Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


6. Research Activities

Four Papers by Roger Blench on Nigerian Languages Endangered music / endangered language: the problem of what we study — Roger Blench

Endangered language research tends to concentrate on languages with a small number of speakers or those for which competency is rapidly declining for whatever reason. However, there is a strong argument for enlarging the focus to include what might be called endangered cultural vocabulary. Many languages with a reasonably large base of speakers are not in immediate danger of extinction. Nonetheless, they are rapidly losing much of their richness in part due to the impact of globalisation.

As part of a project conducted under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair of Cultural Heritage at the University of Port Harcourt, I began conducting a survey of some of the endangered music of Central Nigeria in December 2002. I chose languages on which a dictionary project was already in hand to try and integrate terminology and text collection with a larger programme of lexical elicitation. The Iten language is spoken by the Eten or Ganawuri people who live in the region around Ganawuri town southwest of the Jos Plateau in Plateau State, Nigeria. Ganawuri district lies between latitudes 09º32 to 09º50 North and 08º30 East. The exact size of their population is unknown but may be around 40,000 people. Most of the population speaks some version of the language and most adults are fluent, so the language cannot be described as immediately threatened. But many specialised areas of the lexicon are threatened; ethnoscientific vocabulary, terms connected with traditional religion and songs and words connected with traditional music.

In the case of music of the Eten, three forces are changing its nature very rapidly; the spread of Christianity, closeness to Jos, a regional centre, and in particular the widespread use of electricity. Christianity is perceived by its adherents to be opposed to all musical forms related to traditional religion (such as èMàndeéng) and as a consequence these have tended to disappear. Another aspect of change is education; schools transmit a very patronising attitude to traditional music and pupils are encouraged to imitate urban, Hausaised styles. When pupils perform for visitors, they tend to sing songs in Hausa, accompanying themselves with a struck plastic container. Generators have been used since the 1970s for occasional events but without mains electricity, acoustic music was normal. However, since the introduction of electricity in 2002, a video shop has opened up in Ganawuri and it plays continuous urban pop music at extremely loud volumes, often on a 24-hour schedule. Some drinking bars now have regular CD music playing at night. On Wednesdays and Saturdays there are large-scale parties with drinking, dancing and recorded pop music. As a consequence, all types of traditional Eten music have been very rapidly sidelined. When there are ‘cultural festivals’ such as the New Year Festival, following the horse races, there are displays of ‘cultural dancing’. These are usually managed by the police, who control the crowd with whips and threaten performers who overstep their two-minute allotted slot. The chief performers are given microphones with highly distorted amplification. As a consequence, the experience is highly unsatisfactory to many ‘traditional’ performers who have begun to boycott these events. It is grievous enough when rich musical repertoires die through neglect or religious change; intentional slaughter of this type seems highly undesirable.

Ethnoscientific vocabulary reflects the state of the natural environment. At the beginning of the colonial era, the Eten lived in a very isolated area, with an escarpment close by and the region beyond the field thick with trees. Leopards and baboons lived in the hills and hunters were accustomed to catching a wide variety of mammals and reptiles for food. Population growth and the demands for staples from the nearby city have ensured that almost the entire land area has been turned to agriculture. The trees have all been cut down with the exception of a few economic species. The animals have all been hunted out or fled for lack of a habitat. The consequence is that although older people still know the names of animals, birds and trees, it is very difficult to identify many of them very accurately, because they have not been seen for decades. Trees cannot be pointed out because no examples of many less common species remain. Only a book of West African agricultural weeds generated a significant number of identifications. What I have recorded is likely to be all that there is, for with a few years the hunters who remember these names will be dead and the words will disappear forever.

I raise this point because Iten would normally be classed as a language that is not endangered, with up to 40,000 speakers. But in some important way, these are semi-speakers unable to bring up any areas of specialised vocabulary and increasingly prone to substitute loans from the dominant lingua franca, Hausa. Endangered languages and endangered cultures go together and we probably need to enlarge our concept of endangerment if we are to have any chance of reversing the decline that engages our concern.

