Ask Language Log: "Niger", "Nigerian", "Nigerien"?

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Email from D.D.:

After reading an article in The Economist about Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorists on my subway to work today, I asked an Oxford-educated Nigerian co-worker a question: if people from Nigeria are call Nigerians, what are people from the nation of Niger, to the north, called? The guy was stumped! Wow. (I have since done enough googling to learn that they are called Nigeriens — all French-like.)

But anyway, before I learned that, my co-worker and I discussed the issue. He suggested that the common origin of the two nations’ names was due to the Niger River that flows thru them both (according to him; I didn't consult maps).

My question of my co-worker—me being a guy who grew up near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers—was whether it was the French (as it was in early Missouri) who originally transcribed the name of the Niger river (and then some Anglicized the pronunciation), or was it the English.

The answer is "neither one" — it was the Berber/Arab/Andalusian etc. civilization of North Africa and Spain, transmitted via Italian, Latin and other European languages by al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, later known as Leo Africanus.

The Wikipedia article explains:

Joannes Leo Africanus, (c. 1494 – c. 1554?) (or al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, Arabic:حسن ابن محمد الوزان الفاسي) was an Andalusian Amazigh[1] Moorish diplomat and author who is best known for his book Descrittione dell’Africa (Description of Africa) describing the geography of North Africa. […]

Leo Africanus was born in Granada in around 1494 but his family moved to Fez soon after his birth. In Fez he studied at the University of Al Karaouine. As a young man he accompanied an uncle on a diplomatic mission to the Maghreb, reaching as far as the city of Timbuktu (c. 1510), then part of the Songhai Empire. In 1517 when returning from a diplomatic mission to Constantinople on behalf of the Sultan of Fez Muhammad II he found himself in the port of Rosetta during the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. […] On his way back to Tunis in 1518 he was captured by Spanish corsairs […]. He was taken to Rome and initially imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo but when his captors realised his importance he was freed and presented to Pope Leo X. He was baptized in the Basilica of Saint Peter's in 1520. […]

Leo Africanus left Rome and spent the next three or four years traveling in Italy. While staying in Bologna he wrote an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin medical vocabulary, of which only the Arabic part has survived, and a grammar of Arabic of which only an eight-page fragment has survived. He returned to Rome in 1526 under the protection of Pope Clement VII. According to Leo, he completed his manuscript on African geography in the same year. The work was published in Italian with the title Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che iui sono, per Giovan Lioni Africano in 1550 by the Venetian publisher Giovanni Battista Ramusio. The book proved to be extremely popular and was reprinted five times. It was also translated into other languages. French and Latin editions were published in 1556 while an English version was published in 1600 with the title A Geographical Historie of Africa.The Latin edition, which contained many errors and mistranslations, was used as the source for the English translation.

As for the etymology of the name niger, Etymology Online says:

African nation, named for the river Niger, mentioned by that name 1520s (Leo Africanus), probably an alteration (by influence of Latin niger "black") of a local Tuareg name, egereou n-igereouen, from egereou "big river, sea" + n-igereouen, plural of that word. Translated in Arabic as nahr al-anhur "river of rivers."

Wikipedia's version of the etymology is

The origin of the name Niger, which originally applied only to the middle reaches of the river, is uncertain. The likeliest possibility is an alteration, by influence of Latin niger "black", of the Tuareg name egerew n-igerewen, which is used along the middle reaches of the river around Timbuktu.

Exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa, the Portuguese had encountered the Niger Delta in the late 15th century, and established a trade mission in Benin City around 1485, but whatever they called the various waterways involved, it would not have been "Niger", which originally applied to (the inland delta of ?) the river near Timbuktu, far upstream. Timbuktu was the southern terminus of  trans-Sahara caravan routes when Leo Africanus visited it.

D.D. also asked:

My question—not sure I’m articulating it clearly—is whether the French /nee-ZHAIR/ or the English /NAI-jer/ (if you will) was closer to the presumed original pronunciation of that river’s name?

