Monday, February 11, 2008

Browne's Nubian bible

I had a lot of trouble uploading this and had to compress it - I hope you can still see it...

Nubian Comparison

Thanks to the kind and prolific Ideophone, I now have some new Nubian texts to compare to the mysterious inscription I have been writing about. Gerald M. Browne's "Old Nubian Grammar" is probably the most helpful work out there on Nubian, and Mark Dingemanse (the man behind the expressives) was kind enough to scan a dozen pages of it for me (before going off to catch the African Cup final, which once again was taken by a country which only considers itself African [at least socially] when it comes to sports ;), which included a couple of passages from Nubian translations of the Bible. A comparative analysis of the actual Nubian with the locally found inscription (well probably not local from Darfur, but brought from somewhere else in Sudan), reveals that the inscription could be Nubian, containing a lot of abbreviations, and possibly some letters used as numbers (accounting for the consonant strings). The strange vowel patterns which I commented on earlier were also consistent with some of the Nubian vowel groupings or diphthongs, but from what I could tell, there were not any identifiable Nubian words, nor were there any clearly Nubian letters, so I really couldn't discount the possibility of Coptic (since there are quite a few Coptic letters, and otherwise the letterforms are identical). I am leaning toward thinking the general text is not religious, since of all the Greek words only αναπαυσις is almost definitely religious in nature (signifying a certain type of prayer which requires standing up for a long time I believe), and it occurred to me that its use could be a prescription of prayer for someone who is sick perhaps the Πετρονος whom I had earlier been assuming was actually referring to the Biblical apostle Peter, but could just as well be someone simply named after him. In the next few weeks I will look for some Coptic texts online, and report on any findings of similarities there, but if you are able to pick out any common words between Browne's publication of the Nubian grammar, and the inscription, please let me know. I might even give a prize.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Multi-liingual poetry

Language Hat's post concerning Antoine Cassar's Muzajk or "Mosaics" appearing in Chimaera was quite an inspiring exercise in interlinguality (as opposed to intertextuality) and reminded me of a poem I wrote while part of Kuumba quite a while ago which includes ten languages used in a very pastiche style, with a spoken word rhythm:

why do I learn another language?
so that I can share in your anguish;
A sorrow shared is half a sorrow;
but who can share sorrow in a language borrowed
"O si vous avez des yeux que vos yeux s'emplissent de larmes."[i]
But they don't have eyes: they don't see the harm
in everyone speaking their language
atrophied as their minds languish
at your feet is the same damned dish
of second hand adverbs and adjectives.
Day after day the same prison food to the non-native tongue tastes so crude
unable to express the subtlety of my mood
"I'm not trying to be rude I read all the way through to Jude
but there was no Revelation
I was expecting some kind of elevation
but you gave me French when I needed Haitian."
I can't describe the sensation that I saw
when I sang "Chamo Kwoni gibala”[ii]
with Nairobi’s orphans I can't describe the sensation that I saw
when I sang "Nkosi sikelele Africa"[iii] with Desmond Tutu
I can't describe the sensation that I saw when I sang
"Kwaze kwa wonakala"[iv] with a Kenyan woman exiled in Columbus
I can't describe the sensation that I saw “Jesu da ho ya”[v]
I can't describe the sensation that I saw “Hol no mbitiye da”[vi]
I can't describe the sensation that I saw…
because I didn't feel it, except vicariously
Oh how the mother tongue must hang precariously
on the lips of a motherless child who's too scared to sleep.

Yes, a sorrow shared is half a sorrow
weeping may remain for a night
but rejoicing, tomorrow.
because the other half of the proverb's also right:
Joy shared is twice a joy…

[i] “O if you have eyes, may your eyes fill with tears” – Chants Kabylie 1982 Anonymous Algerian Poet

[ii] The opening line of a traditional Kenyan song in Luo (?) a Bantu language spoken by a minority of Kenyans. The song is about a monkey stealing fruit; an arrangement by Mwashuma Nyatta ’02 was performed by the Kuumba Singers in the spring of 2002.

[iii] “God Bless Africa” – Xhosa, the opening line of the South African National Anthem

[iv] First line from a Swahili Christian song – “When He comes I will be like Him”

[v] Christian song in Kikuyu, a Kenyan language spoken by the largest ethnic group of Kenya

[vi] “What is your Name” – Pulaar, a West African Language

Monday, February 4, 2008

More on Nubian (and the claimed connection with Fur)

I have looked a little more at the Nubian text, which I laboriously pieced together from about a dozen pictures I took of a stone tablet at a local museum (the former palace of Sultan Ali Dinar, in fact), and then attempted to decipher. I am afraid to say that I am actually not totally convinced that it is Nubian, since the only letter I can make out that might not be Coptic is a double-gamma, which is in fact not at all what a Nubian double gamma (representing ŋ) should look like - the second gamma should be rotated to the bottom so the letter looks like a bracket, but instead appears to be simply two gammas appended horizontally (see lines 10 and 11 for the clearest examples). So I thought for a minute it could actually be Coptic rather than Nubian (or even some other language written with a Coptic script for that matter). On the other hand it may be that in your average religious text (which is the theme of most extant Nubian texts) there would be so many loan words from Greek and Coptic, that very few of the uniquely Nubian sounds would show up. Unfortunately I can't back this hypothesis up, since I don't have access to any other Nubian texts, but I would bet on this pretty heavily.
The little that I can make out for sure from the text is a bit of Greek religious terminology:

