By popular demand, I’ve decided to clarify how one says “I love you” in Bambara. Here it is: N b’i fɛ. You can ignore the spelling of the Salif Keïta song that uses this line, but feel free to listen and hear him translate it over and over:
Ignoring Salif’s ad hoc spelling, you’ll notice that there’s a “contraction” in “N b’i fɛ”. This happens both in writing and when speaking at normal speed. Here’s the full form so you can see all the words in full:
N bɛ i fɛ
In a pinch, you can write using the old convention of representing <ɛ> with <è> — I do this sometimes when I’m on a computer or device that isn’t mine:
N bè i fè
N b’i fè
In any case, what is actually going on this sentence? In this An ka taa blog post, I investigate the grammar of “N b’i fɛ” but here is quick table that lays it out:
The word bɛ is a copula (COP) that is used to expression ideas of location in Bambara.
The word fɛ is a post-position (PP) that doesn’t have on convenient translation. (The French word ‘chez’ gets close to it.) In general, it expresses an idea of proximity.
Taken together that means that we can think of “N b’i fɛ” as being literally close to meaning “I am in proximity to you”. No one walks around thinking that that is the meaning of the expression though. Idiomatically, we can simply translate it as “I love you”.
It is also worth noting that “fɛ” is also commonly used to express ‘want’ in Bambara. In this sense when you say “N b’i fɛ” you are potentially also saying “I want you”.
So does friend’s “N b’i fɛ” mean that they love you or that they are aroused by you? I’ll let you make that call!