African Languages

“The Odyssey of Ajami…”

Yale Library was host to a talk by Dr. Fallou Ngom of Boston University last Thursday.  The talk was well-attended, and co-sponsored by the Standing Committee on Professional Awareness, the Yale African Students Association, and the Yale Muslim Students Association.  Dr. Ngom touched on many aspects of the use of Ajami, or modified Arabic script, as it relates to African languages as diverse as Afrikaans, Malagasy, Hausa, and Wolof.  He covered material found in his book, published by Oxford University Press, “Muslims Beyond the Arab World”.

There were three manuscripts of particular interest that he brought up; one in Wolof and two written in Mandinka.  The Wolof poem is from a period between 1912 and 1927, by Mbaye Diakhaté, entitled “In the Name of Your Quills and Ink”, found in the British Library’s Endangered Archives collection 334.  Dr. Ngom played an audio recording of the poem and provided a full transcription.  One of the Mandinka manuscripts dates to the 1940’s and is a curse against Hitler, rendered as “Ikleer”–something like “إکلںڔ”, although my rendering of this here is only a rough attempt.  The actual image from the text is:  ikleer

Another Mandinka manuscript turned up on a search of the Harvard catalog; it’s not covered in Dr. Ngom’s book but it is apparently an incantation that dates to 1789.

Many interesting questions were posed afterward, including one about the need for a romanization table to process these texts, and one about the prevalence of Koranic schools relative to public schools teaching in French in regions of Senegal and Mali.

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Recent book on standardization of Gabonese languages

Ecriture et Standardisation des Langues Gabonaises, sous la direction de Jacques Hubert & Paul Achille Mavoungou (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2010). From back cover: “The language situation of Gabon is given fair treatment and specific issues of alphabet and writing, orthography and standardisation, phonology and graphic representation are discussed and resolved. Standardisation of orthography is also argued for as a way to facilitate the development of dictionaries and the sharing of research data and analyses within the Gabonese language clusters’ domain. Importantly, this work contributes to the debate on the state of African languages in general, and on Gabonese languages specifically that hitherto have had little fortune in being reduced to a written code. The need for research to empower Gabonese languages through their development is argued.” (Andy Chebanne, Centre for the Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), Cape Town.) Contributions are all in French.

Categories: African Languages, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

African Ajami Digital Library

Congratulations to Boston University on the launch of their African Ajami Digital Library!  This follows another collection of texts hosted at Michigan State’s African Online Digital Library, Harvard’s ASK-DL, and a research collection on Tijāniyyah and the Fayḍah maintained by the Medina Baay Research Association.

The Library of Congress also hosts a fully imaged set of 32 Islamic manuscripts from Mali, which are written mainly in Arabic.  While full-text digital search and complete translations are not yet available, there are some indications of use of ajami characters in this set as well.  A longstanding project to catalog four collections at the Herskovits Library at Northwestern, begun under John Hunwick, has continued in various stages since 1991.

For more background on the historical development of literature in Ajami, see: Fallou Ngom. “Aḥmadu Bamba’s Pedagogy and the Development of ͑Ajamī Literature.” African Studies Review 52.1 (2009): 99-123. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.

To read up on the technical standards coming into place for Ajami in the version 6.1 release of Unicode, see: Priest & Hosken, “Proposal to Add Arabic Script Characters for African and Asian Languages.”  2010.

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How Do I Spell a Click?

A loaded question.  There are a few variables at work, including your level of analysis.  The short answer is that using ʘ, ǀ, ǁ, ǃ, and ǂ is a well-established practice for Khoesan languages.  The letters c, q, and x are used for clicks in the Nguni language family, which includes Xhosa and Zulu.

Click phonemes are used in Khoe and San languages, traces of some of the deepest roots of the human experience of sharing this planet.  Anthony Traill (1939-2007), a South African linguist at Witswatersrand, analyzed up to seventy-nine clicks and click clusters across the twenty-seven languages in the Khoesan family.  For linguists, these are represented using combinations of letters, including several from the International Phonetic Alphabet: ʘ (bilabial), ǀ (dental), ǁ (lateral), ǃ (alveolar), and ǂ (palatal).

Do these characters ever appear in print?  Yes!  They have long been a part of the standard orthography of most, if not all, of the Khoesan languages.  Since 1979, their use has also been standardized as part of ISO 6438, the Coded Character Set for African Languages in Bibliographic Information Interchange, now superseded with the equivalent characters supported in UNIMARC and Unicode.

This is not to say that the standard has always been met with adequate system support on implementation.  As the level of support has varied, workarounds have been tried–sometimes by writers, substituting | and ||, or / and //,  for  ǀ and ǁ, or ! for ǃ (yes, those are different).  One widely used piece of library software (which will not be named here) uses the palatal click as its subfield delimiter.  Not a mere bug, this:  it’s a tarantula.

Three clicks also occur in the Nguni languages (e.g. Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi), where the orthography is simplifed to representing them as ‘c’ (dental), ‘q’ (alveolar) and ‘x’ (lateral).

With the wider availability of Unicode, the potential introduction of RDA, increased attention to localization of software and the advent of cloud computing, it looks as though the bibliographic situation for languages using click characters will soon become much clearer.  For legacy systems that do not support click characters directly, there are proposed workarounds that could be used, borrowing from the orthographic model as used for Nguni languages.  But as yet, there’s been no provision for the bilabial click proposed for use in following this option.

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Key Online Resources on African Languages

Stumped on where to look for information on a text in an African language?  Here’s a basic set of links that will provide you with a fundamental overview to the field:

Pan-African Localization wiki

Ethnologue: African Languages (SIL)

Electronic Bibliography of African Languages and Linguistics

Getting familiar with the names of languages, and the families they belong to, is a good first step.

Future posts in this category will cover some of the more comprehensive works in print for use in proposing new authority records or revisions to records that have been established, tools you can use for language identification, orthographic issues, and technical standards.

Categories: African Languages | 6 Comments

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