My November 4, 2018 column titled “Mesu Jamba, a Slur Against Ilorin People, is a Linguistic Fraud,” elicited unexpectedly impassioned and thought-provoking reactions from all across Nigeria. Since most of the reactions were either shared with me privately or expressed on my social media feeds, I have decided to share and respond to them this week for the benefit of the readers of this column.
Although no one has accused me of this, I am the first to admit that by characterizing the current meaning of “mesu jamba” among contemporary Yoruba speakers as a “linguistic fraud,” I am vulnerable to charges of engaging in etymological fallacy, that is, the wrongheaded notion that the contemporary signification of a word or an expression must be consistent with its original meaning. Language doesn’t always work that way. Meanings evolve all the time.
A word or an expression may start out as a positive term and later take on a negative meaning. Linguists call that pejoration. For instance, “vulgar” was a positive word that used to mean “common” or “everyday.” That sense of the word is retained in expressions such as “the vulgar tongue” (that is, the common national language that everyone speaks) and “the vulgar herd” (that is, common people as opposed to aristocrats.) In fact, the first Latin translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek was called the Vulgate, meaning it was written in the common language of the people.
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However, over time, vulgar underwent derogation and came to mean crude, rude, unwashed, lacking refinement, obscene, etc. Similarly, “villain” used to mean a village peasant, but it now only means a wicked or evil person.
Previously negative words can also take on a positive meaning, and that’s called amelioration. The most dramatic example, for me, is the word “nice.” “Nice” initially meant “ignorant”! It comes from the Latin word “nescius,” which means ignorant. (It shares the same roots with “nescient,” which still means ignorant, from the Latin “ne,” which means “not” and the Latin “scire,” which means “to know,” so it literally means not knowledgeable).
When “nice” entered English in the 1300s, it came as a noun and meant a stupid, foolish, ignorant, foolish person. In the 1400s, it began to ameliorate and came to mean a well-dressed, reserved person. By the 1500s, it meant careful and precise. That meaning is still present in the word “nicety.” The word’s current dominant meaning-that is, pleasant, courteous, refined, etc.-started in the 1800s.
Words can also expand their initial significations in ways that are neither derogatory nor ameliorative. For example, “meat” used to mean food in general (that sense is retained in the expression “one man’s meat is another man’s position”). “Apple” used to mean fruits in general (a sense that is retained in “pineapple”–i.e., a fruit with pines). “Girl” used to mean any young person. “Deer” used to mean any animal. “Gay” used to mean happy, etc.
I recognize that my suggestion that “mesu jamba” should be faithful to its original meaning can be interpreted as etymological fallacy. However, my interest in the expression is its etymological and interlingual dynamics–how a Hausa expression got coopted and corrupted in Yoruba in the service of an invidious collective denigration of a people the original expression wasn’t intended to denigrate.
Origin of “Jamba”
Many Yoruba readers with no linguistic background who responded to my column insisted that “jamba” (also known as “ijamba”) is an original Yoruba word and not a loan from the Hausa zamba. A representative sample of this view was expressed by one Isaiah Oladeji who said, “The use of ijamba, shortened to jamba, and used interchangeably, in Yoruba is [too] deep and ancient to be attributed to this borrowed word theory. Here are some sayings in Yoruba: oni jamba, jamba ta fun jamba ra, ijamba moto, ijamba lo se e, etc. For some of these sayings, I would not even find appropriate words in Yoruba to render the same meaning. How could ijamba, or jamba be borrowed? Maybe it is one of those words that appear to have the same intonation and similar meaning in different languages.”
Of course, that is the argument of someone who has little knowledge of how language works. The fact that a word or an expression appears in ancient proverbs and in time-honored idiomatic expressions is no proof that it is original to a language. For instance, many studies by Yoruba scholars have shown the appearance of Arabic words in the Ifa corpus. Ifa is an ancient Yoruba religion, yet its incantations have scores of Arabic words, which indicates that the words were borrowed either during the Trans Saharan Trade from the 8th century to the 18th century or via Malian (and later Hausa and Fulani) Muslim preachers who introduced and popularized Islam in Yoruba land from the 15th century to the nineteenth century.
