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Grammatical sketch of Beng

The history of Beng studies

Section 3
Denis Paperno
p. 12-18

Texte intégral

3.1. Students of the Beng language and society

1The first publications to report on Beng language and people were motivated by the urge to systematize the languages and peoples of West Africa. Like many other varieties of Côte d’Ivoire, the Beng and the neighboring South Mande Gbin languages were first described by the French colonial administrative officer Maurice Delafosse (1904). His account of the Beng language included just a list of the first ten numerals. Twenty years later, another scholar and colonial administrator Louis Tauxier studied the area of Bondoukou more deeply, both as a linguist and as an ethnographer. Among other things, Tauxier published an extensive list of Beng words and phrases (Tauxier 1921: 658-683), along with a very detailed ethnographic and sociological study of the Beng people. Now, 100 years after these first publications, we are in the position to look back at their data and interpret it building on the progress in African linguistics made over the last decades. In section 3.2, I describe Delafosse and Tauxier’s Beng data and remark on what they are telling us about Beng dialects.

2Beng’s position within the genetic classification was further scrutinized in the second half of the 20th century with the development of wider comparative studies (Prost 1953; Welmers 1958; Greenberg 1966). The last work mistakenly attributes Beng (referred to as Gan) to Voltaic languages.

3Systematic study of Beng did not resume until the late 1970-es, when SIL-associated scholars produced preliminary grammatical notes (Bearth 1979), description of the tonal system (Flick 1979) and a phonological sketch (Ory 1981).

4In 1979-1980 the then-PhD-student Alma Gottlieb spent fourteen months in Côte d’Ivoire doing anthropological fieldwork among the Beng. After another field trip to the Beng land in 1985, Gottlieb eventually published a monograph on Beng anthropology (Gottlieb 1992) and a Beng-English dictionary (Gottlieb, Murphy 1995). After her dissertation work, Gottlieb conducted further research among the Beng, focusing on the anthropology of childhood, which resulted in the monograph The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa (Gottlieb 2004). Gottlieb’s collaboration with her husband, writer Phillip Graham, produced two well-written popular accounts of their encounters with the Beng (Gottlieb and Graham 1994, 2012).

5An SIL member Wolfgang Paesler started studying Beng in 1981. Within a few years he gained a deep understanding of many aspects of the structure of Beng language. Paesler published the first morphological description of some aspects of verb morphology of Beng (Paesler 1989), which covered the properties of the base form, the low tone form, nominalization, and the progressive. Paesler gave the first account of personal pronouns and TAM expression in his orthographic manual (Paesler 1991), was the first to publish a phonological description of Beng (Paesler 1992), and, last but not least, collected a vast amount of unpublished texts and lexicographic data (Paesler ms.).

Map 2.

Map 2.

Beng and closely related Gbin, now extinct, according to Delafosse (1904).

3.2. Beng dialects according to reports from the early 1900s

6This section reproduces the content of (Paperno 2008a). I focus on the aspects of historical phonetics that Beng data from (Delafosse 1904) and (Tauxier 1921) seem to reflect and, for the dialect documented by Tauxier, on morphological features they exhibit. Tauxier’s data also contains some information for a deeper grammatical analysis, but that would require more research on modern Beng dialects.

  • 1 This is intended as a purely geographical label (Ouassadougou is the center of the area) distinguis (...)

7The present work, as well as the research of Wolfgang Paesler and of Alma Gottlieb and M. Lynne Murphy, represent a different dialect than those described by Tauxier and Delafosse, spoken in the prefecture of M’Bahiakro, in the area centered around the village of Ouassadougou. As mentioned above, this area is divided into two socio-geographic units, “Forest» and “Savanna», and the literature (e.g. Paesler 1992) even speaks of two dialects, dialect of the forest and dialect of the savanna, but this distinction has never been justified by linguistic data. All the varieties of the area of Ouassadougou are mutually understandable; the only certain isogloss I know of does not strictly divide the two regions: the subject pronoun of 3rd person singular has the form /e/ in varieties of some “Savanna» villages, e.g. Totodougou, and /o/ in some Forest” villages, but also in the variety of Ouassadougou, which is generally attributed to the “Savanna” zone. Unfortunately, more precise information about dialectal distribution of these pronoun forms is not available. Therefore, I am not going to distinguish here the varieties of Ouassadougou area (the “Forest” and the “Savanna” dialects). Since a uniform term for this dialect does not exist, I will write “ Modern Ouassadougou Beng  ”, abbreviating it as MOB.1