I don't know how (some 16th-century variety of) Tuareg pronounced egereou n-igereouen, but I think it's safe to say that the Great Vowel Shift was not in the picture. More seriously, in Italian and in 16th-century Vatican Latin, a vowel represented by orthographic 'i' would certainly have been IPA [i]. On the other hand, niger gets initial stress, and the French were not involved in that part of the world at all until the 19th century and the Scramble for Africa, as far as I know. So again, the answer is basically "neither one".

Finally, D.D. asks

And, moreover, ain't it pretty unique to have "Nigerien"–with the adjectival French "-ien" suffix–as a standard English spelling/usage? (In this case, apparently, to distinguish such people from Nigerians.) Or am I overlooking other (French-origin) "-ien" terminating adjectives in English?

I often see "Ivoirien" as the adjectival form for Côte d'Ivoire, as in the 1965 NYT article:

The 1600 English edition of A geographical historie of Africa is available from EEBO. Or to give the full title,

A geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by Iohn Leo a More, borne in Granada, and brought vp in Barbarie. Wherein he hath at large described, not onely the qualities, situations, and true distances of the regions, cities, townes, mountaines, riuers, and other places throughout all the north and principall partes of Africa; but also the descents and families of their kings … gathered partly out of his owne diligent obseruations, and partly out of the ancient records and chronicles of the Arabians and Mores. Before which, out of the best ancient and moderne writers, is prefixed a generall description of Africa, and also a particular treatise of all the maine lands and isles vndescribed by Iohn Leo. … Translated and collected by Iohn Pory, lately of Goneuill and Caius College in Cambridge.

Here's what that work has to say about the Niger:

The riuer of Niger, running through the land of Negros, called of old (as Solinus* supposed) by the naturall inhabitants Astabus, and (according to Marmolius) Hued Nijar in the Arabian toung, is now esteemed by Paulus Ioui∣us to be Gambra, and by Cadamosta the riuer of Senaga; but that both of them are deceiued, it is euident out of the description of Sanutus, who putteth downe the two foresaid riuers seuerallie, and thinketh Niger to be that which is now called Rio grande. This riuer taketh his beginning, as some thinke, out of a certain desert to the east, called Seu, or springeth rather out of a lake, and after a long race, falleth at length into the western Ocean. It increaseth also, for the space of fortie daies like Nilus, and is for so long space decreasing about the verie same time; by which inundation it bringeth such fruitfulnes vnto all the land of Negros (certain mountaines onely ex∣cepted) as no place in the world can be imagined more fertile.

If you wonder what he means by "the land of Negros", here's the explanation:

OVR authors affirme, that Africa is 〈◊〉 into fower partes, that is to say, Barbaria, Numidia, Libya, and the lande of Negros. […]

The fourth part of Africa which is called the land of Negros, begin∣neth eastward at the kingdome of Gaoga, from whence it extendeth west as far as Gualata. The north part thereof is inclosed with the desert of Libya, and the south part, which is vnknowen vnto vs, with the Ocean sea: howbeit the merchants which daily come from thence to the king∣dome of Tombuto, haue sufficiently described the situation of that coun∣trie vnto vs. This lande of Negros hath a mightie riuer, which taking his* name of the region, is called Niger: this riuer taketh his originall from the east out of a certaine desert called by the foresaide Negros Seu. Others will haue this riuer to spring out of a certaine lake, and so to run westward till it exonerateth itselfe into the Ocean sea.

