THE SONINKE LANGUAGE
Spread and status
With about 2.3 million speakers, the Soninke language is a minor African dialect. The name Soninke also refers to native people who speak it. Actually, its spread reaches 7 countries. Thus, it enjoys the status of national language in Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. But we can find it a bit in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Ghana and western Burkina Faso.
Local literacy programmes, as well as experimental bilingual schools, widely used it. This, in Mali mainly. Also, there is a very rich body of poetry. And that is the case in media like radio or the rural magazine Xibaare as well. Finally, some countries bordering Mali use it in trades or for contracts of all kinds. But Soninke remains a minor language in each of the countries that speak it, and not a lingua franca.
However, it is the main language of immigrants from Africa who settle in France. As a result, in the Paris region, some non Soninke Africans learn it. Also, the Ivorian branch of the Hamallist brotherhood uses it as a common language. Thus, followers of non Soninke origin learn Soninke when they join it.
In spite of its spread, it is quite homogeneous. This, at a grammar, lexical and phonological level. Just some slight variations.
However, there are two main and very close dialects, depending on how we pronounce the phoneme /f/ and /h/. While we find the [f] more in the western regions, the [h] is more in the eastern regions. Thus, "his donkey" gives [a fare] in the west and [a hare] in the east.
As native speakers attach great importance to their language, they pass it on to their children. So, they are bilingual. This is more true in Africa while it tends to weaken in France. Indeed, in France they favour Islam as an identity marker rather than their ethnic origin. Thus, parents prefer that their children learn Arabic as a second language since the latter is the sacred language of the Koran.
In the past
Although Soninke has now been relegated to second place, it enjoyed a great influence between the 7th and 13th centuries. Indeed, it was then the language of the Wagadou Empire, which is now called Ghana. The fact that we can find ritual songs in the animist cults of the Niger loop reveals the past power of that empire. By the way, the word "Soninke" means "animist".
First, we can use both the Latin and Arabic alphabet to write Soninke. But the first one only became official a few decades ago and linguists added some letters to it.
Second, it is a tonal language but, most of the time, we do not note the tones. In addition, there are marked differences in pronunciation within speaking areas, let alone between countries (e.g. Mali and Senegal).
Third, in 1995, a sub regional seminar on the Soninke spelling occured. That event has made it possible to harmonise the language and to spread the same rules among the various countries that use it. Since then people must use the letters 'ñ' and 'ŋ' but their substitutes 'ny' and 'nw' are still accepted.
Fourth, we write pre-nasalized consonants with digrams starting with n: nb [mb], nd [nb], etc. Doubling consonants are sometimes relevant, as in Senegal with: pp [pː], mm [mː], etc. Vowel quantity oppositions are relevant. The same applies to long vowels.
Fifth, the sentence structure is usually as follows: Subject, Object, Verb. Also, there is no tense as such, but some particles allow to tell about the past, present or future.