8Now that MOB is relatively well studied, we are in the position to interpret the data Tauxier and Delafosse had published in their relation to MOB facts. It turns out that the dialects described by Delafosse and Tauxier are substantially different from MOB. Delafosse documented the variety of Beng spoken in the 1890-s in the village of Kamélinsou near the Comoé river (see Maps 1, 2), which one might tentatively identify with the present-day Kamelesso. L. Tauxier, on the other hand, left a rather extensive record of the data that he had gathered “dans le village gan de Pattakoro, situé sur la route de Bouaké à Bondoukou, entre Kongodian et Groumania,” and also later from “des Gans des villages environnants [de Groumania]” (Tauxier 1921: 372). It follows that data from more than one Beng dialect could make a way into Tauxier’s book, and it is impossible to reliably separate them without external evidence on modern varieties of these dialects (those have never been studied to date). Presumably, though, most of Tauxier’s data rely on the variety of the neighbourhood of Groumania (he qualifies his records from Pattakoro as “notes succintes”). If this is correct, Tauxier’s data may represent a variety of modern Lendoukro or Bénidougou, villages situated in the proximity of Groumania, west from the Comoé river, where Beng is still spoken. To the best of my knowledge, there is no scholarship of these dialects, and Tauxier’s notes remain the only source. I will make reference to the varieties documented by Delafosse and Tauxier by abbreviations BK (Beng of Kamélinsou) and BG (Beng of Groumania neighbourhood), correspondingly.

3.2.1. Delafosse: Beng of Kamélinsou

9Delafosse was the first to publish any Beng data; his records, however, are very scarce. They consist of a list on numerals from one through ten provided to him by Dr. Maclaud, “qui l’a recuillie sur place durant son voyage de 1893-1894” (Delafosse 1904: 149). The list is not very informative other than that it reliably identifies the variety as being close to MOB.

Table 1.1. Numerals from 1 through 10 in Beng dialects and Gbin

  • 2 [f] in this numeral is the result of lenition of intervocalic /p/; unfortunately there are no other (...)




Gbin (Delafosse)

do [do]

dô [do]




pla [pla]

para [pala]




ya [ya]

n’gan [ŋa̰]


ñga, ña


syĩ [sieŋ]

syé [sie]




sõ [sɔŋ]

sôn [soŋ]




so-do [sɔdo]

so-do [sɔdo]




so-pla [sɔpla]

so-fala [sɔfala]2




so-ya [sɔya]

sowoua [sɔwa]

sɔ́wà, kēŋēsíéŋ́



sisi [sisi]

sisi [sisi]




ebu [ebu]

bou [bu]

bū, èbū



10Two peculiarities of BK deserve a comment. First, the Beng of Kamélinsou maintained the Proto-South-Mande form /ya/ for ‘three’ in ya ‘three’ and so-ya ‘eight’ (< ‘5 + 3’), as opposed to the innovative form /wa/, /ŋa̰/ in MOB ŋā̰-ŋ̄, BG n’gan [ŋa̰] ‘three’, MOB sɔ́-wà, BG sowoua [sɔ-wa] ‘eight’.

11Second, BK added the final -N in the numerals syĩ [sie-ŋ] ‘quatre’ and sõ [sɔ-ŋ] ‘cinq’, like in MOB (síéŋ́, sɔ́ŋ́), cf. syé [sie], so [sɔ] in a closely related language Gbin (Delafosse 1904: 149). The -N, however, has not expanded to the numerals pla ‘deux’ and ya ‘trois’, cf. MOB plā-ŋ̄ ‘two’, ŋā̰-ŋ̄ ‘three’.

3.2.2. Tauxier: Beng of Groumania neighbourhood

12Tauxier performed a far more profound study of Beng than Delafosse did, publishing a list of around 800 words and phrases. I will now highlight some features of BG that distinguish it from other dialects.