MOreouer, the land of Negros is diuided into many kingdomes: whereof albeit a great part be vnknowen vnto vs, and remooued farre out of our trade; we will notwithstanding make relation of those places, where we our selues haue aboad, and which by long ex∣perience are growne very familiar vnto vs: as likewise of some other places, from whence merchants vsed to trauell vnto the same cities wherein my selfe was then resident; from whom I learned right 〈◊〉 the state of their countries. I* my selfe saw fifteene kingdoms of the Negros: howbeit there are many more, which although I saw not with mine owne eies, yet are they by the Negros sufficiently knowen and frequented. Their names therefore (beginning from the west, and so proceeding Eastward and Southward) are these following: Gualata, Ghinea, Melli, Tombuto, Gago, Guber, Agadez, Cano, Casena, Zegzeg, Zanfara, Guangara, Burno, Gaoga, Nube. These fifteene kingdomes are for the most part situate vpon the riuer Niger, through the which merchants vsually trauell from Gualata to the citie of* Alcair in Egypt. The iour∣ney indeede is very long, but yet secure and voide of danger. All the said kingdomes adioine one vpon another; ten whereof are separated either by the riuer Niger, or by some sandie desert: and in times past each one of the fifteene had a seueral king, but now* at this present, they are all in a manner subiect vnto three kings onely: namely, to the king of Tombuto who is Lord of the greatest part; to the king of Borno, who gouerneth the least part, and the residue is in subiection vnto the king of Gaoga: howbeit he that possesseth the kingdome of Ducala hath a very small traine attending vpon him. Likewise these kingdomes haue many other kingdomes bordering vpon the South frontiers of them: to wit, Bito, Temiam, Dauma, Medra, and Gorhan; the gouernors and inhabitants whereof are most rich and industrious people, great louers of iustice and equitie, albeit some lead a brutish kinde of life.

A 1559 edition of the Latin version of the work is available here; I have not found accessible versions of the Italian original, nor of the French translation.

There's a 1986 novel by Amin Maloof, Leo Africanus, in the form of a memoir in Leo's voice. The French original is available here, in principle, though I haven't been able to persuade to sell it to me.

(But the French version isn't available on amazon's American web site, though the Spanish translation is…)

There's an English translation, reviewed here. I haven't read it, but the amazon reviews are generally positive.

More information about Leo can be found in Pekka Masonen, Pekka, "Leo Africanus: the man with many names",  2001; and other things discussed and linked on this site.



  1. GeorgeW said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 10:14 am

    As an aside, I had privately speculated that the etymology of Boko Haram was a combination of French and Arabic loans: beaucoup (much) haram (forbidden). However, this post prompted me to actually check. According to Wikipedia, while 'Haram' is from Arabic meaning forbidden, 'Boko' is an English loan (from 'book') meaning alphabet.

    I would be interested to know what word they use for non-Western books which presumably would not be forbidden such as Islamic literature.

    [(myl) I've been told that boko in this case means "Western education".]

  2. Robert T McQuaid said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    A person from Canada is known as Canadien in French, which translates to Canadian in English. In Canada, well-known places in Quebec, such as Trois Rivières, have an anglicized form, Three Rivers. But lesser known places, such as Trois Pistoles, have only the French name, even in English. Perhaps the word Nigerien persists in English because its use is infrequent. Should it become more popular, the translation analogous to Canadien/Canadian might occur.

  3. Rodger C said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    And what are Nigerians called in French?

  4. backofbeyond said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 10:49 am

    Wikipedia has a selection of articles on the use of the term Nigerois as an adjective of the people of NIger.

  5. markonsea said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    Rodger C : According to, "Le Niger, en forme longue la République du Niger, est un pays d'Afrique de l'Ouest steppique, situé entre l'Algérie, le Bénin, le Burkina Faso, le Tchad, la Libye, le Mali et le Nigeria. La capitale est Niamey. Les habitants sont des Nigériens. … ceux du Nigeria sont des Nigérians."

    Every day's a schoolday!

  6. Sili said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    Turns out the book-boko thing is a false friend:

  7. GeorgeW said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    Sili: Interresting, They should correct the Wikipedia article about Boko Haram.

  8. Gooners said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

    "As a young man he accompanied an uncle on a diplomatic mission to the Maghreb, reaching as far as the city of Timbuktu"

    That's weird. Fes is the Maghreb.

