eds., African Languages.
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