Foundation for Endangered Languages

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


6. Reports on Field Research

The situation of endangered languages in the Sudan and some notes on Kufo: Roger Blench Mallam Dendo Ltd.

Sudan has recently been much in the news, despite the situation in Darfur having been plainly apparent since 2003. The tragedy unfolding for the people there is also a tragedy for minority languages, many of which may never recover from the dislocation and dispossession that follows, as its inhabitants are turned into refugees in their own land. In February and March I spent some time in Sudan assessing the situation of minority languages, as far as possible from the perspective of Khartoum and I hope to present a more extended version of my findings in a future Ogmios. Broadly speaking, however, many groups have been scattered from their home area and now exist only as refugees in large Sudanese towns. Although the older members of the displaced communities are very committed to their language, the Sudanese government is equally committed to the destruction of minority languages and the enforced adoption of Arabic. As a consequence, many ethnolinguistic groups are finding it difficult to maintain language competence among their children. This is particularly true in the case of the peoples of the Nuba Hills in Kordofan, where violent attacks on these communities during the 1990s caused many villages are deserted and their inhabitants scattered or killed. The Nuba peoples were always small in number by comparison with peoples such as the Fur and Zaghawa, and their languages correspondingly more fragile.

The Nuba are most well-known in Europe as icons, flamboyant body-painters in the photographs of Leni Riefenstahl (1976a,b), and it is a particular irony to meet these peoples today, dressed in traditional white Sudanese robe and turban, culturally transformed in a generation. Even if the Nuba eventually return to their villages much of the government’s aims will have been achieved, the destruction of the distinctive culture of the Nuba peoples. The Nuba have been caught by the paradoxes of the war with the South; although they appear physically similar to southerners, they live in the north and have little in common with them. As a result, it has proved difficult to harmonise their goals with the general aims of the southern movements and the question of the Nuba Hills is so far unresolved in the continuing peace talks.

Nonetheless, many Nuba groups have language committees and are active in promoting writing and orthography. Many also have musical performance groups and these are important in keeping musical traditions alive. In February, the first Nuba musical day in many years was permitted by the government and Nuba groups from all over the Khartoum region came to perform their traditional dances. However, resources are limited, and often language and culture committees break up as their members disperse seeking work.

Sudan probably has as many endangered languages as any country in the world and the long-running civil insecurity has generally meant they are very poorly documented. The situation is made worse by the fact that they are ‘intentionally endangered’, actively discouraged by government policy. The absence of attention by the various endangered languages funds is therefore all the more striking. As far as I could see, there is no work at all going on funded by the various foundations that purport to be interested in documentation. Perhaps the languages are not deemed ‘theoretically’ interesting enough?

Kufo The Kufo language is being energetically promoted by Mr. Abdalla Mongash, with whom I have been working on a draft dictionary. It is therefore a useful case-study of the situation of a typical endangered Nuba language. Kufo [=Kufa] was spoken originally in some six villages of the Nuba Hills, but today is spoken principally by dislocated communities in Khartoum and Kosti.

Kufo is closely related to Kanga, one of the Kadu languages, usually considered to be Nilo-Saharan. Information on these languages is found in Meinhof (1915-1919), MacDiarmid and MacDiarmid (1931), Stevenson (1956-57), Schadeberg (1994) and Dafalla (2000). The only specific reference to Kufo is in Hall & Hall (2004) where the phonology is described and a proposed orthography set out.

Most of these settlements are now deserted and there are reckoned to be perhaps a hundred Kufo speakers still resident in the hills. The numbers of refugee communities are hard to reckon, but there are probably less than a thousand and some of these are now semi-speakers.

The first efforts of literacy in Kufo began in 1994, with the production of a primer and work on the language has continued ever since. There is a small community of interested readers in Khartoum, but the demands of migration for work have meant that it is difficult to teach the language to the next generation. Unless the Kufo return to their home villages soon, the language will be lost for ever.

Dafalla, Rihab Yahia 2000. A phonological comparison of the Katcha Kadugli language groups in the Nuba Mountains. M.A. Dissertation, University of Khartoum.
Hall, Ed and Marian Hall 2004. Kadugli-Krongo. Occasional Papers in the Study of Sudanese Languages, No. 9. Khartoum.
MacDiarmid, P.A. and D.N. MacDiarmid 1931. The languages of the Nuba Mountains. Sudan Notes and Records, 14:149-162.
Meinhof, Carl 1915-1919. Sprachstudien im egyptischen Sudan. Zeitschrift für Kolonialsprachen, 6:161-205, 264-284, 7:36-80, 105-133, 212-250, 326-335,; 8: 46-74, 110-139, 170-196; 9:43-64, 89-117, 226-255.
Riefenstahl, Leni 1976a. The last of the Nuba. London: Collins.
Riefenstahl, Leni 1976b. The people of Kau. London: Collins.
Schadeberg, Thilo C. 1994. Comparative Kadu wordlists. Afrikanische Arbeitspapiere, 40: 11-48.
Stevenson, Roland C. 1956-57. A survey of the phonetics and grammatical structures of the Nuba Mountain languages, with particular reference to Otoro, Katcha and Nyimang. Afrika und Übersee 40:73-84, 93-115; 41:27-65, 117-153, 171-196.
Stevenson, Roland C. 1962-64. Linguistic research in the Nuba mountains. Sudan Notes and Records, 43:118-130; 45:79-102.
Stevenson, Roland C. 1984. The Nuba people of Kordofan Province: An ethnographic survey. Graduate College Publications Monograph 7, University of Khartoum. Khartoum: Graduate College, University of Khartoum.