    [(myl) Indeed, and Timbuktu is not. I think this is just an error in Wikipedia, perhaps copied from an error somewhere else.

    What Masonen says is:

    According to his own words, al-Hasan b. Muhammad accompanied one of his uncles on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu in the name of the Wattasid sultan of Fez.19 Their purpose was to pay homage to Askiya Muhammad Ture (1493–1528), founder and ruler of the mighty Songhay Empire, whose power was even recognized in the western Saharan oases. Timbuktu was at that time the most important centre of trans-Saharan caravan trade with some 50.000 inhabitants. Yet the capital of the Songhay Empire was Gao, which lies further to the east of the Niger bend, and Leo did not meet the Askiya but some of his lieutenants.


  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    GeorgeW: I just did.

    I can't help wondering, though, whether the extension of the meaning of boko was influenced by "book".

  10. marie-lucie said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

    In French, an inhabitant of the country of le Niger (same as the name of the river) is called called un(e) Nigérien(ne), using a common suffix for 'inhabitant of'. An inhabitant of le Nigéria is called un(e) Nigérian(e).

    In French as in English, the usual suffix could not be used for both countries, so each language borrowed the corresponding suffix of the other language.

    Boko Haram: See a more thorough discussion and comments in the blog referred to above (languagehat).

  11. Terrycollmann said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

    Mark, what you want is a VPN that will let you sign in to as if you were in France. I use one all the time to get round Google Books restricting access to people outside the US.

    [(myl) So I've been told.]

  12. Lazar said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

    It's always struck me as awkward that between these two countries, English uses the gallicism "Nigerien" for residents of Niger, while French uses the (semi-)anglicisms "Nigéria, Nigérian" to refer to Nigeria and its residents. I think it would make more sense to use:

    English: "Nigeria, Nigerian"; "Niger, Nigerese"
    French: "Nigérie, Nigérien"; "Niger, Nigérois"

    Cf. the other countries with river-based names, Senegal and the two Congos, which use "-ese" in English and "-ais" in French. (To the extent that "nigérois" and "nigérais" are found on Google, the former seems to be the overwhelming favorite.) But for some crazy reason, I'm not allowed to unilaterally revise languages and country names.

  13. ET said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    Leo Africanus is available at in the USA

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 9:55 am

    Now that The Nation-State Formerly Known As Zaire has abandoned that name, we are back to having two adjoining nations elsewhere in Africa sharing the demonym "Congolese." Are there any languages that manage separate demonyms for that pair? (French wikipedia suggests that French, which is the most relevant non-indigenous language for both, doesn't.) It is perhaps unfortunate that the old disambuguating distinction "French Congo" v. Belgian Congo" was never replaced even in purely informal usage by e.g. "West Congo" and "East Congo," which could have flowed through into disambiguated demonyms (this is one of the ways we handled multiple Germanies/Vietnams and still handle multiple Koreas).

  15. dw said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 11:52 am

    John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary gives a pseudo-French pronunciation of "Niger" for British English ( vowels of "be THERE"), but an Anglicized pronunciation for American English ( vowels of "TIED her").

    Nothing for "Nigerien".

  16. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

    Speaking of demonyms which use an atypical suffix in English: why "Montenegrin" and not the expected "Montenegran"?

  17. hanmeng said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    Mark, maybe using the Hola extension with the Chrome browser would work?

  18. Mik said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 7:23 am

    dw: exactly!
    In English, the pronunciation of Nigerian and Nigerien would be the same, wouldn't they?

  19. ajay said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 8:56 am

    In British English the country is definitely "knee zhere", but the river is "nigh ger" with a hard G, to rhyme with tiger:
    There is beauty in the bellow of the blast,
    There is grandeur in the growling of the gale,
    There is eloquent outpouring
    When the lion is a-roaring,
    And the tiger is a-lashing of his tail!

    Yes, I like to see a tiger
    From the Congo or the Niger,
    And especially when lashing of his tail!

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