Abstract (Diastratic variation in Kabiyè, the Gur language of Togo)

Palakyém Mouzou§

Résumé : Linguistic homogeneity is a rare phenomenon among speakers of a single language. The societal use of a language such as Kabiye gives way to linguistic heterogeneity characterized by dynamic lexical variation among certain categories of speakers. What factors underlie such lexical variation? Taken as part of the wider phenomena of language contact, but described from a lexicological angle, this article takes as its substrate the diversity of neological and stylistic processes in all the categories observed. It considers diastratic variation as one aspect of lexical variation and the very basis of linguistic dynamics. Several variables, both internal and external to languages and speakers, are involved in this variation. The data underlying the present study were collected in the prefecture of Kozah from various socio-professional categories of the population.

Keywords: diastratic variation, lexical creation, kabiyè. 

Abstract: Linguistic homogeneity is a rare phenomenon that can be observed among speakers of a single language. The societal practice of a language such as Kabiye leaves room for linguistic heterogeneity characterized by a rather dynamic lexical variation between certain categories of speakers. So, what are the factors underlying such lexical variation? Taken as a whole of language contact phenomena but described from a lexicological perspective, this article takes as its substrate the diversity of neological and stylistic processes in all the categories observed. It considers diastratic variation as one aspect of lexical variation and the very basis of linguistic dynamics. Several variables both internal and external to languages and speakers are involved in this variation. The data underlying the present study were collected in the prefecture of Kozah from the different socio-professional categories of the population.

Keywords: Diastratic Variation, Lexical Creation, Kabiyè. 


In linguistic practice, it's easy to see how lexies vary within the same language, both diachronically and synchronically. As Jean Dubois (504) points out, linguistic variation is the "phenomenon whereby, in everyday use, a given language is never identical to what it was at another time, in another place or in another social group". It reflects the linguistic cosmopolitanism of a society, and the concrete manifestation of the eminently social nature of language. In lexicology and sociolinguistics, there are generally five types of variation linked to time, place, social dimension and situation: diachronic variation, diatopic variation, diaphasic variation, diametrical variation and diastratic variation. It is precisely this last type that interests us in a series of studies that we intend to carry out in order to account for the linguistic dynamism and vitality enjoyed by the Kabiyè language, a Gur language from the eastern branch of the Gurunsi languages, spoken in Togo and Benin. Kabiye is spoken by a population of 1,423,964 speakers, or 22.9% of the resident population, according to figures from the latest General Census of Population and Housing (2010), published in 2015. Several works have been carried out on Kabiyè, but none of these have so far touched on the various phenomena of linguistic variation in general, and even less on diastratic variation in particular. The aim of the present study is to identify and describe the different language variations according to the social classes of children, young people and the elderly. The main questions to be addressed in this study are as follows: How does diastatic variation manifest itself in Kabyè? What are the structures of diastratic variation in Kabyè? We postulate that diastratic variation manifests itself through various factors: age, gender, social class. It is then observed across various strata, namely: the child stratum, the youth stratum and the elderly stratum. This study takes both a lexicological and sociolinguistic perspective, and will address three main points. The first will present the theoretical framework and methodology used in this work. The second will examine the factors of diastratic variation as an integral part of social and demographic variation. Finally, the third section will analyze the structures of the various lexies used by different age groups, in order to highlight the bases of differentiation.

1. Theoretical and methodological frameworks

In the following lines, we outline the theoretical orientations of this study and the methodology that enabled us to gather the data submitted for analysis.

1.1 Theoretical framework 

Linguistic variation is central to the study of language use. Indeed, it is impossible to study the linguistic forms used in natural texts, for example, without being confronted with the problems of linguistic variability. As François Gadet (7) puts it, "there is no language that its speakers do not use in a variety of forms". He adds that linguists "grasp this differentiation by speaking of varieties to designate different ways of speaking, of variation for diversified phenomena in synchronicity, and of change for dynamics in diachronicity". Variability is inherent in human language: a single speaker uses several linguistic forms on different occasions, and different speakers of the same language express the same meanings using different forms. Much of this variation is highly systematic, with speakers of the same language choosing pronunciation, word choice and grammar according to a number of non-linguistic factors. These factors include the speaker's purpose in communicating, the relationship between him and his interlocutor, the conditions of production and the various social affiliations that affect him.

