What is the difference between the Mandinka and Bambara?

Hello I’m new to this forum and stumbled across it whilst researching Mande history, which I have taken great interest in recently, my question is mostly to do with the ethnic groups but I would also be interested to learn the linguistic relationship between Mandingo and Bambara. I am aware that Mandingo has many varieties and many names like Maninka, mandinka, manding, malinke, etc. I am also aware that different varieties of the languages are sometime not quite mutually intelligible although obviously related (correct me if I’m wrong on anything I say). To my knowledge all of the Mandingo peoples have a shared identity in their ethnic group and see themselves as one people, I would like to know how the Bambara and Dyula fit in here. I have heard Dyula is the word for merchant and is just a merchant class of the Mandingos who developed a distinct identity over time, however I don’t know why the Bambara’s became distinct from the other Mandingo people, I have heard they were a royal caste who later formed the bamana empire but what was the reason for this split and do they still consider themselves as the same people as the other Manding peoples? Your answers would be much appreciated and I am glad to be a part of the forum and excited learn more in the future, thank you.

Hi @MrEmz ! Welcome to Forum and thanks for posting.

Your post (which seems to have a few questions in it) seems to primarily about ethnic identity and not language (the latter is generally the focus of the Forum, though of course the two overlap sometimes).

One thing that jumps out to me in your post is your use of the term “Mandingo”. This term can be used in different ways. Sometimes it is used in the same way that I would use the term “Manding” (that is, a catch-all that subsumes Bambara, Jula, Maninka and Mandinka). In other cases, it is used to refer specifically to the Mandinka language variety and/or the ethnic identity of “Mandinka”.

From a language perspective, Manding is a language-dialect continuum, here’s what I say on the “General Resources” page (I hope that it makes clear how Mandinka as one of the four major varieties fits in and is distinct from Bambara/Jula and Maninka [the short answer is that it is a “Western” variety with only 5 vowels instead of 7):

From a linguistic perspective, the languages commonly known as Bambara, Jula or Malinké (Bamanankan, Julakan and Maninkakan respectively) are actually the Eastern varieties within a larger language-dialect continuum known as Manding that spans from Senegal to Burkina Faso in West Africa.

While speakers of Manding varieties typically do not refer to it as such, the label is useful in the sense that Bambara, Jula and Malinké remain mutually intelligible and are frequently recognized by native speakers as being different varieties of but one language. The word ‘Manding’ is a Western adaptation of the word Màndén, the name of both a place and former West African polity now commonly referred to as the Mali Empire that at its apogee between the 13th and 15th centuries encompassed much of West Africa and in particular the modern day states of Guinea and Mali.

Given the historical weight of the Mali empire and the spread of the Manding-speaking Muslim trade and religious network, it is of little surprise that major Manding varieties of today (i.e., Malinké in Guinea, Bambara in Mali, and Jula in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso), are widely used in their respective zones as trade languages between different peoples and language groups.

The Manding language-dialect continuum also encompasses the Western varieties frequently referred to as Mandinka or Mandingo and spoken primarily in the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and in smaller enclaves in Sierra Leone and Liberia. While clearly related to the Eastern varieties, they are frequently not mutually intelligible with them.

As for the specific history of Mandinka as a language variety (and therefore in part as an ethnic identity), you might this explanation from Creissels’ “A Sketch of Mandinka” helpful:

The area where Mandinka is spoken largely coincides with the territory of the pre-colonial state of Kaabu, which according to oral traditions originated as a province of the Manding empire conquered by a general of Sunjata Keita called Tiramakhan Traore, and after the decline of the Manding empire became an independent kingdom. Mandinka hegemony in the region lasted until 1867, when the Kaabu capital (Kansala) was taken by the armies of the Fula kingdom of Fuuta Jallon.

As for the specific history of Bambara, you might find this quote from Vydrin’s “Cours de grammaire bambara” helpful (it’s my translation):

The Bambara language was formed on the basis of the eastern Manding dialects thanks to the precolonial kingdom of Segou (18th-19th century) and to a lesser extent Kaarta. The name of the ethic group is bamana or bamanan et that of the language is bamanankan.

He goes on:

In fact, the term bambara (or bamana) is polysemous. It can express two notions:

  • the ethnic group that speaks the language under discussion as a first language
  • the pagan (non-Muslim). This latter meaning is the needless to say the original. It is very common in the south of Mali and in the northeast of Côte d’Ivoire where bamanan (“Bambaras”) are non-Muslim Senufos unlike the jula (“Dyulas”) who are Muslim and Manding-speaking)

He concludes:

There is no doubt that bamanan comes from banbara (“barbarian, pagan, non-Muslim”) which likely comes from the Greek word barabaros (“barbarian, non-Greek”)

I hope that’s helpful!

Hi Coleman,

Just wanted to pitch in here as well regarding this last quote… I beg to disagree with the origin, or at least that “there is no doubt” about it.

As you know Ban means to refuse and Maa has the meaning of deity, god, or lord. A common interpretation of Bamanan, with the meaning of non-Muslim, that I have heard is “the one who has refused God”.


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I ni ce, Oumar!

Thanks for adding another possible/possible etymology :slight_smile: Yes, I myself have previously reported this or at least a similar etymology around the idea of refusing God/Islam. It’s in Figure 2 on page 8 of my dissertation:

Vydrin also mentions this possible etymology but for reasons that he doesn’t go into, he considers it a popular/folk etymology that doesn’t hold water compared to the one that he proposes.

Conveniently, both etymologies both point to the idea of bamanan historically being a non-Muslim population of Manding speakers so at least they aren’t in conflict socio-historically! :wink: