Thursday, December 27, 2007


On a little break in Khartoum for Christmas, and I was listening to some Gotan project … and “gotan” is tango, in the “vesre” Spanish which the RioPlatense area is most known for, particularly Buenos Aires, where it is incorporated into a very elaborate slang system known as Lunfardo. Tango music and dance is so closely associated with Lunfardo, that one could say that today this is its main function, as new, less localized slang systems come into use among youth, which don’t have much to do with Lunfardo. The onrush of Italian immigrants to Argentina between 1880 and 1900 brought Buenos Aires’ population to around 40% Italian, which inevitably led to a sort of pidgin, which became known (or at least parodied) as cocoliche, supposedly after a certain Antonio Cuccoliccio whose speech was mocked and imitated by comedian Celestino Petray to great applause:

Mi quiamo Franchisque Cocoliche e sono creolio hasta lo güese da la taba e la canilla de lo caracuse, amico.”

Many of these Cocoliche terms came to be incorporated into the general slang, which was developing concurrently with the use of vesre, germanía, jeringonza as well as guaraní and other indigenous languages, and other external influences around the seedy underbelly of the Buenos Aires crime world, which seems to have been the milieu in which tango was most popular. The best place for a lot of glosses on Lunfardo words is the Spanish "gotan glosario". But the Spanish wiki site has much more in-depth descriptions of the formations and etymologies of the words, including this one on cop slang:


Police. Word of unknown origin from Lunfardo of unknown etymology. Could come from the Portuguese “encanado” which is to say: “imprisoned in a jail cell made of canes (sticks).” In fact the term cana is used with identical meaning in Brazil. Before it was very widespread among tango writers in their lyrics, and today it is in frequent use among the whole population. The Lunfardo word cana seems to be abbreviated from canario, a word already used in spain since the 16th c. at least (Cervantes mentions it with the meaning of ‘cantor’ – delegate or confidante of the police), others suggest that the etimology is founding the French word canne (rod, stick, i.e. billy club/nightstick) as a metonymy for the stick which police use.

Other versions indicate that it was because of the mistreatment of retired police because of the small quantity of the same (i.e. sticks?). Upon seeing the color of their skin, the robbers made fun of them saying “canosos” or “canas.”

Order to the “cana” means at the same time “send to prison” and by extension, accuse (or with a certain comic tone) put someone to trial who has made some misstep, for example: “Cacho did some sort of nonsense and Juana accused him (lo mando en cana) in front of everyone.” On the other hand “batir la cana” or “dar la canaveri” could mean omit or leave out an intention or act that one wants to keep secret.

(see also cobani, vesre for abanico)

for more language games do not see Ludwig Wittgenstein. His language-games are not very fun.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

code writing

One of the things which first got me into languages I think, was writing in code as a kid... my friends and I used to make up all sorts of codes for secret communication, and even as I got older I still felt like speaking in a foreign language was some sort of code which allowed me a greater freedom to say anything I wanted. But recently I was trying to come up with a way of writing that would be a more or less private code, utilizing an already existing writing system and a language I already know. Obviously writing any romance language with an Arabic script has a precedent and anything written in a relatively widely used script would not take long to figure out, so I started looking for "mutually exclusive" languages. One of my initial impulses was to try to write Arabic with Hangul script, since there is almost no logical social, political, or economic reason anyone would know both of those languages, but there were just too many sounds that couldn't be represented accurately. My next attempt, which I undertook a bit more seriously, was writing Arabic in Georgian script, because why make up a script when you can use an existing one that looks made up?

Letters Unicode

U+10D0 an

U+10D1 ban

U+10D2 gan

U+10D3 don

U+10D4 en

U+10D5 vin

U+10D6 zen

U+10D7 tan

U+10D8 in

U+10D9 k’an

U+10DA las

U+10DB man

U+10DC nar

U+10DD on

U+10DE par

U+10DF žan

U+10E0 rae

U+10E1 san

U+10E2 t’ar

U+10E3 un

U+10E4 par

U+10E5 kan

U+10E6 ɣan

U+10E7 q’ar

U+10E8 šin

U+10E9 čin

U+10EA can

U+10EB ʒil

U+10EC c’il

U+10ED č’ar

U+10EE xan

U+10EF ǯan

U+10F0 hae


The Georgian alphabet has almost enough parallel sounds to cover all the arabic phonemes:





























as you can see I wasn't quite sure what to do about the 'ayn and the ha, but beyond that was a deeper issue of historical Arabic-Georgian interaction. While most people focus on the translation movement from Greek to Arabic in the 9-12 centuries due to the recent attention by Dimitri Gutas and the like, at roughly the same time Arabic Christian thought was being preserved by Georgian monks:
...from the modern scholarly point of view, one of the most important contributions of Georgian monks in the Judean desert monasteries, particularly in the early Islamic period, was their activity as translators. Numerous texts, originally written in Greek and Arabic, have survived into modern times only because they have been preserved in Georgian translations.
(from Griffith, 1997)
So, that might be one reason why Georgian-Arabic wouldn't be such a great combination for a tough to crack language code, but I imagine most of those Arabic-reading Georgian monks are dead now. Referring to the Linguistic Mystic's manual on cryptorthography I am tempted to throw a little Cyrillic in there, but I think it is too commonly known, and again there are a lot of Arabic sounds that aren't accounted for.
Short of stooping to "extinct" languages like Nubian, or recently invented scripts for languages that have almost never been written, like Zaghawa, I am not out of brilliant ideas. There must be some efficient way of finding the 2 most widely spoken languages with the least number of common speakers... any guesses?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tonal languages of Darfur

I got back from a field trip to a rural area which is predominantly Fur, and close to the heart of the ancient Fur kingdom/Sultanate in Jebel Marra, and I was able to pick up a fair amount of Fur on the trip, but I didn't realize until speaking with some staff members back in El Fasher that Fur is a tonal language!! They showed me 7 words that are very similar and the main distinguishing feature is the tonal difference, or minor consonantal differences which are almost imperceptible to non-native speakers. Here is my loose attempt at reproducing the sounds with the symbols I could find... (the đ is supposed to be an almost emphatic d, not quite as strong as a ض but I couldn't find the d with the dot underneath Unicode character, so I wasn't really sure how else to represent it). Also the superscript l (thunder) is supposed to be a very light afterthought of a sound:

dēj - a lalub tree

déi - male goat

đêj - oil

déĩ - ant (NB Darfuri Arabic = darr)

dëi¹ - thunder

đēwi - tail

đeui - grass

I was surprised that I hadn't perceived it was a tonal language at first, and in fact I had assumed that none of the languages of the area were really tonal, but in fact it seems quite common... it is also part of Masalit, which you would be able to see (if one could paste accurately from PDF files) in this story recorded by John Edgar in a study on Masalit storytelling:

k e l i m b e l l i m b o singeim waka. k e l i k o r n an g s i n g e i odoore.
girls boys-with wood-loc they-went. girls getting-up wood they-collect.
The girls and boys went to the woods. The girls started to collect wood.

kimamba duu a n y a n e l d l t i k e l a koko singm toyoona. anyaneldi
bop self gum-arabic he-saw going wood-loc he-climbed. gum-arabic
One boy saw a gum-arabic tree and went and climbed up it. He tried to

a w u l te ru tend tokomingi koogi tudona.
I-take-shall saying he-did hornbill eye it-plucked-out.
take the tree (as firewood), but a hombill (that was in the tree) plucked out his eye

suru koogi fong ken karaa s a r g i n kar tununga. s i n g e i
descending eye cover doing girl back coming he-stopped. wood
He got down and, covering his eye, came and stopped behind a girl. She was

toniede. s i n g e i t i r t e n a . kimamba ngo tirnanga: a i a i k o o g i
she-chops. w00d splinter it-did. boy thus he-said: ah ah eye
chopping wood. The wood splintered. The boy said thus: 'Ah ah, you put

mbalodaga! h i l l e m wakaamolo baabata t e n d e l a . kibinu
me-you-put-out. village-loc they-came-jfrom father-his he-told. seizing
out my eye!' When they reached the village, he told his father. Taking

karailimbd j i z e h a . kimadAaga. l e i l e t o mucota
girl that-with marriage they-made. child they-hore. day one wife-his
the girl, they married her with that one. They had a child. One day, his wife

kima Auwd ( n i i b i n d ) saamtaka. kambaa g i kimakuld
child giver (seizer) well-loc she-went. husband this child taking
gave him the baby and went to the well. The husband took the child and

t i A j i k a r i g g o t e r E : tokomiggikima andlya,
he-dandles thus he-says: hornbill child me-gave,
dandled it (on his knees) and said thus (singing): 'The hombill gave me a child;

kaa koikindag k o i t o k o m i g g i k i s a r i a . ndokom ndokom!
people all you-exist-if all hornbill you-play-not. dee dunz dee dum!
people, never play with the hombill. Dee dum, dee dum! '

