In Gao and vicinity, it is common to hear announcements of lost cattle on local radio. To be useful, the message must contain fairly precise descriptions. For example, let’s take a red cow – in Songhay, haw (cow), ciray (red). To be sure, the phrase haw ciray is correct, as it literally means “red cow”. Then, why does such a description amuse some villagers just a few kilometres away from town?
Haw ciray (red cow) resonates as highly approximate. A cooperative listener may deduce from it the most straightforward dark red pattern called sinje. Still the shortcoming of haw ciray is that it does not allow one to make a clear distinction, let’s say, between a deep dark red (wonge), dark red (sinje), a light red (seyga), a red bordering on dark yellow or orange (huure, woole), etc.
So if there is any problem, it is not the inaccuracy of the phrase, but rather the imprecision of the description. There are many red patterns of cowhide with an infinite number of combinations with other colours. Even a single white dot on the side, forehead, tail or any limb complicates the descriptive exercise. To avoid convoluted descriptions, the herding community has developed or adopted a technical terminology, which accounts for the variegated spectrum of animal skin patterns.