A concept developed by Professor John Baugh, Linguistic Profiling is the ability to identify individuals’ social characteristics based on auditory cues. The social characteristics that are usually identifiable include gender, accent, region, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. Simply put, most of us have the ability to know a lot about a person, to like them or to hate them, on the sole basis of hearing their voice. 

Even though Linguistic Profiling often has a negative connotation, it is not actually such a bad thing to be able to detect an individual’s social characteristics based on auditory cues; when this ability is coupled with discrimination however, that is when it becomes questionable and could even be considered a crime in some countries. The following video best captures an instance of discriminatory practices in the housing market based on the detection of auditory cues.

 This video captures a unique case, occurring in a unique setting, with a unique set of conventions, and a unique way of stratifying society based on accent. Does it mean that the United States is the only place where individuals get profiled on the basis of the auditory cues their voice yields? Of course not! Have you therefore ever wondered how this  practice gets manifested in other milieux? Like in a completely multilingual country where several languages are concomitantly used for purposes of communication? Let us look at the case of Burkina Faso, a West African country, where about 65 languages are natively but unequally spoken, context dependent.

 In Burkina Faso, generally speaking, the language you choose to communicate in different circumstances can already provide your audience with a sense of who you are. Differently put, certain languages are preferable than others depending on the context. For instance, Mòoré would be the appropriate language during a Mossi family reunion, if not all the members of the family can proficiently speak French. If a participant in that meeting decides, however, to switch to French, that will be perceived as an attempt to paint himself a face of someone of a different social status.

 In an impromptu encounter, likewise, dialects also yield a great amount of information about the interlocutors involved. In reference to national languages in particular, the use of a given dialect could reveal the speaker’s region or even his village. Additionally, certain dialects are associated with certain stereotypes and users of a dialect  are often held at the standards of those stereotypes, especially when not much information is known of them. For instance, speakers of the Yaadré dialect of Mòoré are known for their directness, which often is apprehended as aggressive or even rude.

 Beyond the dialect, other variations can still yield more information about the user of a language. You can determine  some facets of a speaker based on his proficiency in a given language. For example, a speaker who can use both formal and informal registers of French will come across as educated; a speaker who can only speak a formal register of French will not only come across as educated, but also as out of touch with the realities of the common Burkinabé; on the contrary, will be perceived as uneducated a speaker who can only use informal French.

 Beside the proficiency trait, French is also spoken with a variety of accents in Burkina Faso depending on the speaker’s first language. That said, you could detect a speaker’s other language(s) based on their French accent. Furthermore, other accents of French are associated with the speaker’s past presence in neighboring countries such as Ivory Coast, Togo, etc. and the presence of those accents is a signal that you could be dealing with an individual who once lived in those countries.

In the above video, names were also purposefully used to confirm the speaker’s matching identity. In Burkina Faso, individuals’ names reveal a great deal about who they are. The last name usually indicates ancestry and ethnic group affiliation. The first name in many instances indicate religious affiliation. This implies that you can identify an individual’s ethnic group upon knowing their name. And as a mark of solidarity, individuals from the same ethnic group tend to use the ethnic group language as a way to confirm their affiliation to the group. As a result, an individual who fails to speak his ethnic group language will come across as disconnected from their roots, and unfit to be a “real” member of the ethnic group.

 These are of course not all the auditory cues people rely on to determine an individual social characteristics in Burkina Faso. However, the few examples clearly show us that profiling takes different forms and uses different cues depending on the setting. In all the cases, we, human beings, try to have an insight about who others are using myriads of cues, including auditory cues. In your first encounter with some individuals, you have probably experienced this moment when their attitude or their facial expression suddenly changes upon hearing your first words…

The following is a low-tech homemade video presenting a Contrastive Analysis  between Jula, a West African language spoken in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc. and English. I put it together for a phonetic and phonology class with the ambition to put Linguistics at the service of the general public.

Burkina Faso shelters 65 languages natively spoken on its soil. The linguistic dynamism of the country could have constituted a powerful apparatus for its development, especially on the educational level. Unfortunately and luckily not too late, the colonizers later replaced by local elites, promoting similar language-alienating agendas, did nothing but cultivate within the Burkinabe mind a complex of inferiority toward his own languages.

Children learning to read in French and Mooré

According to the 2006 United Nations report, Burkina Faso adult literacy rate is 26%. This literacy according to the United Nations Development Program(UNDP) is lowest in the world. Because the educational system implemented thus far has not been attuned to the social and cultural realities of the country, it has revealed itself to be costly and inefficient. 

In an effort to remedy such a low literacy rate, the Swiss Organization for Workers’ Solidarity  (OSEO) and the Burkina Faso Ministry of Basic Education and Literacy (MEBA) have put in place the Bilingual Education Program since 1994. These bilingual schools have already proven themselves to be effective. Presently, seven languages are being used in that respect: MooreJulaFulfulde, Gulmacema, Dagara, Liele, and Bissa.