monjokolatd j a a r i i n i y e ( t a g i t a muiljetagiinimolo) a j i
old-woman one neighhour (house-her near house-their-fronz) song
A certain old woman whose house was near to their house heard the song and,

t ~ i n a g akimakarawosaammolotaramolo tordga a j i kambata
she-heard child girl-the wellfronz she-came-fronz she-called song hushar~d-of
when the girl came back from the well, called her and related to her all of the

k o i t e n d e l a . k a r a g i baabata Tendela, k a a g g i i l u
all she-told. girl this father-her she-told. nzan that
husband's song. The girl then told it to her father. They (the community)

divorced them.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Ever since I lived in Golden Gate park at the end of Haight St. in SF for a week, I have been interested in what people call police officers as slang, and what that says about their relationship with them. One of my fellow inhabitants in the park had the words "F*CK PIGS" tattooed on his knuckles. I also frequently heard "six-up" shouted right before people scrambled to hide their illegal possessions, followed by a police car cruising by to pick anyone up. "Six-up," I was told referred to the six lights in the siren on the top of the car. Then of course, there is "five-oh" which is originally a police radio code, which came into common parlance because of the TV program "Hawaii 50 [five-oh]." There are probably dozens more English terms for police (maybe hundreds if you count local variations from around the world) but I am more interested in what they are in other languages.
In French, the only two slang words I know of for this are "flic" and "cochon," which should be "cilf" and "chonco" in verlan (the french equivalent of pig latin, perhaps appropriately more sophisticated and complex). Instead "flic" becomes "keuf" which is apparently a parallel reconstruction to match the sounds of "meuf" for "femme," "teupo" for "pote," and "beur" for "arabe." I have heard plenty of examples of "cochon," but I don't remember any particularly of the verlan version, though unless it was in La Haine, a great french movie which goes into the banlieues of Paris to look at the climate of French race relations, which seem to be as much a powderkeg today as they were then. It is hard to say whether "cochon" is simply a calque of english "pig," picked up through TV, or if the idea that police officers are swine is just part of universal human consciousness. As for "flic," this is quite a common term, and may not even be considered slang. I wish I could tell the reader what it comes from... but I haven't heard of anything.
I am really interested in the Arabic slang terms though, as this has been a little more inaccessible socially. People either consciously self-censor candid terms around me about the authorities since I am so obviously an outsider, and they may not be sure which "side" I am on; or it could be a sub-conscious avoidance of more familiar register. So I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to some relevant terms today:

[bomba] "cops" roughly - بمبا
emprison?, round up - خبس
- الابيضspecial police intelligence forces

the scenario being described was like so:

شماشة 1 الى شماشة 2: تفقفق يا زول البمبا خبس
شماشة 2 الى شماشة 1:كيف! المراة ذي كان مع الابيض انا قت لك
شماشة 2 الى زول تاني: انت فرد والناس منقرد

shamasha 1 ila shamasha 2: tafugfug ya zul, al-bumba khabas!
shamasha 2 ila shamasha 1: kayf! al-marra dhi kan ma' al-abyadh ana gutt lek

shamasha 2 ila zul tani : anta farda wa-'n-nas mangarda

hoodlum 1 to hoodlum 2 : scram! the police are on the prowl!
hoodlum 2 to hoodlum 1 : How!? That woman must have been a spy!
... (running away)
hoodlum 2 to another dude: oh buddy, you are the only friend I can count on!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nubian text


