Manding is the largest group within the Mande language family in number of speakers and in territory.

Manding languages map

In fact, the name of the Mande family originates from the word Manding (mànden). It seems to have been created by Sigismund Koelle who incorrectly split the word Màndenka 'inhabitant of the Manden country' (he regarded the -n as a part of a suffix, while, in fact, it belongs to the root, and the suffix is -ka). Finally, the language family name originating from the erroneous morphological analysis has been established, while the correct name (Manden, or Manding) has been reserved for one of the branches of the family. Unfortunately, the similarity of two names leads to numerous cases of confusion; even specialists often fail to use correctly names of the languages and ethnic groups of the Mande family (in this regard, see: Valentin Vydrine. Who Speaks "Mandekan"? A Note on Current Use of Mande Ethnonyms and Linguonyms. MANSA Newsletter, 29, Winter 1995-96, pp. 6-9. 2nd publication: A note on Manding and Mande ethnonyms and linguonyms. In: Jan Jansen (ed.). Mande – Manding: Background reading for ethnographic research in the region south of Bamako, (Mali). Leiden: Leiden University, 2004, pp. 190-197).

Manding is a large continuum of dialects with a number of centres of crystallization of literary norms (some of them are based on the varieties spoken in the capitals of states, some others are not), and a plethora of intermediary variants that make it very difficult to trace boundaries between the languages. Some local varieties are so different from the interdialectal koines that, supported by a strong ethnic identity of their speakers, they have good chances to grow into separate languages. These are, first of all, Khassonka, Mau, and may be Marka-Dafing. At the same time, there is a strong pan-Manding trend whose supporters regard all the varieties of Manding as dialects of one single language. The main driving force of this idea is the ethnocultural movenent N'ko.

N'Ko, ajami, Roman script

The movement of N'ko has been established on the basis of an original alphabet elaborated by Suleyman Kante in 1949. Sulayman Kante was a son of a Muslim cleric from a Guinean city of Kankan. Suleyman Kante was endowed with a fine linguistic intuition, and his writing system, being a result of many years of research, represents correctly all the relevant features of the phonology of Maninka, including tones.

Suleyman Kante elaborated a Maninka writing system, but he didn't stop there. Together with his disciples, he created a Maninka literature and a literary Maninka language. So, there is a rich litterature in N'ko; there are numerous religious publications (mainly Muslim, but also Christian), exercise books, works on history and linguistics; there are also books of prose and poetry. A second edition of the big monolingual Maninka (N'ko) dictionary appeared in 2003. A Maninka-Arabic dictionary also exists, and several periodicals in N'ko appear in Guinea and Mali... The N'ko script is an object of pride of Maninka and other Manding people, and today it is a strong factor of their ethnic and cultural identity. A very positive factor is that the N'ko movement is based on humanitarian ideas of its founder.

At the beginning, the N'ko movement appeared among the Maninka of Guinea and in the Guinean diaspora of Côte d'Ivoire. Today, N'ko has many adherents in other countries of West Africa (mainly in Mali, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire), but also in the Manding diaspora in Egypt, in France, in the US, in Nigeria, in Gabon... The popularity of N'ko is growing among Bamana and Jula, and this factor reinforces the Pan-Manding trend of the N'ko movement.

The history of creation of the N'ko alphabet and the development of the N'ko movement has been well described; the information can be found on the following sites:

For a review of the N'ko monolingual dictionary, from the viewpoint of the modern lexicography, see the following publication:

Vydrine, Valentin. Sur le "Dictionnaire Nko". Mandenkan 31, 1996, pp. 59-75.

A correspondence between Suleyman Kante and Maurice Houis, one of the leading specialists in Mande languages in France of 1960-1970s, has been published:

Lettres de Souleymane Kanté et Maurice Houis, publiés par Valentin Vydrine. Mande Studies 3, 2001, pp. 133-146.

It gives an idea of the itineraries of the linguistic thought of the creator of the Manding literary language.

In the same issue of Mande Studies, among other texts dealing with different aspects of the N'ko movement, there is a paper on the historical and philosophical views of Suleyman Kante:


Valentin Vydrine. Soulemane Kantè, un philosophe-innovateur traditionaliste maninka, vu à travers ses écrits en nko. Mande Studies, 3, 2001, pp. 99-131.

