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“Making Transcripts Public in Manding”


By Coleman Donaldson

Linguistic anthropologists pass hours transcribing and translating recordings of public and not-so-public figures from across the world. We do so, in part,because we are committed to understanding language as a tool that allows human beings to continually make and remake the world in which we live. But can our transcripts and recordings playa larger role? Can they serve research interlocutors, students, or a larger public interested or invested in the non-Western, Indigenous, or minoritized languages that we so often investigate? This past December, I launched a new media and research project, Na baro kè (‘Come chat’) that attempts to open my work to such audiences.

My dissertation-turned-book manuscript project focuses on a grassroots community of West African language activists who labor to promote a non-Latin-, non-Arabic-based script known as N’ko, which serves primarily, but not exclusively, to write the important West African trade language of Manding. A language-dialect continuum stretching from Senegal to Burkina Faso, Manding is more commonly known by local names such as Bambara, Jula, Malinké, or Mandinka.


As a long-time student of the language (which I originally learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso), but also as white Western researcher, I was welcomed into their classrooms, radio stations and bookshops. Throughout years of study, collaboration, and friendship together, I always strove to be an ally of their cause of promoting African languages. Following my PhD and living outside of West Africa, I struggled to see my scholarly publications as enough of a contribution. This past December, in part in response to these concerns, I launched Na baro kè.


The Good and Bad of Cellphones – Na baro kè 6


Inspired by the educational program Easy German, a typical 10-minute episode of Na baro kè consists of roughly ten semi-structured interviews around a single topic—greetings, small change, the term “sabali”(of Amadou & Mariam musical fame)—with everyday people that I encounter street-side in West Africa. The interviews are then edited together with an intro and outro monologue that I record before and after the conversations. The episodes are transcribed using a multi-tiered subtitle format: (in descending order from the top): 1) normative Manding in N’ko script; 2) Manding in Latin script; 3) an English translation; and 4) a French translation. While I ultimately began Na baro kè with Manding learners and speakers in mind, I see the program serving three broader audiences: students, native speakers, and researchers.

First, the videos are a resource for students. Clips of people speaking a language are important for anyone looking to improve their listening skills or to be introduced to vocabulary, idioms and discourse markers that will make them more proficient speakers. The critical contribution for learners is the multi-tiered subtitle. When things are hard to interpret or a new expression pops up, students are free, as need be, to appeal to the free translation tier. One cannot, of course, read both the transcript and translation at the same time. In practice though one can generally hop between the lines and follow the video’s general arch.

Second, the videos appeal to language activists as well as native speakers in general. For instance, the N’ko script is a nod to both the writing system’s growing user base and the activists at the heart of my doctoral research. More generally, I hope that the videos may spur Manding-speakers into producing their own local language content by demonstrating that there are audiences interested in aspects of life in West Africa not seen in the headlines.

Third, such a project is a future resource for language researchers. In each video, the underlying transcript and translations are produced using the open-source linguistic annotation tool, ELAN, creating a growing, searchable corpus of spoken Manding, across scripts and translations. The returned hits of a search are linked back to the video; one does not simply have a list of sentences to review, but rather a collection of written words that can be clicked on to instantly view the word in context—that is, in the annotated video. While the raw data is not available for others to download yet, I hope to expand the project in the long term so that the data can function as a public-facing corpus, dictionary, and learning resource. The data still remains open in the sense that I can export the audio, video, transcript, or translations and feed them into analysis tools such as Sketch EngineEXMAralda or Praat.



Transcripts are niche. Language and culture, however, are not. Na baro kè has demonstrated to me that they can all be pinned together in a way that allows for linguistic anthropological work to engage and serve a much larger set of people in the world.


From JLA:

The Co-Editors of JLA would like to showcase the following research articles discussing the use of print and digital technologies for heritage language education and revitalization, community outreach and advocacy, and the public archiving of minority language resources and materials. Das analyzes the different curricula of Tamil heritage language education within the context of the linguistic nationalist movement in Quebec; Keller analyzes how the materiality of Gallo dictionaries is embedded in advocacy and art in western France; and Schwartz analyzes forms of agency and ideologies of national difference and loss in Chiwere minority language advocacy.

-Das, Sonia Neela. 2008. “Between Convergence and Divergence: Language Purism in the Montreal Tamil Diasporas.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology18(1): 1-23. Article Link
-Keller, Sandra. 2019. “The Semiotics of Gallo Dictionaries: Indexing Modern Localness and Distributing Epistemic Authority in Minority Language Advocacy.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 29(1): 95-118. Article link
-Schwartz, Saul. 2018. “The Predicament of Language and Culture: Advocacy, Anthropology, and Dormant Language Communities.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology28(3): 332-355. Article link