lpmiouogocmptniu paipet


????satanho. nt?ujoocyiteihe

n?mpemeoomatwradmi je





Han auopmina,ocyeigggg[[(pp)dm

Nooyjoywq(p) apeboit(gg) pa,wni

Pezooun ticuoiaicy nou?cou

Denjoco ntokhep de[poty


impicounfnadua ammniowc

mni,iond nefpomoeeit

wlih li,mpgmnnnempate i


pocetyn auhmoocdee

petronoc e ggi do nei

pezetyros e ty o

okly ?ne

n??tepo oniamppsu te

?lp miou ogosmptniu paipet


shatankho. nt?édzoosniteiHe

n?mpe meo omatô radmi dze

tisou kaHek(is) naiso tiso nepisaH

ntei HeHitmi ehiseteusis eahm

toniomo onoipen Hosiôtato o-

neiôta insoupepis isopo o-

Hanau opmina khosneitshdm

nooé dzoé ôhpa pebong pakhôni

pezooun tisuoi aisn nou?sou

deédzoso ntokHep detshpoté

mptnpnriei? eTnaun anapausis

impisou nfnadua ammniôs

mnikhiond nefpompeeit

ôliH likhmg mnnnempate i-

dzint khirod oniantmn? iepisr-

posetén auHmoosdee

petronos e ngi do nei

pezetérosh e té o

oklé ?ne

Here is my first attempt at deciphering this inscription, and I thought I would be able to make some sense of it between the greek and some of the local stuff, but I think I am going to need a lexicon of some sort, and unless there is one online, I am up a crick without a paddle... or in an isolated place without a dictionary, as the case may be.

more speculation about the content upcoming...

Monday, December 3, 2007

Nubian text

This is an old Nubian text I came across at the local museum (actually the former palace of Sultan Ali Dinar). It is almost certainly from somewhere closer to the Nile Valley, but it is interesting that they would have that in a local museum, marked "Sandstone with Greek Inscription" no less! When I can get a font for Nubian script, I will transcribe it and make my best guess at a translation...

Saturday, December 1, 2007


In addition to the wonderfully rich Sudanese Arabic colloquialisms that wrapped up the last post, I have the pleasure of access to half a dozen other languages about which relatively little research has been done. Of all these none happens to be more interesting and more accessible than Midob, or Tidd-náal, as they call themselves. One of my closest neighbors is tiddi, and I came upon a locally-published monograph on everything Midob entitled Qabilat al-Midob: taht mijhar al-bahth “The Tribe of the Midob: under the microscope of research,” by al-Hajj Adam ‘Abdallah Hassan. While most of the work is based on collective memory of the recent past, and it does quote some western historians about the more distant past (including “English historian Makmaykel”), the author does valorize oral history:

الجزء المدون من تاريخ الميدوب قليل ونادر واغلبها تعتمد على الروايات الشفوية فاجداد الميدوب يقولون انهم اتو من دنقلا ويدعي ال(كارقوى شلكوتا( بانهم من المحس (سكوت) ومنه اشتقوا لفظ شلكوتا ورواية اخرى تقول ان (الاورتى) هم المحس اما الكارقدى من الدناقلة. (8)

“The recorded part of the history of the Midob is few and far between, and seizing it depends on oral stories, so the grandfathers of the Midob say that they came from Dongola because our language and calls the Karqawi Shelkout because they are from the Muhiss (sukut) and from it they broke away from the remarks of the Shelkouta, and another story which says that the Aourti were the Muhiss as far as the Karqaday [Karqawi?] from Dongola.”

(forgive the translation)

Though we aren’t so lucky as to get any of this oral history written down verbatim (in Arabic or Midob) from the author, he does mention the names of some of his sources (two of whom live in my town), so maybe I will track them down or maybe just the author himself.

Besides just being quite accessible, Midob is of particular interest because it is related to Old Nubian reputedly, though it is the furthest linguistically and geographically from its purported medieval Nubian ancestor.

Roland Werner’s 1993 book on this branch of “Darfur Nubian” is reviewed below:

Roland Werner, Tidn-aal: a study of Midob (Darfur-Nubian). Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1993, 169 pp., DM68, ISBN 3 496 02507 7

The Midob are often referred to as ‘Meidob’: an erroneous spelling which does not reflect pronunciation and which goes back to a MacMichael 1918 article. Although the people have grown to accept the xenonym ‘Midob’, their self-name is tiddi (sg.) and their linguistic self-name is as in the title of this book , meaning ‘Tid (pl.) language’. The people live around Dar Midob, about 500 miles west of Khartoum. Werner says (p.13) the administrative area comprises 24,000 square miles. There are about 45,000 to 50,000 Midob, who are mixed pastoralists (goats, sheep, camels).

The introduction (pp. 13-18) takes up the name, location, tribe, place of Midob in Nubian, dialects and sub-groups, history of Midob linguistic research, methods, scope, and aim of the study.

The Midob are neither ‘Nile’ nor ‘Hill’ Nubians. According to the work of Becchauss-Gerst, Nubian consists of Nobiin (Mahas-Fadicca) as against four other languages, of which Midob is the most divergent. Midob was unknown to Western scholarship till MacMichael’s first published vocabulary list about 1912. Among the fifty bibliography items listed by Werner (pp. 167-9) there is no substantial grammar or dictionary of Midob, so that this book is the first such. A list of abbreviations is given on p. 166.

