Sunday, 28 April 2019

Mali Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. Continuing an alphabetical tour of the world and a look at the largest of Mali's cities.


Bamako is held to be the fastest-growing city in Africa and sixth in the entire world. A far cry then from its origins in the Bambara word meaning 'crocodile tail'.


Segou is disputed, some say it comes from Sikouro 'to the foot of a shea butter tree'; others from the supposed founder, one Cheikou; or perhaps named by fisherman, although we have no notion as to why they came up with this name should this be true.


Kayes is named for its location, for karre is a Soninke word telling us this is 'a humid place which floods in the rainy season'.


Mopti comes from the Fulfulde word for 'a gathering', a reference to its importance as a market town.

Bla is an excellent name for the place which began as an outpost for the Bamana Empire. The name comes from Bamana ka bila 'to leave behind' and refers to arms, grain and other supplies left here for later use.


Kolondieba is from the local language and means 'big white well'.


Timbuktu is undoubtedly the most famous place in Mali despite having a population of little more than 50,000 (compared to 1.3 million for the capital, Bamako). There are four equally plausible explanations offered for the name and start with Songhay tin butu or 'wall of Butu', although we have no idea who Butu was. If of Berber origin it would represent tim bouctou 'place covered by small dunes'. If the Tuareg named it they would have spoken of a slave woman of theirs named Tinbuktu who looked after their wares when the Tuareg were away. And finally the Zenaga origin meaning 'hidden' and Timbuktu does lie in a hollow. The reason for the very different explanations is that the place has been recorded with so many diverse spellings over the centuries.


Kita is named after Mount Kita.


Haayre is derived from a word meaning 'rocky place'.


Bandiagara translates as 'large eating bowl' as there is a tradition to dine from a communal bowl.


Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.

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