Артём Давыдов

An analysis of linguistic works by Suleyman Kante and his disciples and of their vision of the language, in comparison with the "western" tradition of Manding language studies, has been done by Artem Davydov. A preliminary version of his study was presented at the 2nd Conference on Mande languages:

Artem Davydov. On Souleyman Kante's "Nko Grammar". In: Mande languages and linguistics. 2nd International Conference, St. Petersburg (Russia), September 15-17, 2008. Abstracts and Papers. Edited by Valentin Vydrin. St. Petersburg, 2008, pp. 53-60.

A more advanced version of Artem's paper was presented as his M.A. Thesis (so far, available only in Russian):

А.В. Давыдов. Грамматическая традиция манинка в трудах Сулеймана Канте. Магистерская диссертация. СПбГУ, 2009. [Artem Davydov. Maninka grammatical tradition in Suleyman Kante's works. St. Petersbourg, 2009.]

Another topic is treated by him in a separate paper:

А.В. Давыдов. Графика, фонетика и фонология языков манден в трудах лингвистической школы нко // Африканский Сборник - 2009. СПб: МАЭ РАН, 2009. С. 289-295. [Artem Davydov. Script, phonetics and phonology of Manding languages in the works of the linguistic school of Nko. African Collection - 2009. St. Petersburg: Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, 2009, pp. 289-295.]

In the meantime, Manding people use other writing systems as well. In the pre-colonial times, and even during the colonial era, Arabographic tradition, or ajami, was present. Ajami was most popular among the Mandinka of Senegambia where it is still current, along with Roman writing.

European and American scholars did not pay much attention to the Manding ajami. However, beginning in the 1990s, their interest started to awaken. In this regard, the following publication can be mentioned:

Vydrine, Valentin. Sur l'écriture mandingue et mandé en caractères arabes (mandinka, bambara, soussou, mogofin). Mandenkan 33, Printemps 1998, 87 p.

More recently, a very first academic publication of an Arabographic manuscript in Mandinka took place, with philological and ethnohistorical comments:

Giesing, Cornelia & Vydrine, Valentin. Ta:rikh Mandinka de Bijini (Guinée-Bissau) : La mémoire des Mandinka et Sooninkee du Kaabu. Leiden – Boston : Brill, 2007, XXIV + 398 p.

Naturally, along with N'ko and ajami, Roman script also exists for all the Manding language (unfortunately, without tonal notation). This writing system is currently used in official and NGO literacy programs, and in Mali, in the school teaching in Bamana.

Reconstruction of the Proto-Manding language

The French colonial school of Manding studies regarded Manding language varieties as dialects of one single language (which is in line with the stance of the disciples of Suleyman Kante). Therefore, at that time there was no idea of reconstruction of the proto-language of this branch. However, a more systematic and detailed study of the varieties has shown that establishment of regular phonemic correspondences is not evident at all, and a reconstruction of the proto-forms at the Proto-Manding level is not an easy task, contrary to the prior belief.

A first serious attempt to establish regular phonological correspondences between Manding varieties seems to be Gérard Galtier's dissertation:

Galtier, Gérard. Problèmes dialectologiques et phonographématiques des parlers mandingues. Thèse de Doctorat 3ème Cycle, Universitée Paris VII. Paris, 1980. 449 p.

It should be specified that this author's task was not really a reconstruction of the proto-phonemes; he rather tried to establish a "diasysteme", a kind of prototype for a standard norm suitable for all the Manding varieties.

Practically simultaneously to Gérard Galtier's dissertation, Denis Creissels published a paper which marked a considerable progress toward the Proto-Manding reconstruction:

Creissels, Denis. Etude comparative de consonantisme de deux parlers manding (Mandinka - Bambara). Bull. de phonétique de Grenoble, vol. VIII, 1979, pp. 99-155.

A couple of years later, an article written by Russian authors was published (unfortunately, the authors were unaware of Creissels' paper until the end of 1980s):

Выдрин В.Ф., Поздняков К.И. Реконструкция фонетической системы праманден // Африканское историческое языкознание. Москва: " Наука ", 1987. pp. 294-356.

