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The terminology for cowhide patterns remedies this imprecision. One can say that it is a photographic – chromatic thumbnail – index to the expanded spectrum of combinations.  The best way to gauge its efficiency is to compare standard patterns. Our main informant, an experienced herdsman, estimates that he can recognize up to 120 patterns, but the full count may come close to 150. For the most part, these names are originally borrowed from Fulfulde, the language of the traditionally herding Fulbe (Fula). In this regard, they are not “authentic” Songhay words; rather, a borrowed code system.

This sequence of cowhide patterns focuses on the way the distribution of types of red color is given a unique term, which, in turn, makes the naming and recognition of a cow very precise. In the end, it is a code system that herders as well as ordinary cattle owners learn to enable this level of communication.

The coding cannot be idiosyncratic; otherwise, only an individual or a small group will be able to make sense of it. To the contrary, it is a popular science that rural dwellers usually learn very early as part of livestock management. The terminology for cows has its near equivalent among horses, sheep and goats. There is a much smaller pattern lexicon for donkeys.




2020 June

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By: Sékou Maïga

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Institut de Sciences Humaines, Bamako


Songhay Cowhide Patterns (2)


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