Ɲɛnama vs ɲuman

What is the difference between ɲɛnama and ɲuman for the word ‘good’ (and when do we use them)?

I know you can say: Fini ɲuman bɛ a kan na - He has good or nice clothes on him.
Also: May you return well - Allah ka segin n’i ɲuman ye
And for ɲɛnama: Nin tɛ mɔgɔ ɲɛnama ye - This is not a good person

But what is the difference? Can they be used interchangeably?

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I ni ce, Malik! Good question!

While both words can be translated as ‘good’ contextually in English, it might be helpful to analyze the etymology of ɲuman and ɲɛnama to see how they are technically distinct in Manding.

Ɲuman is derived from the qualitative verb ɲi ; as in…

Adama ka ɲi
‘Adama is good’

As an adjective, we would expect the form ɲiman, but commonly in Bambara and Jula today, there’s been a slight change to the first vowel so we know hear (and see in writing) ɲuman.

Ɲɛnama, on the other hand, is an adjective in its own right, which in the strictest sense means ‘living; alive’, but its extended meaning is ‘lively; animated’ and eventually ‘good’. My feeling is that this meaning of ‘good’ for ɲɛnama is a bit secondary to the original sense of the word.

In many cases as adjectives, the two words can be used almost interchangeably. For instance…

Mobili ɲuman don
‘That’s a good car’


Mobili ɲɛnama don
‘That’s a good car’

In these two cases, I’d say that there’s still a slightly different feel to sentences; a bit like in English if we said, “That’s a great car” and “That’s an awesome car”—They mean the same thing in essence, but the words great and awesome have different histories, usages and associations, so it could give the sentences a slightly different feel.

In other cases though, ɲuman and ɲɛnama can’t really be considered interchangeable. For instance, if I heard Ala ka segin n’i ɲɛnama ye, than I would interpret it as potentially meaning something like ‘May God have you return alive’. Curious if others would do the same!