A native Fulfulde speaker by the name of Zulkarnain Mu’az Galadima informed me that the Fulani, like the Yoruba and the Baatonu, don’t have a “z” sound in their language, but that unlike Yoruba and Baatonu which substitute “z” with “s,” Fulfulde typically substitutes “z” with “j.” “So, words like ‘zamba’ become ‘jamba,’ ‘zamu’ becomes ‘jamu,’ etc.,” he said. Several Fulani people confirmed this.
However, as I pointed out in my May 13, 2012 column titled, “The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words,” a well-respected Italian linguist by the name of Professor Sergio Baldi in his 1995 paper titled “On Arabic Loans in Yoruba” said “ijamba” is actually an Arabic loan. He defined “ijamba” as “bodily harm,” but the meaning of the word I’m familiar with is one that associates it with cunning, cheating, deceit. Dr. Lasisi Olagunju, editor of the Nigerian Tribune on Saturday, agreed that “bodily harm” is an accurate signification of “ijamba” in Yoruba.
The word is derived from the Arabic “danb,” or “danba,” which means “sin, crime.” My theory is that since Hausa people had an earlier contact with Arabs than Yorubas, Hausa people first domesticated “danba” to “zamba” before exporting it to Yoruba.
Nevertheless, since Yoruba always substitutes “z” with “s” when it borrows words from languages with a “z,” it seems unlikely that Yoruba borrowed it directly from Hausa. If it did, the word would have been rendered as “samba,” like it is in the Baatonu language. The phonological transformation of “zamba” to “jamba” in Yoruba probably first occurred by way of Fulfulde in Ilorin since the Fulfulde pronounce “zamba” as “jamba.”
A case of phonological misrecognition
As I pointed out two weeks ago, “Masu jamba” was a phrase used by newly arrived Hausa-speaking Sokoto immigrants in Ilorin in the 1800s to refer to Afonja’s “jama,” as his army was called. Because “masu jama” (literally “people of the jama”) was a derogatory term, it retained this sense when it was borrowed in Yoruba–even when it underwent phonological transformation as “mesu jamba”–and unfairly used on all Ilorin people. It just so happened that “zamba” (“jamba” in Fulfulde) also described the attitude of the “masu jama”–they were mercenaries who tricked people and who resisted converting to Islam. But members of the jama were not initially called “masu zamba.” Zamba is a later addition, which emerged out of a phonological misrecognition of jama, but it probably stuck because it also describes Afonja’s jama.
One Abdulganiy Akinremi said, “since ‘masu’ is the plural of ‘mai’ both meaning person and people respectively, then considering the fact that jama’a also [means] people (group) in Arabic, would it not be counterintuitive for the people, even as at then, to have referred to the Afonja army as ‘masu jama’a’?” He argued that the phrase would mean, “people people”.
Well, that’s mixing Arabic grammar with Hausa grammar, but inter-lingual dynamics don’t work that way. The grammar and syntax of unrelated languages can’t always be combined. For instance, we say “Sahara desert” in English even though “sahara” means desert in Arabic, which means we are saying “desert desert.” We say “lake chad” even though “chad” means lake in Kanuri. We say “Aso Rock” even though “aso” means rock in Gbagyi. So there is no reason why there shouldn’t be “masu jama’a.”
But it’s even more complicated than that. “Masu” is merely a relater to a plural noun. It doesn’t mean “people.” The word for people in Hausa is “mutane.” Jama was the fixed name for a well-known group in Ilorin in the 1800s. Newly arrived Hausa-speaking immigrants from Sokoto used the relater “mai” to describe members of the group, thus “masu jama.” In fact, if the group had been named “Mutane,” the Hausa immigrants would be justified to call it “Mai Mutane” because “Mutane” would be a proper noun.