The present study of diastratic variation in Kabiye draws on the theory of panlectal variation developed in the context of sociolinguistics. This theory is mainly based on the work of Robert Chaudenson, successively extended and enriched by Meyerhoff and Nagy, on the one hand, and Gudrun Ledegen and Isabelle Leglise, on the other. This theory considers language contact as one of the explanatory factors for the variations observed in a language. According to Gudrun Ledegen and Isabelle Leglise (6), work within the framework of this theory "focuses on the nature and respective importance of the extrasystemic, intrasystemic and intersystemic factors that determine the variations observed".

The phenomena of interest to the researcher within the framework of this theory are summarized as follows in the table below:

Changes that are essentially intrasystemic, in which interference would at best only have a reinforcing role (e.g. going to the doctor, washing one's hands).Changes in which the intrasystemic and intersystemic converge, with interference leading to restructurings of the same type as those that could be carried out by the intrasystemic route alone (e.g. going to the doctor, washing one's hands).
Changes occurring in areas of potential variability in French and constituting specific variants directly derived from the non-French model by intersystemic transfer (e.g. retourner back, chercher pour...).Changes appearing in the diasystem but outside the F0 and arising from an individual adaptation of a bilingual's dual competence, to compensate for a "failure" in the dominated language (e.g. leaving on a trip).

1.2 Methodological framework

Data collection took place entirely in Kara, in the commune of Kozah. We began with semi-direct observation, in which we attended informal discussions between people of different ages at home and in other places (tchakpalodrome, public fountains and local markets). We intervened from time to time to introduce certain subjects, so as to better perceive the variation between the different classes.

In addition to the data already collected, we felt it would be useful to draw up a questionnaire containing 70 words in French. The choice of words was made to reflect the variation between children, young people and the elderly. We passed the questions to the informants, and they returned them to us in Kabiye. These data, entirely recorded by a dictaphone, were then transcribed and analyzed. 

2. Factors in diastratic variation in kabiyè

Diastratic language variation is social and demographic variation, i.e. linguistic variation linked to social groups and life in society. It explains the differences in usage between different social strata, thus integrating socio-lects. Indeed, at the same time and in the same region, speakers with different demographic and social characteristics have different ways of speaking. The study of this variation accounts, for example, for the differences between the language of young and old, between the language of rural and urban groups, for linguistic differences between professional groups or, finally, for differences according to speakers' levels of education. Diastatic variation manifests itself through several factors: gender, age and social class.

2.1. The age

Age is the factor most likely to affect linguistic variation. It is considered the factor that best demonstrates whether there is a change within a community for the same speech. Studies have shown that adults use standard and traditional variants, while young people favor non-standard forms. Terry Nadasdi et al. demonstrate an association between the self-talk variant of speakers under 30 and the auto-talk variant of "middle-aged" speakers (92). Age is the main factor in the disappearance of the traditional variant. We also note that the linguistic behavior of some speaker groups depends on their age categories. 

In Kabiye, the following differences can be observed:

 ChildrenYoung peopleMature age
2(the) eatmam-mamtɔkɩyɛtɔ́ɔ́náɣ
3faecal matterpuuúpɩ́ndʋawayɩ́
6penbikbiktɔlíɩm cɩ́kaɣ

As this table shows, the notion of a chair is expressed in different ways, but the language used by young people and children is similar, whereas that used by middle-aged people is totally different. Similarly, the lexies used by young and mature speakers to express the idea of eating are close, whereas those used by children are totally different. The third lexicon (fecal matter), on the other hand, is very different. There are cases of borrowings rendered differently, even though the children's and young people's lexies are close, whereas the middle-aged use a different lexie altogether. In example 5, all age categories use borrowings, the only difference being that children and young people use a borrowing of French origin, while the third category uses a borrowing of English origin. Example 6, also a loan, is rendered by a totally different lexeme. The children and young people use the same lexicon, which is none other than a brand of pen widely used in French-speaking Africa, and more specifically in Togo. Older people use a lexeme that has been created within the language itself. In all cases, there is lexical variation between the three age categories. The only exception is in example 4, where all categories have the same lexis. In part 3, we'll come back to the lexies specific to these different age categories, not to explain them, but to give the structure of the lexies used.

