What is it about?

How did the little oasis of Tabelbala in western Algeria end up speaking a language unlike anything within 1600 km? Why is Korandje, their language, so much like one spoken faraway in central Niger, and why does it seem to have Mauritanian elements? This article explores word origins, plant names, grave inscriptions, saints' lives, travellers' tales, and medieval economics to reach an unexpected answer: that Tabelbala was a planned settlement, founded some 800 years ago by groups based in the Sahel to allow copper mining and to make travel easier.

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Why is it important?

This finding explains the existence and location of Korandje, and reconstructs an otherwise lost chapter of Saharan history. It suggests that medieval West Africans were actively involved in building the infrastructure for global trade, further north than might have been expected. At the same time, it provides an unusual perspective on historical linguistics: to understand language spread, sometimes you need to think in terms of economics, not Völkerwanderung.


Throughout my fieldwork in Tabelbala, I found people wanting to discuss the oasis' history. Much of what I heard or read seemed difficult to reconcile with the linguistic data I was recording, which revealed connections rather different from those emphasised by the speakers or by colonial researchers. It took years of analysis to work out how these different sources of evidence could be brought together in a way that fit with the wider history of the Sahara. Writing this article was a particular pleasure in that it allowed me to synthesise data from many different disciplines.

Dr Lameen Souag

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Explaining Korandjé, Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, October 2015, John Benjamins,
DOI: 10.1075/jpcl.30.2.01sou.
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