May 20, 2004

Clarifying status in Wolof by fake disfluency

A little while ago, I posted about Judith Irvine's observation that "upwardly-mobile men among the Wolof nobility cultivate inarticulateness as a sign of status", and suggested that this might have some application to the case of powerful men in our culture who sometimes seem to project the attitude that they're too busy or too important or too verbally unskilled to manage to figure out how to pronounce a name like "Taguba." Or rather, I posted about my memory of having heard about this aspect of Wolof sociolinguistics, at some time in the past; and so I hedged what I said, in an attempt to avoid starting a cute story that might turn out not to be accurate.

This morning, Steve Matuszek emailed with a degree of confirmation and some additional information:

I love the Language Log.

I was a computer science major at UMBC, but I took Wolof for two years, because I figured it would be a challenge.

I forwarded the posting on Wolof men to my professor, Omar Ka, who is native Senegalese, and he wrote

This posting is indeed interesting, and mostly accurate. The only caveat to add is that this "fake" lack of fluency occurs only when the Geer interact with the Gewel. It is then a means to clarify each other's status.

So thank you -- I hadn't thought about griots or noun categories in years.

My parents and I also had a great deal of fun with Escher sentences at lunch yesterday.

See the earlier post for background on Geer and Gewel.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 20, 2004 03:26 PM