2.2. Gender

In their everyday practices, men and women also speak differently, because they don't always have the same linguistic representations. Some of these representations may be perceived positively by men, but not by women. Depending on these representations, which are socioculturally embedded, the use of lexia will vary from one gender to another. Anne Violin-Wigent (12) has already concluded that "the tendency of women over 40 to retain more regional vocabulary than men of the same age is reversed for women under 40, who show a stronger tendency to abandon regional vocabulary than men of the same age". This situation, while indicative of gender variation, is not identical in Kabiye society, where women's linguistic behavior is generally more conservative or closer to the norm than that of men. This is all the more remarkable when it comes to expressing themselves on subjects related to sexuality or parts of the human body.

By way of illustration, to say ''sexual intercourse'', ''sex'', ''derrières de la femme'', ''faire la cour'' women will use the lexies, kʋzʋʋ (7a),taŋnʋ́ ( 8c), pʋyʋ (9a), ɖánʋʋ (10a) where men will rather say yalaɣ (7b), ladɩyɛ/kodíye (8b),tɔbɩŋ ( 9b),ɖaʋ́tʋʋ (10b) ...

Younger women seem to reject older vocabulary and increasingly prefer to pronounce the same lexies as men of the same age. So we'll hear lexies like akpadɩyʋ́( 11), hilúu (12) or mɩlʋ́ʋ (13) to mean ''old person, gluttony or stealing.

2.3. Social classes

Social classes contribute most to linguistic variation, each with its own terminology and expressions. Whether blacksmiths, weavers, carpenters, priests, dressmakers, healers, merchants... or farmers, the various socio-professional groups contribute enormously to lexical enrichment and, by the same token, to linguistic variation. Even within the same socio-professional group, there is no such thing as linguistic homogeneity between different lectors. By lect, we mean a specific language reserved for specialists in a single field or sub-field. It is therefore a subset of a sociolect. A doctor, for example, would use a first lect to converse with his medical colleagues, a second to converse with his assistants and, finally, a third lect to converse with his patients.

A blacksmith, for example, will distinguish hakuu (14 ) from agooza hakuu (14a) and hakuukɩwasʋʋ (14b), whereas the ordinary citizen will simply say hakuu. Similarly, a dressmaker, to designate habit, coat, bra, garment sleeve and boubou, will use tóko (15), niŋkaɣ tóko (15a),hɩlatoko (15b), tokohamʋ́ʋ (15c) and tóko waa (15d) whereas the lambda citizen will simply say tóko (15). One of the most illustrative examples of lexical variation comes from the field of traditional medicine. Ninety-two percent of the people we interviewed used the lexicon kɔ́yɛ (16) to refer to the product, whereas one of the healers we interviewed clearly told us that the lexicon kɔ́yɛ is very vague and ultimately refers to nothing in his case. Here are the different occurrences with their meanings. 

(16a) Heu taa kɔ́yɛ: species of pink-flowered herbaceous plant with hairy stems and leaves used to make an infusion for infants.

(16b) Kelá kɔ́yɛ: leguminous and medicinal plant species for tooth care

(16c) Kɔ́yɛ kɩ́ɖaɣlɩyɛ: clove

(16d) Kɔ́yɛ kɩmɩzɩyɛ́ : sprayed product

(16th) Kɔ́yɛ kpooloo: species of spice similar to "kɔyɛ kɩ́daɣlɩyɛ" but larger.

(16f) Tɛtɛ wondu kɔ́yɛ: insecticide

(16g) Ɛlɛyɛ kɔ́yɛ: species of medicinal plant used in the treatment of vertigo and epilepsy.

(16h) Limiye kɔyɛ: antiphlebitis product

(16i) Ladɩhoka kɔyɛ : product against hernia 

It's undeniable, then, that not all speakers use the same lexies, and therefore can't master them all; the use and technicality of lexies will inevitably depend on the needs one feels.

3. Structuring of variation by age group

The aim of this third point is to analyze the structures of the various lexies used according to the different age classes. The Kabiye people frequently distinguish three levels of age classes for living people: children, young people and the elderly/mature. We'll expand the examples, then analyze them according to the processes that gave rise to them.

3.1. Children's classroom

Depending on their age and the level of development of their phonatory apparatus, children have a particular way of expressing themselves. This is by no means equivalent to language difficulties. Rather, it has to do with linguistic incompetence, which is normal for their age. It's an innate act of the language faculty, which can be seen as a universal grammar, i.e. a set of principles that guide the child in learning the language. Since this faculty is unique to the human being, the child can make a grammar of his language. According to Noam Chomsky, the reason why children don't produce certain sentences at any stage of their learning is that the constructions involved are excluded from the outset by the principles of universal grammar. In other words, there are sentences that are logically possible, but which are not observed in the productions of children learning their language. This justifies the level of children's mastery of the language.

