Laurent Gbagbo: as complex as his consonants?

Posted on 11 April 2011


"No, Laurent; you can have just one consonant at the beginning of your surname."

It would appear Laurent Gbagbo is bound to be behind bars before too long, having been busted from his bunker.

Like how I alliterated the [b]s in that sentence? Including Gbagbo?

In French, and – in the case – so in English, Gbagbo is rendered as /bagbo/ – completely steamrollering the nicest linguistic feature of his name – known as a doubly-articulated consonant. Here, it’s g+b = /ɡ͡b/, as usual – involving a velar /ɡ/ and a labial /b/, giving the more native /ɡ͡baɡ͡bo/.

As the description suggests, they are pronounced simultaneously together – unlike a consonantal cluster, like /br-/ in break, or even /-tfr-/ in predotvratit’ (предотвратить – to thwart), which are pronounced linearly.

Complex consonants like this are common in a number of African languages, including Gbagbo’s native language is said to be Bété – a member of the Eastern Kru family of African languages.

As with many of Africa’s native languages, their “phonemic inventories” include a number of doubly- or co-articulated stops – usually in a pair with one labial and one velar. So here we’re technically speaking dealing with a doubly-articulated labial-velar stop – and as you see above, IPA renders this co-articulation with a tie over the top, e.g. /k͡p/.

Except for the five phonetic clicks – which have two places of articulation by definition – most of the co-articulated (or complex) consonants are labial-velars.

With Gbagbo, French is not used to having two consonants like this at the beginning – it “prefers” something like [-] (two fricatives – or a fricative + a trill). Therefore, it reduces the doubly-articulated consonant to a simple /b/.

But, for the second /ɡ͡b/ in /ɡ͡baɡ͡bo/, French does the opposite – and fleshes it into two separate consonants. Two approaches to naturalising the same complex sound.

To highlight how these complex consonants are truly different from just having two separate consonants, have a look at these examples from Eggon – one of the Benue-Congo languages spoken in Nigeria – actually distinguishes phonemically between the two:

/ɡ͡bu/ means “to arrive” – whereas, /ɡba/ means “to divide”

/k͡pu/ means “to die” – whereas, /kpu/ means “to kneel”

As well as double-articulation, the Kru languages are also known for something we probably associate more with Asian languages, like Cantonese – a tone system.

The Kru languages can be written using the Bassa alphabet.

According to some – Kru languages have some of the most complex tonal systems in the world, perhaps only with the exception of the Omotic languages of Ethiopia (known for their use of the beautiful Ge’ez alphabet).

Kru languages are written using the Latin alphabet – but also have another scripture, called the Bassa alphabet.

I couldn’t find a font online for it, but thanks to, I think – as far as I can be sure – that Gbagbo might well be written like this:

Laurent Gbagbo is well-known as someone who loves languages. He was nicknamed “Cicero” at school for his love of Latin.

It looks as though he’ll have plenty of time soon to get stuck into some more language learning.


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