The same paper was published also in German, in two parts:

Pozdnâkov, K.; Vydrin, V. Die Entwicklung des phonetischen Systems des Prämanden: Nasalität und Entwicklung des phonologischen Systems der Manden-Sprachen. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung (Berlin), Bd. 39, H. 5, 1986, SS. 549-561.

Pozdnâkov, K.; Vydrin, V. Rekonstruktion des phonologischen Systems des Prämanden. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung (Berlin), Bd. 41, H. 3, 1988. SS. 353-371.

Among other publications dealing specially with the Proto-Manding reconstruction, a more recent article by Denis Creissels shoud be mentioned:

Creissels, Denis. L'occlusive vélaire sonore g et les labio-vélaires (w, gw, kw, gb, kp) en mandingue. In Mandenkan nº 39 : 2004 - p. 1-22.

Proto-Manding reconstruction is handled in broader contexts in the following publications:

Kastenholz, Raimund . Sprachgeschichte im West-Mande. Methoden und Rekonstruktionen. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, 1996, 281 S.

Выдрин В.Ф. К реконструкции фонологического типа и именной морфологии пра-манде // Труды Института лингвистических исследований. Т. 2, Ч. 2. СПб: Наука, 2006. С. 3-246. [Valentin Vydrin. Toward a reconstruction of the phonological type and noun morphology of Proto-Mande. Acta Linguistica Petropolitana. Transactions of the Institute for Linguistic Studies. Vol. 2, part 2. St. Petersbourg: Nauka, 2006, pp. 3-246.]

Manding language studies in the USSR and in Russia


Dmitry Olderogge was the instigator of the Manding language studies in Leningrad. At his initiative, a researcher from the Institute of Ethnography (Academy of Sciences of the USSR), Victoria Tokarskaya, delved into these languages. The most important of her publications was the following one:

Токарская В.П. История изучения языка мандинго. Африканский этнографический сборник - Africana V. М.-Л.: Наука, 1963. С. 164-189. [Victoria Tokarskaya. History of the Manding language studies. Afrikanskiy etnografičeskiy sbornik - Africana, V. Moscow - Leningrad: Nauka, 1963, pp. 164-189.]
Svetlana Tomčina

On Dmitry Olderogge's initiative, in 1961, the teaching of Guinean Maninka began at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies of Leningrad State University. The first lecturer of Maninka was Famory Kourouma. Two years later, Minabé Diarra's coming from Mali made the Bamana teaching possible. After the departure of the African lecturers, both languages were taught by their student Svetlana Tomčina.

She began as a cultural anthropologist, and her first publication dealt with the Bamana kinship terms:

Томчина С.И. Терминология родства ду. Африканский Этнографический Сборник – Africana, IX. Ленинград: Наука, 1972. [Svetlana Tomčina. The kinship terminology of "du". Afrikanskiy etnografičeskij sbornik - Africana, IX. Leningrad: Nauka, 1972.]

However, her PhD Thesis was in linguistics:

С.И.Томчина. Местоимения в языках манде: К вопросу о разграничении имени и глагола. Канд. дисс. Ленинградский государственный университет, 1973, 259 с. [Svetlana Tomčina. Pronouns in Mande languages: To the question of demarcation between the noun and the verb. PhD Thesis. Leningrad State University, 1973, 259 p.]

She had launched a Maninka-Bamana-Russian Dictionary project which was continued, after her death in 1984, by her student Valentin Vydrin. One volume has been published so far:

Выдрин В.Ф., Томчина С.И. Манден-русский словарь (манинка, бамана). Том 1: A-DAD. СПб: Издательство Дмитрий Буланин, 1999, 342 с.

Vydrine, Valentin. Manding-English Dictionary (Maninka, Bamana). Vol. 1: A-DAD. St. Petersburg: Dimitry Bulanin Publishing House, 1999, 315 p.

Today, the teaching of Bamana and Maninka goes on at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies of the St. Petersburg State University; Maninka is being taught in N'ko writing. Mandinka is taught as a supplementary language. Specialists in those languages also work in the Department of Africa at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.