Let's take a look at a few examples from the data collected during the observation, which will serve as a basis for analysis:

(17) pópó / pimpim ῞motocylette῞

(18) lↄyiyɛ / vúm vúm ῝voiture ῝

(19) ninεtɩ ῞lunettes ῞

(20) yídee ῝argent῝

(21) cuucuú ῞chiot῞

(22) yeyee ῝fleur῝

(23) kokoyikoo ῞poule῞

(24) kɔyɛ ῝product῞

(25) peyaɣ́ ῞tabouret῝

(26) sʋyʋm ῞boisson῝ 

(27) puú ῝matières fécales῝

Our corpus shows that children construct language grammar through imitation, onomatopoeia, vowel changes and consonant changes. Onomatopoeia, an interjection uttered to simulate a particular noise associated with a being, animal or object, is quite common among children. Examples (17), (18), (21) and (23) illustrate this. To designate motorcycle, car, puppy and hen, the children we met prefer to imitate the noise of the machines or the barking of the dog and the crowing of the hen.

Phonetically, there are vowel and consonant changes. For example, the first syllable of ninεtɩ, borrowed from the French ''lunette'', undergoes a vowel variation. The child prefers to use unrounded vowels instead of going back and forth between rounded and unrounded. He therefore pronounces the front, unrounded vowel of first aperture [i], which is of the same nature as [ε] of different aperture, instead of the front, rounded vowel of first aperture. Similarly, several consonants have undergone changes in relation to the language norm. We note this mainly in initial position, where the deaf labiovelar consonant [kp] of kpokpo and kpélaɣ is replaced by the deaf bilabial [p] in examples (17) and (25); [l] of lynεtɩ and lidee is replaced by the labiodental nasal [n] in example (19) and the semivowel [y] in example (20) respectively. No morphological variation is observed in examples (22), (24) and (26), but there is tonal variation.

3.2. Youth class 

Kabiye youths' language practices are comparable to those of many other youth groups in other cultures. They use a jargon-filled vocabulary, generally borrowed, to express modern notions. Their utterances are littered with so many devices that they are rarely understood by other classes when discussion takes place among them. The lexies, which can be described as authentic, are reserved for exchanges with parents and other members of the community, to whom they owe total respect. Let's take a look at some examples:

(27) tↄkɩyɛ ῝manger῞

(28) lambᾶndυ ῞sexe masculin῝

(29) fɛtʋ́ʋ ῞avoir des rapports sexuels῝

(30) tόmo ῝motocyclette῞

(31) týva ῝voiture῞

(32) daák ῝lunette῞

(33) cãtána ῝argent῞

(34) dɔɔg ῝chien῞

(35) hέrύυ ῝fleur῞

(36) tɔbʋʋ́ ῝copine῞

(37) gꭇãŋma ῝grand maman῞

(38) ŋma ῞maman῝

An examination of the lexicons used by the youth class reveals a number of neological and stylistic devices. Let's take a look at journal, including verlan, borrowing and synecdoche. Verlan is a slang procedure that consists in inverting the syllables of certain lexies or locutions. In the corpus submitted to our analysis, verlan is observed in examples (30) and (31) where young people use tόmo and tyva in place of ''moto'' and ''voiture''. We therefore note two processes: first a borrowing and then verlan.

Borrowing is, according to Christian Loubier, "the process by which users of a language adopt wholly, or partially, a linguistic unit or feature (phonological, lexical, semantic, syntactic, etc.) from another language" (21). It is observed in examples (32), (34) and (37) where the lexies daák, dɔɔg and gꭇãŋma are borrowed respectively from English ''dark'' and ''dog'' on the one hand and French ''grand maman'' on the other. Of course, the English lexicon dark is equivalent to black, not glasses. But in their usage, this lexicon means "glasses", originally part of "dark glasses" and now used for all types of eyewear, including medical lenses. Diachronically, ŋma in examples (37) and (38) is used by children to designate "mom". It is therefore an infantile syllabic contraction in the language acquisition process that has come to be used by young and even mature people.