Nincut: an isolated Berom language — Roger Blench

Information on the Nincut language, spoken in Aboro village in Plateau State, Nigeria was collected by Roger Blench and Barau Kato from a group of villagers in Nincut on the 11th of January 2003. Our principal informants were Idris Yahaya Aboro, Jibrin Adankim, Gambo Abuta, Sarki Mohamadu Dangi and Hamidu Sarki.

The Nincut language described here has not previously been recorded although ‘Aboro’ is noted as a dialect of Berom. It seems that the Nincut originally migrated from the Berom area and that they originally lived in a swampy region, børøk. This was adapted by Hausa speakers as ‘Aboro’. However, nincút appears to be correct name of the main town and the people themselves. This name is something of a mystery as it resembles a Ninzic (old Plateau IV) language. There is some evidence for contact with Plateau IV languages, notably the insertion of a nasal between the stem and the plural prefix, which is found in this region but not in Berom. Nincut traditions record their migration down the escarpment to the north of their present villages. Usman Dan Fodio is said to have ‘carried’ them there. However, it is possible either that they fled raiding in the nineteenth century or that this is a subsequent gloss on a migration in search of farmland.

The main settlements of the Nincut are Nincút (=Aboro), Bàbùt (=Mallam Achung), R´`˜bø`˜ (= Gongorong), Gwàngé (= Ungwan Baka), Kabal, Mbèn, Kwàrè, Tøt, Tsø`n (=Ungwan Rumbu) and Ku`du`˜ (=Aboro Daji). Aboro is situated on the main road from Jos to Fadan Karshe and Akwanga, about 7 km. west of Fadan Karshe. Mada settlements are on the road further east and Gwandara settlements further west, although separated from the Nincut by a teak plantation.



The Nincut on the road at least are almost all Muslims and are tending to switch to Hausa. It took some time to elicit more complex lexical items on the wordlist. However, there are probably several thousand speakers of Nincut of varying competence and those in the interior villages are probably less influenced by Hausa. Nincut people are very much aware of their identity as part of the Berom complex and attend meetings on Jos on this basis but paradoxically have to speak to other Berom in Hausa.

Nincut is a distinct language and not a dialect of Berom. It is threatened on road settlements but still fluently spoken in interior villages. Road settlements are Muslim but some of the interior villages appear to be Christian.

The map shows the location of Nincut and neighbouring languages rather more accurately than any previous publication. Map 1: Languages due South of Jos

‘We have our own small one inside’: hidden languages of the Ngasic group — Roger Blench

Minority languages are threatened by the processes of globalisation on a large scale; speakers are fearful of acknowledging they speak a small language and often try and encourage their children to become fluent in the regional lingua franca. However, interestingly, these processes may be replicated on a more local scale; minorities inside minorities may also be encouraged to hide their language.

Recent discoveries in the Ngas-speaking area of Central Nigeria give an illustration of how this process works. Ngas [=Angas] is a relatively large language, with perhaps 250,000 speakers, centred on the town of Pankshin, which is about 120 km. SE of Jos on the Langtang road. Ngas is generally classified as West Chadic in the Afroasiatic phylum and most closely related to Mwaghavul and the Kofyar cluster (see Burquest 1971 for further references). Ngas is barely written and has a low profile on broadcast media, so it is itself hardly given enthusiastic official support. Nonetheless, it appears to be generally spoken and not under threat from Hausa. Ngas is divided into dialects, notably the ‘Hills and ‘Plains’ groups, which divide broadly between those on the Plateau and those below the escarpment (i.e. east of Pankshin) (see Map 2: Ngasic languages of the Pankshin area). Shimizu (1974) constitutes a preliminary survey of these. Ngochal (2001) recounts the mythic history of these divisions, but interestingly glosses over the small communities apparently resident in the area at the time of the Ngas expansion. Map 2: Ngasic languages of the Pankshin area

