Bambara, also known as Bamanankan in the language itself, is a language spoken in Mali by as many as six million people (including second language users). The differences between Bambara and Dioula are minimal. Dioula is a language spoken or understood, by fewer numbers of people, in Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, and The Gambia. The Bambara language is the mother tongue of the Bambara ethnic group, numbering about 2,700,000 people, but serves also as a lingua franca in Mali (it is estimated that about 80% of the population speaks it as a first or second language).
Bambara belongs to a group of closely-related languages called Manding, within the larger Mandé group. It is an SOV language and has two tones. It uses seven vowels a, e, ɛ, i, o, ɔ and u (the letters approximate their IPA equivalents). Writing was introduced during the French occupation and alphabetisation is a major issue especially in rural areas. Although written literature is only slowly evolving (due to the predominance of French as the "language of the educated"), there exists a wealth of oral literature, which is often tales of kings and heroes. This oral literature is mainly tradited by the "Griots" (Jɛliw in Bambara) who are a mixture of storytellers, praise singers and human history books who have studied the trade of singing and reciting for many years. Many of their songs are very old and are said to date back to the old kingdom of Mali. Bambara is a national language of Mali, and also the most widely understood language in Mali.
Bambara has many local dialects. Some dialect variants: Somono, Segou, San, Beledugu, Ganadugu, Wasulu and Sikasso.
The N'Ko alphabet is a script devised by Solomana Kante in 1949 as a writing system for the Mande languages of West Africa; N’Ko means 'I say' in all Mande languages. Kante created N’Ko in response to what he felt were beliefs that Africans were a "cultureless people" since prior to this time there had been no indigenous African writing system for his language. N'ko came first into use in Kankan, Guinea as a Maninka alphabet and disseminated from there into other Mande-speaking parts of West Africa. The script is still in use for Bambara, although the Latin alphabet is much more common.
Bambara does not inflect for gender. Gender for a noun can be specified by adding a suffix, -ce or -ke for male and -muso for female. The plural is formed by attaching -w to words.
Bambara uses postpositions in much the same manner than languages like English and French use prepositions. These postpositions are found after the verb and are used to express direction, location, and in some cases, possession.
In urban areas, many Bambara conjunctions have been replaced in everyday use by French borrowings that often mark code-switches. The Bamako dialect makes use of sentences like: N taara Kita mais il n'y avait personne là-bas. : I went to Kita [Bambara] but there was no one there [French]. The sentence in Bambara alone would be N taara Kita nka mɔgɔsi tuntɛ yen. The French proposition "est-ce-que" is also used in Bambara, however it is pronounced more slowly and as three syllables; "ess uh kuh".
Bambara uses many French loan words. For example, some people might say: I ka kulosi ye jauni ye: "Your skirt is yellow" (using a derivation of the French word for yellow, jaune.)
However, one could also say: I ka kulosi ye neremuguman ye, also meaning "your skirt is yellow." The original Bambara word for yellow comes from "neremugu," mugu being flour made from nere, a seed from a long seed pod. Neremugu is often used in sauces in Southern Mali.
Most French loan words are suffixed with the sound 'i'; this is particularly common when using French words which have a meaning not traditionally found in Mali. For example, the Bambara word for snow is niegei, based on the French word for snow neige. As there has never been snow in Mali, there has not been a traditional meaning for the word and thus no unique word in Bambara to describe it.