It contains an extensive Midob-English vocabulary of about 2,000 items (pp. 75-143) with Arabic loans identified and an English-Midob index (144-165). I obtained a copy just as I was in need of some Midob lexicon for a project but was surprised to discover that the English index does not list many basic terms such as ‘blood’ (although it is used on p. 25), ‘belly’, ‘claw’, ‘earth’, ‘feather’, ‘good’, ‘mouth’, ‘new’, ‘other’, ‘path’, ‘person’, ‘plant’, ‘road’, ‘seed’, or ‘smoke’. ‘See’ is given as kəl – on p. 159 but as kood – on p.46 and I could not find the latter in the lexicon. There are also two brief texts with translations (‘Of old times’ and ‘Wedding’, pp. 64-5) and 209 sentences (pp. 66-74).

The grammar is rather brief (pp. 18-63), consisting of (1) phonology, (2) tonology, (3) nouns, (4) pronouns, (5) postpositions, (6) the verb, (7) adverbs, (8) ideophones, (9) conjunctions. I will not go into any details here except to note that Arabic is invading the phonology and lexicon of Midob, as with all Sudanese languages.

The slim volume is well produced from what looks like computer print-out (with both margins justified)…. A sketch map of the location and general features of Dar Midob would have been helpful.

Despite some weaknesses, pointed out above, on balance this tone-marked grammar of Midob, based on fieldwork of 1987-88, is certainly a valuable addition to the Nubian linguistic literature.

M. Lionel Bender

Southern Illinois University

For a quicky wiki overview of contemporary Nubian languages see below:

“Of all the Nubian languages, the ones spoken along the Nile traditionally have received the most attention. Many manuscripts have been unearthed in the Nile Valley, mainly between the first and fifth cataracts, testifying to a firm Nubian presence in the area during the first millennium. Nobiin and a dialect cluster related to it, Kenzi-Dongolawi, are found in the same area. These languages were the languages of the Christian Nubian kingdoms. Historical comparative research has shown that the Nile-Nubian languages do not form a genetic unit; the speakers of Nobiin arrived first in the area, followed later by the speakers of the Kenzi and Dongolawi varieties.

“The other Nubian languages are found hundreds of kilometers to the southwest, in Darfur and in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan. In the past, there has been debate as to whether the Nubian languages spread to the Nile valley from Kordofan and Darfur or moved in the opposite direction. For a long time it was assumed that the Nubian peoples dispersed from the Nile Valley to the south, probably at the time of the downfall of the Christian kingdoms. However, comparative lexicostatistic research in the second half of the twentieth century has shown that the spread must have been in the opposite direction (Thelwall 1982, Adams 1982, among others). Greenberg (as cited in Thelwall 1982) calculated that a split between Hill Nubian and the Nile-Nubian languages occurred at least 2,500 years ago. This account is corroborated by non-linguistic evidence — for example, the oral tradition of the Shaiqiya tribe of the Jaali group of arabized Nile-Nubians tells of coming from the southwest long ago.”

Jay Spaulding has written an interesting article on the Shaiqiya tribe's relationship to Nubian, asserting that in fact they and several other riverain ethnic groups that have linguistically assimilated into the Arab majority spoke Nubian until a couple hundred years ago (and still retain traces of this in some of their speech)… a more detailed look at this will be in a forthcoming post addressing the question of whether and whither the different branches of the Nubian languages split… for now I leave you with a tree of how the branches of Nubian breakdown (thanks to the SIL Ethnologue):

* Nobiin (Not intelligible with Kenuzi-Dongola. Lexical similarity 67% with Kenuzi-Dongola)

o Mahas (Mahasi, Mahass)

o Fiyadikka (Fedicca, Fadicha, Fadicca, Fadija, Fiadidja)

* Kenuzi-Dongola (Not intelligible with Nobiin. Lexical similarity 67% with Nobiin, 56% with Debri)

o Dongola

o Kenuzi (Kenuz, Kunuzi)

* Midob or Meidob (Lexical similarity 51% with Birgid (closest)

o Shelkota (Shalkota)

o Kaageddi

o Urrti (Uurti)

* Birked/Birgid (extinct)

* ("Hill Nubian")

o Ghulfan (Wunci)

o Kadaru (Kodhin)

o Dilling (Lexical similarity 94% with Debri, 93% with Kadaru)

+ Dilling

+ Debri

o Dair (Thaminyi)

o El Hugeirat (El Hagarat)

o Karko (Kithonirishe)

o Wali