The Mande languages are spoken in several countries in West Africa by the Mandé peoples and include Maninka, Mandinka, Soninke, Bambara, Kpelle, Dioula, Bozo, Mende, Susu, and Vai. There are "60 to 75 languages spoken by 30 to 40 million people", 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, however that categorisation has been controversial.
Valentin Vydrin concluded: "the Mande homeland at the second half of the 4th millennium BC was located in Southern Sahara, somewhere to the North of 16° or even 18° of Northern latitude and between 3° and 12° of Western longitude."
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. 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".
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.
Most internal Mande classifications are based on lexicostatistics, and the results are unreliable (see, for example, Vydrin (2009), based on the Swadesh 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.
Paperno describes Beng and extinct Gbin as two primary branches of Southern Mande.
|Language||Alternate spellings||Own name for language||Endonym(s)||Other names (location-based)||Other names for language||Exonym(s)||Speakers||Location(s)|
|Sorko (extinct)||Bozo (not recommended)||Sarkanci||Sarkawa||Most Sorko now speak only Hausa. Mainly in Mali||Niger, Kwara and Kebbi States; fishermen on Kainji Lake|
|Busa||Boussa||Bìsã́||sg. Busa, pl. Busano||Busagwe, Busanse, Boussanse, Busanci||11,000 in Nigeria (1952 W&B); 50,000 in Nigeria, 50,000 in Benin (1987 UBS)||Kwara State; Niger State, Borgu LGA; Kebbi State, Bagudo LGA; also in Benin Republic|
|Kyenga||Kyangganya||Kyanggani pl. Kyanggana||Kenga, Tyenga||five villages on Nigeria side which speak the language; 7,591 (1925 Meek); 10,000 including Shanga (1973 SIL)||Niger State, Borgu LGA, north of Illo; also in Benin and Niger Republics|
|Shanga||Shonga||10,000 including Kyenga (1973 SIL): language dying out||Kebbi State, Bagudo and Yauri LGAs|
|Boko||Boo||Boko||120,000 all populations (2004 est.)||Niger State, Borgu LGA. Nikki–Kande area, Benin Republic.|
|Bokobaru||sg. Busa, pl. Busano||Kaama, Zogbme, Zugweya, Zogbeya||Kaiama||30–40,000 (est. 2004)||Kwara State. Kaiama town and surrounding villages|
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 subject–auxiliary–object–verb–adverb. 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.
Here are some cognates from D. J. Dwyer (⟨j⟩ is [dʲ] or [d͡ʒ]):
Note that in these cognates: 'saliva' = 'mouth'+'water', 'milk' = 'breast'+'water', 'buck (he-goat)' = 'goat'+'male', 'ram' = 'sheep'+'male'.