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Hair, P. E. H. (Paul Edward Hedley); Barbot, Jean, 1655-1712 / Barbot's West African vocabularies of c. 1680

Barbot's West African vocabularies,   pp. 1-15

Page 4

introduced a further measure of phnoetic and semantic confusion. However,
is possible that by 'Portuguese' Barbot was referring to a simplified pidgin
language thought to have been often spoken at the time in Gold Coast (and
taking its name from the earlier Portuguese presence), whose Romance content
derived from standard Portuguese may have enabled it to be grasped with fair
ease by a Frenchman (and perhaps particularly one who also claimed to have
some knowledge of Italian). It is plausible that verbal communication was
helped out by sign language - as was normally the case in Afro-European
contacts. Whatever the mode of collection, and although there appear to be
occasional errors of meaning in the African terms, study of the vocabulary
does not give the impression that its collection entailed regular and gross
The other three vocabularies must have been collected on the 1681-2
voyage - the journal of which is not extant - although Barbot never actually
specifies this or refers to the mode of collection. But since on his first
voyage he did not visit either Senegal or any part of the coast where Ewe
spoken, there can be little doubt that these vocabularies were collected
than the Gold Coast vocabulary. Almost certainly the Wolof and Fula
vocabularies were collected when Barbot visited the French base of Gor~e
Island (off modern Dakar), over a period of some weeks, in December 1681;
the Ewe vocabulary when he visited the port of Whydah, very briefly, in April
1682 - he terms the language that of "Juda and Ardres", i.e. Whydah
Allada, but never visited the latter place. Barbot was in contact with French
officers, certainly at Goree, as he related, and probably at Whydah, as he
failed to relate; and it is very likely that he obtained the vocabularies
through these contacts. Since at a slightly later date the French trading
company in Senegal appears to have arranged for its officers to collect a
series of vocabularies of local African languages, it is possible that already
its officers were showing interest in the exercise of vocabulary collection.'
Whereas Barbot's statement about the Gold Coast vocabulary implies that
he collected it orally, that is, he wrote down terms spoken to him by an
informant, it is conceivable that the other vocabularies were not collected
this way but were passed to him in writing, having been earlier collected
orally by a French officer or French officers. The orthography of the African
terms in all the vocabularies indicates that they were written down by someone
used to writing contemporary French - and also that they had been heard by
a French speaker's ear, although this is more difficult to prove - but this
does not of course distinguish between Barbot and his compatriots.' It can
argued that since Barbot went to the trouble of obtaining a vocabulary orally
from an African informant in 1679 he was capable of setting himself to do
again in 1681 and 1682. Furthermore, the later vocabularies undoubtedly follow
the Gold Coast vocabulary in the selection of terms to be listed, therefore
9 For the French Company vocabularies, see note 7 above.
" Barbot wisely drew attention in his English account to the French
orthography, hence
'pronunciation', thus: ".. . only I fear the pronunciation of the English
alphabet may cause some
difficulty to render the pronunciation as intelligible to the natives of
those different
countries, as it is when spoken by a Frenchman, according to whose pronunciation
I writ this
vocabulary." But he was of course mistaken, through lack of linguistic
knowledge, in supposing
that French 'pronunciation' was an adequate representation of African phonetics.



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