The Vai language
Vai is a Mande language spoken by approximately 120,000 people, mainly located in Liberia (roughly 87% of the total number of speakers), and some in Sierra Leone. Together with Kɔnɔ (spoken in Sierra Leone), Vai forms a linguistically close-knit, albeit geographically discontiguous cluster. Within Mande, the Vai-Kɔnɔ Cluster belongs to the Central Branch of Western Mande (Kastenholz 1996: 70-71), next to Koranko and the Manding Dialect Cluster (this latter comprising varieties like Bamanan, Mandinka, Jula, Maninka, etc.).
The data collection background
August Klingenheben (1886-1967), from 1930 to 1936 director of the newly established Institute of African Languages at the University of Leipzig/Germany, was engaged in studying the Vai language of Liberia with varying intensity for about four decades of his life. He collected data on this language in 1927, 1951 and 1962 in Liberia (Jungraithmayr 1983: 130). More Vai data were gleaned at different periods of time at home, in Hamburg: From approximately 1924 to 1930, he worked with Momolu Massaquoi and his daughter Fatima, while Massaquoi was Consul to Hamburg, and had a teaching post at the University of that city.
In a second period (1953-1954), he worked with Zuke Kandakai, who had been awarded a grant for a stay in Hamburg (Kalthoff 2006: 48, 51; Everson et al. 2005: 1). Klingenheben unfortunately never came around to give shape to his intended major work on the Vai language. After his death, the collection of Vai lexical data from his legal estate has been transferred to and kept by the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin. This is, literally, a shoebox collection (probably compiled between 1955 and 1956) of slips of paper (DIN standard A7), for the most part handwritten, some type-written, organised in two parts: Vai-German, consisting of roughly 6,360 slips, and German-Vai. The source material for the lexical data presented here is taken from the Vai-German part.