In schools where students’ first language is used as the instructional language, an active interaction between instructor and students takes place. This learning environment contributes to create a lively classroom and decreases the stress on students who would otherwise be intimidated to use a language in which they have a low proficiency.

Conversely, in schools where French is the only instructional language, the teaching can’t be but centered on the teacher who does all the talk while the students only listen. Such a classroom environment implies that students’ first years of education are not only dedicated to learning to be literate, but essentially on learning a new language. This further implies that repetition and memorization would be the sole route to learning.

The use of Burkina Faso languages in basic education and literacy programs will boost their status to a higher level for it will provide them with additional viable ecosystems where they can effectively be utilized. Additionally, it will enrich them by attuning them to scientific and technical lexicon, which they might already be lacking. In order to sustain the Bilingual Education Program, these languages also have to be used in formal, administrative, and political settings in lieu of within bilingual elementary schools solely.

The implementation of bilingual education does however present some challenges, one of those being the lack of funding to train instructors who are capable of effectively teaching in those schools and the challenge of developing appropriate didactic material to suit its purpose. Another challenge represents the lack of opportunity encountered upon developing literacy in the language. Said otherwise, there is no substantial reward for knowing how to read and write in them. Furthermore, the often lack of support from local communities constitutes another obstacle that hinders its implementation.

Going forward, it will be important for the Burkinabè to sit and seriously reflect upon his language policies in order to come up with solutions that would allow the upright man to seek development while preserving his integrity. Certain requirements to speak French in order to become a member of the government have to be lifted. Every citizen of Burkina Faso has to be able to participate in the democratic process without having to face the burden of speaking French.


For a country its size, 274,200 km2 (105,900 sq mi), and a population of 18.6 million inhabitants, Burkina Faso  ranks 37th in terms of linguistic diversity. Indeed, this landlocked country in the heart of West Africa has about 65 languages  natively spoken on its territory. 

“He who can’t speak his ethnic language is ethnically and culturally disoriented.” This saying is widely agreed upon among the Burkinabè. Colonized by the French towards the end of the 19th century, the Burkinabè saw his local languages lose status and even stigmatized in the face of French, the then language of power, prosperity, and prestige. Although it is widely agreed upon that no people can “develop” using the language of another, not much has been done to preserve and promote the languages of Burkina Faso on the political and educational spheres. 

A linguistic map of Burkina Faso

The notion of ethnic identity has, however, been one of the driving factors in preserving the languages of the Burkinabè thus far. For most Burkinabè, speaking one’s ethnic language is certainly the most important sign of belonging to that ethnic group. For example, most Burkinabè would switch the conversation into their ethnic language upon realizing that they and their interactant are from the same ethnic group. As such, language in and of itself represents the ID of ethnic groups. Given this fact, the Burkinabè usually ensures that his progeny speaks his ethnic language. However, with the limited settings in which some of these ethnic languages are used, their survival is at stake. 

French, the official language of Burkina Faso, is also the language of education, administration, the army, the media, etc. Its use is thus maintained by those who have become proficient in it through school instruction and acquisition in informal settings. Those who have not benefited from formal French instruction often have limited French proficiency. In spite of their limited proficiency, they are still able to use it for communicating with those with whom they have no shared language. This use of French has made it a lingua franca. Other examples of lingua franca include Moore, which is spoken in the northern and the central parts of the country, and Jula, spoken in the western and southern areas. 

The use of French as the official language of Burkina Faso does not just have drawbacks.  The advantages of using French are not just limited to its status as an international language. Besides enabling the Burkinabè to communicate beyond its borders with other nations, the official status of French also answers the question of which ethnic language should made official given the imbroglio of choices and the risk of alienating the language of the other ethnic groups.

Besides having been balkanized into several countries and divided into myriads of ethnic groups each speaking its own language and having its own cultural heritage, West Africa caste system constitutes yet another layer of its social structure. The West African caste is a form of hierarchical social classification of individuals into groups, based on the then automatic hereditary transmission of lifestyle and occupation from one generation to another.

Caste in West Africa has similar traits with contemporary conceptions of race because of its hereditary nature and its association with endogamy. Exogamy, defined as marriage outside the confines of one’s social group, is not permissible between what has been referred to as casted and non-casted people. 

West African Caste System showing Clerics and Kings on the top of the hierarchy, Farmers and Warriors beneath them, Fishermen on the third layer, Weavers and Leatherworkers on the fourth layer and Smiths and Griots at the bottom layer.

This entails that the frontiers of the West African castes are rigid and cannot hence be crossed. In other words, an individual is, at birth and for the rest of his life, associated with his parents’ caste and nothing can change this fact. 