However, there have been persistent reports that there are ‘other’ speech forms in various Ngas-speaking villages so a brief survey was mounted to explore this possibility in June 2003. We were travelling with Mr. Bala Dimlong, who first alerted us to these possible languages and who is himself a native Ngas-speaker. The two villages we were able to visit were Kor and Bwarak. We first visited the Village Head of Kor, who informed us that there was no difference between Kor and standard Ngas. Despite this, Mr. Dimlong overheard people speaking to one another in a lect very different from his own. We were unable to move the chief from his statement, but later we were able to find an informant to give us a brief list of Kor, consisting of body parts and numerals. The terms for body parts were apparently very similar to mainstream Ngas although the vowels were distinctive, but the numeral system appears to have marked variations. We then went on to Bwarak, where we met the chief and again met a similar denial. In this case, we had very positive information of the existence of a distinctive speech-form and so we pressed him harder. Finally he admitted that ‘We have our own small one inside’.

Bwarak also turned out to be similar but distinct from Ngas, with the same variations in vowels and numerals. It was also highly noticeable that as we began the elicitation session the women in the compound actually seemed more fluent in the language than the men, presumably because the men travel out more and have become accustomed to speaking central Ngas. Bwarak is spoken in two villages, and it was said that the village further in the hills spoke a ‘purer’ form of the language. Each of these languages may have 1000-1500 speakers. Kor and Bwarak are not the only two settlements reputed to have a distinctive speech. Duk, Balang, Wuseli, Chigwong and perhaps Wokkos may also have their own lects. Longer lists of Kor and Bwarak are required as well as preliminary material from these other settlements.

Are these simply dialects? Taken on lexicostatistic counts this would clearly be the usual categorisation. In sociolinguistic terms, however, it seems more likely that these were originally quite distinct languages, perhaps not even part of the Ngas group proper, but related to Ronic languages such as Fyer and Tambas, whose speakers are also virtually engulfed in the Ngas-speaking area. A long period of cultural dominance and bilingualism in central Ngas has relexified these languages so extensively that they now seem more like variant forms of Ngas. Moreover, Pankshin Ngas is very much the prestige language, as seen by the difficulty of getting those in authority to admit that another speech-form exists. Nonetheless, the fact that central Ngas speakers find these variants difficult or impossible to understand, suggest that they should be treated as separate languages in reality.

Burquest, D.A. 1971. A preliminary study of Angas phonology. Zaria: Institute of Linguistics & Santa Ana: SIL.
Ngochal, N. 2001. Nde Langkuk: the first Ngolong Ngas. Jos: LECAPs Publishers.
Shimizu, K. 1974. Towards Angas dialectology. Harsunan Nijeriya, 4:37-46.

Note on O=chi=chi= - Roger Blench

A recent publication (Ndimele & Williamson 2002:157) is the first published reference to the O=chi=chi=, a previously unknown language of Rivers State, Nigeria. It is spoken only a few old people in the town of Ikwerengwo and Umuebulu in Etche Local government. Its existence was first noted in a student project and a small team went out from the University of Port Harcourt to try and collect further data on the language. The speakers refused to give any further information on the language as they almost entirely switched culturally to Echie (an Igboid language) and no longer wish to remember their old language. From the few words collected, O=chi=chi= appears to related to Ob=ulom, a Central Delta language in turn related to Abuan. Ob=ulom is itself little-known so O=chi=chi= is only tentatively classified. A further approach is to be made to speakers, using only a single investigator to try and get them to change their attitude and make some record of O=chi=chi= before it is lost forever.

Ndimele, O. & K. Williamson 2002. Languages. In: The land and people of Rivers State: Eastern Niger Delta. eds. E.J. Alagoa & A.A. Derefaka 149-172. Port Harcourt: Onyoma Research Publications.