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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 3

the   two  Senegal    languages,   Wolof   and   Fula,   were  among   the
vocabularies of these particular languages to be collected and certainly
earliest to appear in print - even although they did not in fact appear until
half a century after they were collected.7 For all four languages Barbot's
vocabularies, despite their patent limitations and defects, provide valuable
evidence of linguistic and cultural continuity and change. And, as it happens,
these four languages relate to large ethnicities, important, in terms of
historical development of West Africa, not only in the past but also today.
Collecting the vocabularies
The vocabulary of the language Barbot termed 'Gold Coast', i.e.
Akan/Twi, was collected in 1679, as indicated by the journal of the 1678-9
voyage, at an unstated place on the Gold Coast, on an unstated date or
unstated dates, but most probably in February. Before inserting the vocabulary
in his journal Barbot commented briefly thus. "As to their language,
it is
something like Bas-Breton ... Here are a few of the words more commonly used
among them which I obtained from a slave who spoke Portuguese and which I
arranged alphabetically, apart from the numbers and a few other forms of
speech which I have put one after the other, for quicker consultation."'
is all that Barbot tells us about the mode of collection. He obtained the
vocabulary from an African informant, presumably a speaker of Akan/Twi, but
we are not told whether the informant was interviewed ashore, or aboard the
ship, or even, if he was a slave for export, during the Atlantic passage.
reference to his speaking Portuguese is intriguing. Barbot's own command
that language seems to have been meagre and this may indicate that a third
party translated for Barbot, a procedure which would most likely have
and Adam Jones, Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of
Guinea (1602) (Oxford,
1987), 246-59, which identifies the terms. For the Akan vocabulary of Wilhelm
Johann Muller,
published in 1673, see Adam Jones, German sources for West African history
1599-1699 (Wiesbaden,
1983), 269-328, which identifies the terms and relates some to terms in Barbot's
For material in Ewe, see Hair, 'Ethnolinguistic continuity', 257; 'Ethnolinguistic
inventory ...
Lower Guinea coast', 230 and note 57.
7 Only odd words of Wolof and Fula were collected, or at least were written
down in extant
sources, manuscript or printed. See Hair, 'Ethnolinguistic inventory ...
Upper Guinea coast', 34-
7. Substantial vocabularies of both languages were however collected by agents
of a French
Comnpagnie Roya7e, at an uncertain date c.1700, perhaps even in the later
1680s or 1690s (but
probably not earlier because the set of nearly a dozen vocabularies collected
for the company
included vocabularies of several languages located south of River Gambia
in a region only
penetrated by the French after 1685). The Company vocabularies of Wolof and
Fula are therefore
later than 1682, the date of Barbot's collection. In content Barbot's vocabularies
bear little
resemblance to the Company's vocabularies. Barbot's vocabularies also preceded
the Company's in
print, the Company's vocabularies remaining in manuscript until the nineteenth
century ([M.A.P.
d'Avezac de Castera-Maya], 'Dictionnaire de languages franpoise et negres
dont se sert dans le
concession de la Compagnie Royale du Senegal', Nfmoires de 7a SociWte Etho7ogique
de Paris 2
(1845), 205-67). In general, these vocabularies even today have not been
adequately described or
studied. But in the course of studying Barbot's Wolof vocabulary, M. Charles
Becker of the Centre
Nationale de Recherche Scientifique in Senegal, compared Barbot's terms with
those of the Company
vocabulary, and he reported (in a personal communication of 1986) that the
latter was more
reliable in its phonetic and semantic representation of Wolof terms.
' 1679, 340.



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