...besides this there are a lot of perplexing strings of letters to be honest, and I am not necessarily even sure where to put the word breaks. What this makes me think is that perhaps this is either an early Nubian text before there was any sort of standardizing of the orthography. Perhaps it is an early attempt to approximate the spoken language, which makes me wonder if some of the difficulty, or repetition of letters is an attempt to render the tones of the language. All currently spoken languages of the Nubian family are tonal, so Ancient Nubian also must have been tonal, but there is no evidence of that having been marked in any way. What if early attempts at writing it like this, experimented in that? The only other possibility that comes to mind is that the consonant clusters represent strangely abbreviated words (there is one string of 8 consonants in a row 6 lines from the bottom). In addition to the strange consonants there are some pretty implausible dipthongs... how would you pronounce "uoiai"?
Finally, to revisit my somewhat preposterous assertion that Fur might be another Nubian language, having arrived in the region along with Midob, and then diverged under the influence of the Jebel Marra "accretion zone" languages. The first thing I was thinking of was merely the sounds of Fur consonants:






plosive, voiceless





plosive, voiced



ʒ [dʒ]


fricative, voiceless



fricative, voiced









l, r


these seem to match up pretty exactly with Nubian, except for a few sounds in Nubian which are not in Fur, but are probably mostly for Greek loan words (like ξ, χ). I still have not gotten around to doing much of a lexical analysis since I have been quite busy here, doing health/nutrition and education projects here in Darfur... as well as entertaining other interests like the OLPC (the first G1G1 recipient of Darfur, if you've been following that project). Anyone else involved in i18n or L10n projects for Saharan and Sahelian languages? I am really interested to get my XO running in Arabic...

Sunday, February 3, 2008


In light of the impending overthrow of Idriss Deby, the world's richest Zaghawa, and the continuing violence in Chad (most likely supported by Sudan) I wanted to write a follow-up post on Zaghawa. I was finally able to get the sound values for the Zaghawa Beria Alphabet that I wrote about before:


A b p s c d e f g h i j k l m n x o r t u y w z

a b p s š/ʃ d e f g h i j k l m n ɲ/ñ o r t u y w ŋ

These are taken from camel brandings, as I mentioned earlier, and I can not figure out why there would be capital letters and lowercase letters, but in the only text I have access to, it seems to be used as it would in French (Chad being a francophone country). This one text I have, entitled "La Vendeuse de Lait" starts:

Kubayni, bagu oh barta ni geni ru / key key-gini. Ber kettié, oh kigo / narení.

More on the rest of the text, and some translation later, when I have a chance to talk to one of my Zaghawa staff people who has informed me that he, like other Beria, are a very different group of Zaghawa than the "wange" power mongerers like Deby and Minni Minnawi (whom he considers traitors for having signed the Bogus peace deal with Khartoum).

Friday, February 1, 2008


A little random, but I just thought I would try my hand at translating a little TS Eliot into Arabic, using a few terms that I thought were funny, including "khawaji" for stranger, since this is what all of the sudanese children shout at foreigners passing by. But I don't let them get away with it

انتم تتجاهلون وتستصغرون البادية
البادية ليست بعيد في الاقاليم الاقسى الجنوبية
البادية ليست حول الركن بس

البادية مرصص في "التوب" القطاع بجنبك
البادية في قلب اخك

تسمح لي ابين لك شغلة المتوضع. اسمع.

في الاماكن الخاوية
نبنى بطوب جديد

اي حياة عندكم، لو ليست حياة جميعا ؟
اي حياة عندكم، لو ليست حياة جميعا ؟

حيث سقط الطوب
نبنى بحجر جديد
حيث رمّت الرافدة
نبنى بخشب جديد
حيث سكت القول
نبنى بنطق جديد.
هناك شغل جميعا
كنيسة للكل
وعمل لكل واحد

اي حياة عندكم، لو ليس حياة جميعا؟
لم يوجد حياة غير جماعية،
ولم يوجد جمعة لا تعيش في حمد الله.

والآن تعيشون اباديد على الطرق
ولا شخصاً يعرف جاره او يهتم له مَن جاره
إلا إن جاره بلبله كثير
لكن كل يجرون كذا وكذاك بسيارة
عارفين الطرق ولا وطنوا ايهم

كثير للتفريق وكثير للبناء وللرد.
اعطيتكم قدرة الاختيار وتبادلون
بين تنظير خائب وفعلة ما معتبرة

والريح يقول: "هنا كان شعب متعدل وملحاد
اثرهم الوحيد الزلط
والف قرة جولف مفقود."

ولما يقول الخواجي: "ما معنى هذه المدينة
انتم تتقربون لانكم تحبّ بعضكم البعض؟"
ماذا تتجوبون؟ "نعيش جميعا كلنا
لنتبدل الفلوس، وهذه الجمعة؟"

يا نفسي تستعد لمجئ الخواجي
يا نفسي تستعد لمجئ الخواجي

يا نفسي تستعد لمجئ الخواجي

تستعد نفسك للذي يعرف يطرح لك أسئلة