13Minimal phonetic differences can be established between BG and MOB. First, the syncope of a vowel before /l/ had hardly ever happened in BG; etymological CVLV feet are consistently transcribed with two vowels. Examples include BG pala ‘deux’, cf. BK pla, MOB plāŋ̄; BG iri ‘arbre’, cf. MOB yrí; BG sara ‘tabac à priser’, cf. MOB sra ‘poudre de tabac;’ BG zini [zḭl̰ḭ] ‘maïs’, cf. MOB zrḭ̀ŋ̀; BG diawafila ‘oignon’, cf. MOB jàflá; BG balanda [balana] ‘banane’, cf. MOB bláná; NG poro-iri ‘baobab’, cf. MOB plɔ̌ yrí; BG méné ‘poulet’, cf. MOB mlɛ̰̌; BG kélennzô ‘buffle’, cf. MOB klɛ́ŋ́ zǒ ‘boeuf de la brousse’; BG béré ‘biche-cochon’, cf. MOB blɛ̚ ‘duiker’, and many more.

14Final nasal sonant /N/ tended to reduce phonetically in BG, often escaping from fixation, cf. the varying transcription of lɛŋ ‘enfant’ in BG n’zô-lè ‘veau’, banngo-lè ‘cheval, poulain’, babalé // babalegnn ‘mouton, agneau’, ouolé // ouoleignn ‘doigt’, ninn, né ‘enfant’ (MOB ŋ̄ lɛ́ŋ́ [nɛ́ŋ́] ‘mon enfant’), or variation in BG dowoué, dowouégnn ‘gombo’. This variation may or may not reflect real dialectal differences.

15Vowels before the final /N/ tended to change in quality, usually heightening or developing a heightening diphthong; these effects persisted even when the final /N/ was reduced, e.g. in BG n’zaon, n’zamm ‘rônier’, n’zaommbéï ‘fruit du rônier’ (MOB zàŋ́ bɛ̄ŋ̄), ouolé, ouoleignn ‘doigt’ (MOB wɔ̄lɛ́ŋ́); BG bahoum ‘épaule’ (MOB bàŋ̀); BG beïgnn ‘menton’ (MOB gbɛ̀ŋ̀); BG youm ‘visage’ (MOB yōŋ́); BG lignn, li ‘femme’ (MOB lēŋ̄); n’zoulé ‘grande soeur’ (MOB zúlēŋ̄); BG pégnn // pain ‘mortier’ (MOB pɛ́ŋ́), BG sarapoum ‘tabatière’, cf. MOB sra kpōŋ̄ ‘calebasse à tabac’, BG pèlou ‘voler (dans l’air)’ (MOB pɛ̀lōŋ̄). Not all of Tauxier’s transcriptions show the diphthongization/heightening of the vowel, so it was likely not regular, cf. the absense of diphthongization in BG lignn’gala ‘pagne de femme’, MOB lēŋ̄ glāŋ̄; BG galanké ‘tisser’, MOB glāŋ̄ cḭ́ (?) ‘créer le pagne’; BG zini ‘maïs’, cf. MOB zrḭ̀ŋ̀; BG irikôm ‘écorce’, MOB yrí kóŋ́; BG irinni ‘racine’, MOB yrí nḭ̄ŋ̄; BG béhian ‘chèvre’, MOB béyàŋ̀; BG béha-sia ‘bouc’, MOB béyàŋ̀ síá; BG sômm [soŋ] ‘animal sauvage’, MOB sōŋ̄; etc.

16One consonantal phenomenon present in BG could have been prenasalization of [z] after a pause, compare BG n’zaon, n’zamm ‘rônier’ (MOB zàŋ́), n’zoulé ‘grande soeur’ (MOB zúlēŋ̄), BG n’zié ‘funérailles’ (MOB zīē), although Tauxier’s transcriptions don’t show it consistently, cf. BG zonzon ‘moustique’, MOB zɔ̰́zɔ̰́, zoumounou ‘magnan’, MOB zṵ̄mlṵ̄ŋ̄, BG zazalè ‘disputer (se)’, MOB zázà.

  • 3 MOB, unlike most South Mande languages, uses a uniform 1st person plural pronoun a̰ŋ regardless of (...)
  • 4 Compare 3rd person plural pronouns in three related languages: Mwan wóō, Gouro wò, Gban ɔ́ (with (...)