When did it all begin?
No formal documented account exists to this day as of when this social stratification of West African societies exactly started. The account that mentions the existence of an artisan with a role similar to that of modern days griot is from Ibn Battuta, the great Berber and Moroccan explorer. When he visited the Mali Empire in 1352 and 1353, he did in fact note that the King always spoke through a spokesperson who was also in charge of arranging and supervising all musical, dance, and acrobatic performances. 

Even though this testimony does not provide an exact date of when this social stratification has started, it at least allows observing that special status artisan is indeed an old phenomenon, which dates back to at least the first half of the fourteenth century. 

How did it all begin? 
The origin of the West African caste system, just like its starting period, has not been established by any formal documented account. However, evidence from the names attributed to different castes suggests that division of labor might have been the originating factor. Roughly translated into English, some names ascribed to these castes are fishermen, warriors, smiths, courtiers, counselors, leather workers, farmers, clerics, etc. 

As it tends to be the case in most societies, people with different occupations will have  different skills, possess different types of knowledge, have different income and different socio-economic status. Likewise, different stereotypes will be associated with each occupation. 

Castes and Stereotype
Statistically speaking, non-casted people make up about 70% of the population while casted-people make up the remaining 30%. The stereotypes associated with different castes indeed derive from occupation in and of itself. Non-casted people were primarily landowners and practiced agriculture for subsistence. Their default sense of superiority was associated with their ability to remain independent and to sustainably provide for themselves throughout the year. 

Casted-people or special artisan on the other hand were never landowners and relied on a dual mode of subsistence, on relying on their craft and off relying on agriculture. They were also viewed as people who transformed material objects into functional and stylistically pleasant objects for their patrons, the non-casted folks. 

For example, the Griots were viewed as people who, through their verbal and musical abilities, transform words into pleasant and beautiful poetry and songs to praise their patrons. The Smiths were viewed as people who, through the magic of fire, transform iron into beautiful and stylistically shaped objects and tools for their patrons. 

Specific Stereotypes                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The stereotypes associated with different castes may show regional differences within West Africa. In order to provide, however, an idea of what these might be, here are some stereotypes associated with various castes among the Tukulor of Senegal as identified by Roy D. M. (2000).

  • Clerics, affiliated to religion, are said to possess healing powers through religious practices. They have a profound sense of their own superiority over the other social categories. They claim to possess a sense of honor, pride, and self-esteem, something that the other social categories lack.
  • Courtiers and counselors (Griots) are said to possess the ability of understanding quickly and have the reputation of being brilliant conversationalists, gifted with the capacity to maneuver themselves into the presence of patrons or rulers. 
  • Warriors, bold and fearless, are sometimes looked down upon for being ill bred.
  • Fishermen are believed to master the realms of water; their intelligence is, however, associated to that of a fish, a way to draw attention on their lower mental abilities.
  • Smiths are thought to be dangerous because their occupation is often associated with magic via the use of fire. They are also looked down upon for having the potential to stain freemen. 
  • Weavers are credited with little intelligence despite their ability to arrange things with delicacy and finesse. 
  • Leatherworkers are viewed as impure because of their association with a debasing occupation, which deals with skins somewhat viewed as rotting meat. 

Among the above-listed occupations, ambiguities exists a propos of the social status of some of them. For example, while fishermen are considered to be non-casted people, certain negative stereotypes are still associated with them. For that reason, the caste of fisherman does indeed have an ambiguous status. 

Even though I originally described the boundaries of these social categories as impenetrable, it is worth adding that a change in occupation during the evolutionary stages of these castes would also mean a change in status and therefore a change in caste. However, since these notions have passed on through generations as social norms, they have become adamant and part of West Africa tradition gaining a fetish-like status. 

Looking into the Future 
As of this date, the notion of caste is still a reality in much of West Africa and it still determines who one can marry in many instances. However, its future is at stake due to the growing influence of religions such as Islam and Christianity, which forbid discrimination on grounds, such as the ones alluded to in the caste system. Moreover, despite the use of patronyms to identify members of different castes, it is increasingly becoming difficult to determine an individual’s caste on the sole basis of their name. In urban areas in particular, more and more people are no longer taking caste into consideration in their decisions to get married. 

One thing we do have to keep in mind though is that social categories naturally form as a result of a people’s attempt to define the Other. This Other is most likely to be determined by the social and cultural realities of a time. In this regard, every epoch would have its own Other within every society. 

Today, our social and cultural factors are still determining who the Other is. We don’t have to look far to notice the Them-US divide. We all certainly have people we reference as THEY or THEM as opposed to WE and US. These are the realities and the burden of our time. That said, it would even be a graver mistake to not only bear the burden of our time, but also the burden of our forefathers. 

For more in-depth information, read:

Tamari, Tal. (1991). “The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa” The Journal of African History, Vol 32, 2. P. 221- 250. 

Roy, D. M. (2000). The Question of Caste in West Africa with Special Reference to Tukulor Craftsman.  Anthropos Institute. p.149 -165.