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Language

Each of the many ethnic groups in Mali has its own language.

Linguistic diversity was a characteristic of the ancient Mali Empire, just as it is of modern Mali. In fact, the political structure of the Mali Empire perpetuated that linguistic diversity: peoples were organized into kingdoms that retained their own leaders provided they paid tribute and swore loyalty to the mansa, or leader, of the Mali Empire. Most of the indigenous languages of Mali belong to the Niger-Congo language family, making them distant cousins.

To this day, along the Niger River, different ethnic groups live in separate villages, each with its own language and culture. Thus a Bambara village is next to a Bozo village, which is next to a Fulani village, and so on. Each ethnic group in Mali has its own special characteristics. Historically, for example, the Bozo were fishers, the Fulani herders, the Tuareg desert nomads, and the Dogon farmers, famous for their intensive agriculture.

The name "Mali" originates in one of the languages of the Western Sudan.

"Mali" comes from the name of the ethnic group Malinke. The Malinke organized the resistance movement against rule by the southern Soninke, who were dominant in the Ghana Empire.

The Arabic language was introduced to the Western Sudan as a result of trade.

Arab (and Arabized Berber) traders from the north brought their Arabic language with them, and their alphabet, too. With the Arabic alphabet, writing was introduced to the indigenous cultures, and a written history evolved as a companion to the long-established oral history of the region. Because Arabic is the language of the Koran (the holy book of Islam), it is still heard in the mosques of Mali and whenever the Koran is read or recited. Arabic is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and thus completely unrelated to Mali's indigenous languages.

The Bambara language is the most widely understood indigenous language in modern Mali.

In modern Mali, about 80 percent of the population speak, or at least understand Bambara. The Bambana ethnic group is the largest in modern Mali, although they make up only 23 percent of Mali's population. The Bambara language is almost identical to Dioula, the market language of neighboring Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.

The official language of the Republic of Mali is French.

Between 1890 and 1960, Mali was under the control of France. It was during that time that the French language was taught in the schools and became the medium of governmental administration. Even after independence, French remained the official language. All education and government activities are conducted in French. Despite the negative association with colonialism, French is today considered a neutral language among the many ethnolinguistic groups in the country. French is in the Indo-European language family.

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