Synecdoche is a stylistic device that consists in designating the whole by a part. In examples (28), (29) and (36), the lexies lambᾶndυ ''foreskin'',fɛtʋ́ʋ ''the gesture of going back and forth'' and tɔbʋʋ́ ''behind a woman'' are just parts of a whole.

All these slang-colored lexies confirm that language practices are not only dynamic, but also continuously changing.

3.3. The elderly class

Mature people often use authentic words in their various utterances, except in situations where they are imitating their children or young people with the aim of reprimanding or correcting them. They are the guardians of traditional speech and rarely favor lexical variations. This class allows us to perceive the various linguistic changes brought about by the other classes in society. In Kabiye society, the elderly are not subject to the influence of the school. The examples, some of which already have synonyms in the children's and young people's classes, allow us to assess this.

(39) tɔɔ́wʋ ῞manger῝

(40) hɩ́nɛ ῞male sex῝

(41) awayɩ ῞matières fécales῝

(42) kpόkpό ῞motocyclette῝

(43) lɔɔrɩ́yɛ ῞voiture῝

(44) ɛsɛ́ñɩnɩŋ ῞lunette῝

(45) kόbo ῞argent῝

(46) haɣ́ ῞chien῝

(47) hέtυ ῞fleur῝

(48) ɖooyú ῞poule῝

(49) ɛjam ῝handicapé῞

(50) ekpéni mʋlʋ́m ῞il/she died.e῞

(51) ɛvɛ́yɩ́ ῝il/she died῞

(52) pɩsaυ tↄláa ῞le pagne est tombé῝

(53) ɛwɩláyɩ́ níyé ῞il/she reprimanded῝

Overall, the above examples confirm that older people retain the authentic vocabulary or lexicon of the language. Considering the data, we can make the following synonymic binomials, putting the most traditional lexies first: (39) tɔɔ́wʋ /(27) tↄkɩyɛ for ῞le manger῞; (40) hɩ́nɛ /(28) lambᾶndυ for ῞sexe masculin῞; (41) awayɩ /(27) puú for ῞matières fécales῞ ; (44) ɛsɛ́ñɩnɩŋ /(32) daák for ῞lunettes῞; (45) kόbo /(33) cãtána for ῞silver῞; (46) haɣ́ /(21) cuucuú for ῞chien῞ and finally (47) hέtυ /(22) yeyee for ῞fleur῝.

Mature speakers also use connotative expressions that are linked not only to language levels, but also to linguistic taboos, as demonstrated by Leonard Bloomfield (1933, p. 155). According to Jean Dubois et al. (2012, p.111), connotation designates "a set of secondary meanings brought about by the use of a particular linguistic material and which are added to the conceptual or cognitive, fundamental or stable meaning, the object of the linguistic community's consensus, which constitutes the denotation". For example, the lexicon (41) awayɩ "fecal matter" literally means "outside". In traditional homes, toilets are not housed in the house. To satisfy this natural need, family members therefore go "outside" to free themselves before returning. The same applies to the lexies (50) ekpéni mʋlʋ́m and (51) ɛvɛ́yɩ́ whose denoted meanings are literally and respectively "he/she brought the flour" and "he/she is no more" to mean "he/she has passed away". 

The other lexies, notably (42), (43) and (45), are onomatopoeia and borrowings from English and Hausa respectively.


Diastratic variation as a phenomenon of language contact is clearly visible in the language practices of Togolese populations, particularly in the Kabiyè community. It is unquestionably a phenomenon that highlights linguistic changes according to the social milieu to which a speaker belongs (social class, professional group, gender, age, etc.). It depends on three general factors: intralinguistic, interlinguistic and extralinguistic. The intersection of these factors has enabled us, within the framework of this study, to take into account age, gender and social class, which are quite evident in the Kabiyè society whose language is described.

Examination of the data revealed a real variation between different age categories, genders and socio-professional sectors. What emerges is that the use of various neological and stylistic devices enriches the language's vocabulary and diversifies its usage. These include onomatopoeia, borrowing, synecdoche, transfer of meaning and connotation.

This highly enriching and interesting exercise invites us to delve into other types of variation as well, to better describe the different contours of linguistic variation.

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How to cite this article:

MLA: Mouzou, Palakyém. "Diastratic variation in Kabiyè, a Gur language of Togo". Uirtus 1.2 (December 2021): 233-247.

§ University of Kara / [email protected]