What is the difference between Bambara and Dioula?

Map of the Manding language continuum that includes the approximate location of Jula- and Bambara-speaking regions

Map of the Manding language continuum that includes the approximate location of Jula- and Bambara-speaking regions

Bambara (or Bamanan) and Jula (or Dioula [from the French spelling]) are the two closest of the major Manding varieties. In crude terms, Bambara is primarily spoken in Mali and “Dioula” in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. Derived from the word for “trader”, Jula is generally said to be a lingua franca form of Manding with fewer native speakers than Bambara. This ignores the case of ethnic Jula in the region, but it does capture the reality that oftentimes in western Burkina and northern Côte d'Ivoire, Jula is learned alongside one's mother tongue to facilitate interethnic communication at the market place, etc.

Anyone who has learned Bambara or Jula notices them as different forms of the same language almost instantly. During my Peace Corps service I learned and spoke Jula in Burkina Faso, but after 18 months of service, I traveled to Mali and instantly received compliments on my so-called Bambara. In this sense, Bambara and Jula can almost be understood as two labels for the same thing; think of how Spanish for instance is known as both español and castellano. At the same time, Bambara and Jula aren't the exact same, just like English in New York and London isn’t the same. If you want to see this in practice, I’ve posted two videos from Na baro kè at the bottom of this post — one from Bambara-speaking Bamako and the other from Jula-speaking Bobo-Dioulasso.

What are the major differences in practical terms though? Ignoring a ton of sociolinguistic nuance and detail, the relatively minor differences between Bambara and Jula can be categorized as phonological (so-called “pronunciation”), lexical (“words” or “vocab”) and grammatical. Below are some of the main differences presented by their Jula variants first followed by their Bambara equivalents:

Phonologically

Just like any language Jula and Bambara have variable “pronunciations” of the same words:

gw instead of g or j

  • gwɛlɛn vs gɛlɛn (‘hard’)

  • gwɛman vs jɛman (‘white’)

l instead of d

  • lo vs don (as in Muso lo vs Muso don [‘It’s a woman’])

  • la vs da (‘lay down’)

l instead of j

  • vs (‘stop; stand up’)

r instead of l

  • A b’à ra vs A b’à la (‘It is is on it)

  • Fɔri vs fɔli (‘instrument-playing’)

  • wuru vs wulu (‘dog’; but be careful this word has a tonal minimal pair that can lead to laughter)


Lexically

There are a number of everyday words that are more typically used in Jula versus Bambara. Here’s a just a few examples, but keep in mind that Jula and Bambara speakers will recognize and use both similarly to the way that American aren’t completely lost when someone uses a British expression (most of the time at least!):

  • filɛ instead of lajɛ (‘look; watch’)

  • jo instead of boli (‘fetish’)

  • lɔgɔ instead of sugu (‘market’)

  • bamuso instead of ba (literally ‘mom-woman’ vs ‘mom’)

  • yaala instead of ɲini (when talking about the idea of going to ‘seek’ out a person)

  • bon instead of so (‘house; building’)

I’m also going to include in this category the following:

Resultative participle suffix -nin instead of -len/nen

  • A siginin bɛ Faransi instead of A sigilen bɛ Faransi (literally ‘He/she is seated in France’)


Grammatically

In terms of grammar there are a number of features that distinguish Jula from Bambara. In many cases, it’s not so much a question of there being radically distinct ways of forming sentences but rather that Jula-speakers typically use one form of speaking:

kà alongside ye for the perfective transitive (*for some speakers — both are used in Jula)

  • N k’à fɔ vs N y’à fɔ (‘I said it’)

"Progressive with a verbal suffix instead of a locative expression with a post-position

I previously did an in-depth post about this elsewhere, but here’s a simple example:

  • N bɛ ji minna vs N bɛ jimin na (‘I am drinking water’ vs literally ‘I am in water-drinking’)

Non-use of the reflexive marker

I wrote an entire boring academic article about this, but here’s the gist:

  • Taa ko vs Taa i ko (literally ‘Go wash’ vs ‘Go wash yourself’ — used in the sense of ‘Go bathe’)

  • N lara vs N ye n da (‘I laid down [to go to bed]’)


Conclusion and Practice

Bambara and Jula are mutually intelligible varieties of Manding that can plausibly be said to be as close as American and Australian or British English. If you want to see how this plays out in practice, have a look at the various “accents” that people use in the YouTube series “Na baro kè” where I interview Jula and Bambara speakers in cities like Bobo-Dioulasso and Bamako. Spot any major differences that I’m missing? Comment below!

A series of conversations in Bambara about public transit minibuses or SOTRAMAs in Bamako, Mali.

A series of conversations in Jula about how to deal with West African winter in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.