The Lé word Bé [be24] has three related meanings:
- ‘Great’; cf. compounds like bésɛ̀ ‘great city, metropolis’.
- An ethnonym (derived of course from the first sense), encompassing all speakers of Beic languages, known to be isolating, tonal and largely monosylabic. As Lé has no plurals, we can speak of one Bé or many Bé.
- The land occupied by these people; that is, the northern, Beic-speaking cultural zone of Arcél. (There are some minor groups, mostly Linaminče, who are culturally but not linguistically Bé.)
The major Bé peoples, west to east, and their countries:
- The Pah of Pahsau, now a Kebreni colony
- The Łei of Łeisau
- The Mau of Mǎɔraŋ
- The Hao of Haoraŋ (eastern Mǎɔraŋ)
- The Lé of Belesao
- The Pàn of Pansao (upper Belesao)
- The Nér of Nérsao (eastern Belesao)
- The Mɔlɔ of Mɔlɔsɔu
The name Belesao is a compound of Bé + Lé (once a dynastic name, now an ethnic group) + sàɔ ‘country’; it's rather like the name of Saudi Arabia (which contains both name of the ethnic group and the ruling dynasty).
The Bé is entirely in the tropical zone of Arcél, a region dominated by the rain forest. The dominant agricultural mode even today is shifting garden plots; this is supplemented by fishing and small game hunting. Sparked in part by trade with Krwŋ, city-states appeared in the Lɛn valley by 1100, and large-scale queendoms by 1500. By about 2000 there was regular sea trade with Nyan, which accelerated westward settlement; by 3200 the first Kebreni ships arrived, bringing fascinating new goods and ideas. The Bé have thus long had a mercantile orientation and welcomed foreign ideas; they are arguably the most advanced nations of Arcél.
The religion of the Beic peoples is polytheistic. The major Bé goddesses have temperaments rather than portfolios; e.g. Jíŋ is haughty, Ŋisú is cheerful, Kâ is treacherous. There are also lesser spirits (hɔ́), often associated with animals. The distinctive feature of their world view is understanding of the universe as twofold, consisting of nɔŋǎ (the ‘inner world’, the spirit realm) and dòŋǎ (‘death world’, the physical realm).
The Bé are also known for their female dominance: they are governed at the family and state level by women, based on a belief that women are smarter, tougher, and less emotional than men. In ancient Beic kingdoms, when a queen died, all her husbands were sacrificed. Fortunately for males, modern Bé no longer practice it.