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The historic extent of the Bambara people.
Bambara, also known as Bamanankan in the language itself (literally "the language of the Bamanan"), is a language spoken in Malimarker by as many as six million people (including second language users). The differences between Bambara and Dioula are minimal. Dioula is a language spoken or understood by a lesser number of people in Burkina Fasomarker, Côte d'Ivoiremarker, and The Gambiamarker. The Bambara language is the mother tongue of the Bambara ethnic group, numbering about 2,700,000 people, but serves also as a lingua franca in Mali (it is estimated that about 80% of the population speaks it as a first or second language). It is an SOV language and has two tone.


Bambara belongs to a group of closely-related languages called Manding, within the larger Mandé group.

Orthography and literature

It uses seven vowels a, e, , i, o, and u (the letters approximate their equivalents).Writing was introduced during the French occupation and literacy is a major issue especially in rural areas. Although written literature is only slowly evolving (due to the predominance of French as the "language of the educated"), there exists a wealth of oral literature, which is often tales of kings and heroes. This oral literature is mainly tradited by the "Griots" (Jɛliw in Bambara) who are a mixture of storyteller, praise singers and human history books who have studied the trade of singing and reciting for many years. Many of their songs are very old and are said to date back to the old kingdom of Mali.

Geographic Distribution

Bambara is a national language of Mali, and also the most widely understood language in Mali.


The main dialect is standard Bamara, which has significant influence from Western Maninkakan. Bambara has many local dialects. Some dialect variants: Somono, Segou, San, Beledugu, Ganadugu, Wasulu and Sikasso.

Jula (Dioula)

Jula is a dialect in the Manding linguistic continuum and is closely related to Bambara. It is a widely-used trade language in West Africa.


Since the seventies Bambara has mostly been written in the Latin alphabet, using some additional phonetic characters. The vowels are a, e, (formerly è), i, o, (formerly ò), u; accents can be used to indicate tonality. The former digraph ny is now written or ñ (Senegal). The ambiguous digraph "ng" represented both the sound of English "finger" and the of "singer". The 1966 Bamako spelling conventions render the latter sound as "ŋ".

The N'Ko alphabet is a script devised by Solomana Kante in 1949 as a writing system for the Mande languages of West Africa; N’Ko means 'I say' in all Mande languages. Kante created N’Ko in response to what he felt were beliefs that Africans were a "cultureless people" since prior to this time there had been no indigenous African writing system for his language. N'ko came first into use in Kankan, Guinea as a Maninka alphabet and disseminated from there into other Mande-speaking parts of West Africa. N'ko and the Arabic script are still in use for Bambara, although the Latin alphabet is much more common.


Bambara belongs to a group of closely-related languages called Manding (related to Mandinka, Mande language group). It is an SOV language and has two (mid/standard and high) tone; e.g. sa 'death' vs. 'snake.' The typical argument structure of the language consists of a subject, followed by an aspectival auxiliary, followed by the direct object, and finally a transitive verb. Naturally, if the verb is intransitive, the direct object is not found.

Bambara does not inflect for gender. Gender for a noun can be specified by adding a suffix, -ce or -ke for male and -muso for female. The plural is formed by attaching -w to words.

Bambara uses postpositions in much the same manner as languages like English and French use prepositions. These postpositions are found after the verb and are used to express direction, location, and in some cases, possession.

Loan words

In urban areas, many Bambara conjunctions have been replaced in everyday use by French borrowings that often mark code-switches. The Bamakomarker dialect makes use of sentences like: N taara Kita mais il n'y avait personne là-bas. : I went to Kita [Bambara] but there was no one there [French]. The sentence in Bambara alone would be N taara Kita nka m g si tunt yen. The French proposition "est-ce-que" is also used in Bambara, however it is pronounced more slowly and as three syllables; "ess uh kuh".

Bambara uses many French loan words. For example, some people might say:I ka kulosi ye jauni ye: "Your skirt is yellow" (using a derivation of the French word for yellow, jaune.)

However, one could also say:I ka kulosi ye neremuguman ye, also meaning "your skirt is yellow." The original Bambara word for yellow comes from "neremugu," mugu being flour made from nere, a seed from a long seed pod. Neremugu is often used in sauces in Southern Mali.

Most French loan words are suffixed with the sound 'i'; this is particularly common when using French words which have a meaning not traditionally found in Mali. For example, the Bambara word for snow is niegei, based on the French word for snow neige. As there has never been snow in Mali, there has not been a traditional meaning for the word and thus no unique word in Bambara to describe it.


N b bamanankan m n d ni-d ni
I understand/hear a little bit of Bambara (lit: I aux positive Bambara hear small-small)

I t na dumuni ke wa?
Aren't you going to eat? (lit: you aux negative future eating do question particle)


Malian artists such as Oumou Sangaré, Rokia Traoré, Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita, Habib Koité, and the blind couple Amadou & Mariam often sing in Bambara.Alpha Blondy often sings in Dioula, as does Aïda of the band, Métisse.Lyrics in Bambara occur on Stevie Wonder's soundtrack Journey through the Secret Life of Plants.Tiken Jah Fakoly (reggae) often sings in Dioula and French.



  • Bird, Charles & Kanté, Mamadou (1977) Bambara-English, English-Bambara student lexicon. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Linguistics Club.
  • Kastenholz, Raimund (1998) Grundkurs Bambara (Manding) mit Texten (second revised edition) (Afrikawissenschaftliche Lehrbücher Vol. 1). Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Konaré, Demba (1998) Je parle bien bamanan. Bamako: Jamana.
  • Touré, Mohamed & Leucht, Melanie (1996) Bambara Lesebuch: Originaltexte mit deutscher und französischer Übersetzung = Chrestomathie Bambara: textes originaux Bambara avec traductions allemandes et françaises (with illustrations by Melanie Leucht) (Afrikawissenschaftliche Lehrbücher Vol. 11) . Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.

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