A Note on the Spelling of the Drum Called Jembe

Eric Charry

French writing during the French West African colonial period (1895-1960) reflected French pronunciations and spellings of local terms. Just as the French letter j (as in jour) does not have a corresponding English letter, the English letter j (as in jack) has no corresponding French letter. The solution was to use a combination of consonants to do the job. The following combinations have been used in French over the past century to represent the English j sound: di, dj, dy, and gy. The consonant cluster dj, as in djembe, is a French invention used to accommodate a foreign term. One major French dictionary, for example (Atkins et al 1987:227), lists only three words beginning with dj, all of them Arabic. Delefosse’s (1955:xi) monumental colonial era dictionary of Maninka, Bamana, and Jula uses dy and gy for words beginning with the English j sound. Since independence (1958-1960) African governments have been working toward indigenous ways of spelling their local languages in accordance with international standards of phonetic transcription. In dictionaries published by government agencies and linguists alike, the French consonant clusters are no longer to be found. Words beginning with the English j sound are spelled with j. Some examples follow.

Malian Bamana

jenbe (Kone 1995:78)

jènbe (Bailleul 1996:159)

Guinean Maninka

jimbe (Séminaire-atelier 1994:88)

jènbé (Gregoire 1986:171)

The use of n in the above examples indicates that the following consonant (b) should be nasalized. In Mande languages nasals assimilate to the following consonants, so a nasalized b (which is a bilabial) is pronounced with the bilabial nasal m, as in mb. In other words, jenbe is pronounced jembe. The i in the Guinean pronunciation occurs because the short e sound in Malian and some Guinean dialects alternates with a short i sound in other Guinean and Senegambian dialects. Hence, den ("child") in Mali is pronounced din in parts of Guinea and the Senegambia.

While the matter of spelling foreign terms may appear trivial, there are political ramifications involved as well as more straightforward matters of literacy. Fitting African languages into the French sound system resulted in ornate spellings that oftentimes did not reflect their pronunciation. Using a more neutral international phonetic system has simplified spellings and also served to further distance African countries from their colonial past. Non-African scholars have begun to follow this path using the spellings jembe (Charry 1996, Meyer 1997) and jenbe (Polak 1996).


References Cited

Atkins, Beryl T. et al. 1987. The Collins Robert French Dictionary. Second edition. Glasgow & Paris: Williams Collins Sons & Dictionnaires Le Robert.

Bailleul, Charles. 1996. Dictionnaire Bambara-Français. 2nd edition. Bamako: Editions Donniya.

Charry, Eric. 1996. "A Guide to the Jembe," Percussive Notes 34(2):66-72. Available online.

Delafosse, Maurice. 1955. La Langue Mandingue et ses Dialectes (Malinké, Bambara, Dioula). 2nd vol. Dictionnaire Mandingue-Français. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner.

Gregoire, Cl. 1986. Le Maninka de Kankan: Eléments de description phonologique. Tervuren: Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale.

Kone, Kassim Gausu. 1995. Bamanankan Dangegafe. West Newbury, MA: Mother Tongue Editions.

Meyer, Andreas. 1997. Afrikanische Trommeln: West- und Zentralafrika. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde.

Polak, Rainer. 1996. The Mali Tradition: The Art of Jenbe Drumming. Bandaloop, BLP 001. [CD recording]

Séminaire-atelier sur l'orthographe et le lexique. 1994. Séminaire-atelier sur l'orthographe et le lexique de base de la langue Maninka (1994, Conakry, Guinea). Conakry: Institut de Recherche Linguistique Apliquée & Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique.

Last updated 13 February 1999.