17Few morphological characteristics differentiate the Beng dialect described by Tauxier from MOB. We note in particular that personal pronouns are in some respects more archaic in BG than in MOB. BG maintained at least traces of inclusivity distinction in 1st person plural3, as testified by alternate BG translations kasisi and asisi for the French ‘nous’ (cf. Mwan 1st person plural inclusive pronoun kɔ̀ɔ́, exclusive ; the final element sisi can be tentatively related to MOB sēsē ‘all’). The 3rd person plural pronoun, which features an innovative initial nasal in MOB (see 9.1 on the spread of plural ŋ in Beng), in BG preserves the original /w/4, compare BG Ouomisipo? ‘Comment t’appelles-tu?’ and BG ouonion go parana ‘leur chien’ with their MOB counterparts:
















‘What is your name?’ (literally ‘What do they call you?’)

  • 5 In MOB like in GB the second (non-subject) pronoun accompanies the noun phrase expressed by the 3rd(...)




nion go [ɲa̰ŋo < ɲa̰ŋ + wo]











‘their dog’ (literally ‘their possessor of fleas’).

18BG is also relatively conservative in introducing the numeral formative -N only in sôn [soŋ] ‘five’; see discussion of BK and examples in 3.2.1.

19One morphological innovation of BG is the plural marker. The original marker nṵ (MOB nṵ̀, see 9.1 for the discussion of number marking in MOB) is only preserved after the final /N/; after a vowel a novel plural marker ŋe is used:

Table 1.2. Plural forms of nouns in Beng of Groumania neighborhood




BG plural form

Stems ending in a vowel


kpláŋ́ ná̰


pilanangué = /pilana + ŋe/




soronngué = /sɔlɔ + ŋe/




ménenngué = /mɛ̰l̰ɛ̰ + ŋe/




ménenngué = /mɛ̰l̰ɛ̰ + ŋe/




irigué = /yili + ŋe/



Agnigné = /aɲḭ + ŋe/



Baoulenngué, baoulégné = /baule + ŋe/




Sorongué = /sɔlɔ + ŋe/

Stems ending in –N




n’zinoungué = /ⁿzḭŋ + nṵ + ŋe/




G’Beïgnnou // gbénou = /bɛŋ + nṵ/

20To summarize, this section establishes several features that characterize the Beng dialects documented in the earliest literature in comparison to the well-studied Modern Ouassadougou Beng. The dialect of Kamélinsou has an archaic form of numeral ‘three’, and shares two innovations with MOB, syncope and wider spread of -N in numerals. The dialect of Groumania neighbourhood has several archaic features such as the absense of syncope, moderate use of -N in numerals, and the structure of the pronominal system. Tauxier’s data also allow us to establish some innovations unique to BG, both phonological and grammatical. MOB in turn shows more structural innovations than BG, corresponding to its central geographical position.

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1 This is intended as a purely geographical label (Ouassadougou is the center of the area) distinguishing this variety of Beng from the dialects of Djonkro, Kamalesso, and Lendoukro.

2 [f] in this numeral is the result of lenition of intervocalic /p/; unfortunately there are no other examples that would support such a phonological process in BG, except for the similar but non-identical development in bouala ‘twenty’, cf. MOB būwlā ‘twenty’ (< bū ‘ten’ + *plā ‘two’).

3 MOB, unlike most South Mande languages, uses a uniform 1st person plural pronoun a̰ŋ regardless of clusivity. Besides Beng, clusivity distinction has also been lost in Gban (Vydrin 2006) and in the newly recognized South Mande language Goo (Vydrine 2013).

4 Compare 3rd person plural pronouns in three related languages: Mwan wóō, Gouro wò, Gban ɔ́ (with loss of /w/); Vydrin (2006) reconstructs 3pl stem *wo for Proto-South Mande.

5 In MOB like in GB the second (non-subject) pronoun accompanies the noun phrase expressed by the 3rd person plural emphatic pronoun.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Map 2.
Légende Beng and closely related Gbin, now extinct, according to Delafosse (1904).
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
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Denis Paperno, « The history of Beng studies », Mandenkan, 51 | 2014, 12-18.

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Denis Paperno, « The history of Beng studies », Mandenkan [En ligne], 51 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 18 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/mandenkan.556

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Denis Paperno

University of Trento, Italy

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