The eBoze [Buji] language and the movement for literacy: Roger Blench

Mallam Dendo Ltd.


The eBoze (Buji) language forms part of the ‘Jere cluster’ and is in turn part of the Northern Jos group of the East Kainji languages spoken north and west of Jos town in Central Nigeria (Crozier & Blench 1992).

The Boze live east and west of the Jos-Zaria road which runs northwest of Jos, in Bassa Local government area. eBoze is often called Buji in earlier literature. The only published data on eBoze are some hundred words in the Benue-Congo Comparative Wordlist (Williamson and Shimizu 1968; Williamson 1973). Limited historical and sociological data can be found in Temple (1922), Gunn (1953) and Nengel (1999). The following information represents the results of surveys conducted by Roger Blench and John Nengel in December 2003 and January 2004. Apart from linguistic work, significant videos were made of traditional Boze music, which have been lodged with the British Library.

eBoze is the language of the AnaBoze people. The correct name for one Boze person is unaBoze and for the people anaBoze, while the name of the language is eBoze. The Boze are divided into two main dialects, eGorong and eK¨k¨?, as well as a third rather divergent speech form, eFiru. The ‘original’ Boze are considered to be the aneK¨k¨?.

Many of these settlements are very small and dispersed and often adjacent to one another. Hence numbers of speakers are smaller than might at first appear. The number of eBoze speakers is hard to gauge, as Hausa has made inroads in many areas. But taking all three groups together, there must be 6-7000, not all of whom will be fully competent.

eBoze is usually considered part of the Jere cluster of languages, which includes;

eBoze, iZele, iSanga. iBunu with iL¨r¨, iPanawa

Most eBoze speakers can understand these languages with only minor adjustments, although some other languages have very different tone systems.

Among the Goro? is a core population, the Ananyi ma Goro? or ‘people of the inner Gorong’ who are said to be the original inhabitants of the Boze area, but whose language has now been assimilated. This assimilation of the original inhabitants took place following the migration of the Boze into the area, probably during the fifteenth century (Nengel 1999:48-52).



The evidence is very limited as to the original language of the Ananyi ma Gorong who lived at Aturu settlement. Descendants of the original group now exist only as the Akw?r? clan of the Boze. This ancient speech has been preserved by the Akw?r? clan only in a set of remembered numerals (Nengel 1999:69).

Intriguingly, there are no obvious external parallels for the Akw?r? numerals. Either they represent a nonce system, or else they are the last survivors of a very different type of language on the Plateau prior to the East Kainji expansion.

Literacy and revival of the language eBoze has no written literature and there have been no attempts to write it in the past. In a paradox that will be familiar to many endangered language enthusiasts, as eBoze is spoken less and less, enthusiasm for writing it has increased. In December 2003, preliminary discussions began on developing an orthography, and a meeting at Rafin Gwamna, Sunday 4th January 2004, attended by many senior eBoze speakers, a preliminary discussion paper written by the present author was presented. Further data collection is underway with a view to producing an agreed writing system and a preliminary dictionary and primers.

References Crozier, D. and Blench, R.M. 1992. Index of Nigerian Languages (edition 2). SIL, Dallas.
Gunn, H.D. 1953. Peoples of the Plateau Area of Northern Nigeria. IAI, London.
Nengel, J.G. 1999, Precolonial African Intergroup Relations in the Kauru and Pengana
Polities of Central Nigerian Highlands 1800-1900. Peter Lang, Berlin.
Temple, Olive 1922. Notes on the Tribes, Provinces, Emirates and States of the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. Argus Printing and Publishing Co. Capetown.
Williamson, K., and K. Shimizu. 1968. Benue-Congo comparative wordlist, Vol. 1. Ibadan: West African Linguistic Society.
Williamson, Kay 1973. Benue-Congo comparative wordlist: Vol.2. Ibadan: West African Linguistic Society.

Notes on the Seni people and language with an addendum on the Ziriya: Roger Blench and John Garah Nengel Mallam Dendo Ltd., Jos University

The Seni (=Sheni, Shaini, Shenne) language is an East Kainji language spoken north of Jos town in Central Nigeria. The earliest reference to this language is Temple (1922:18) who links the Sheni with the Srubu and mentions their presence in Dan Galadima District of Zaria Emirate. Charles Meek, the Nigerian government anthropologist, evidently visited, because his notes are reprised in Gunn (1956:44). He left a manuscript wordlist, found in his ‘Linguistic Notes’, Vol. 2, Pt II: 509-516. He noted that the Sheni were divided into three clans and that they totalled just 216. He also mentions their links to the ‘Kerre’ and ‘Njiria’ (=Ziriya). All subsequent references repeat the same information until the 1974 visit by Shimizu (1982:104 ff.), who recorded a somewhat muddled wordlist from two elder speakers in Gurjiya. Nengel (1999) includes some historical information on Sheni based on a visit in the mid-1980s.

Given this record, it seemed likely that the Sheni language was completely moribund or extinct. Interestingly, this is not the case, although any work on the language should be undertaken soon. This note makes further information available on the status of the language. The survey was conducted on 30th December 2003.

The Seni live east of the Jos-Zaria road which runs north of Jos, in Lere Local government area, Kaduna State, although still on the Jos Plateau. Figure 1 is a sketch map of the location of the Seni. There are three Seni settlements;

1 Sheni-Fulani
2 Sheni
3 Gurjiya

The first village is largely inhabited by Fulani and Hausa, and although some residents identify themselves as Sheni, none speak the language. Sheni village itself has but one remaining speaker and the remainder are in Gurjiya. There are at present, six fluent speakers of Seni and perhaps 10-15 semi-speakers. The six speakers are: Musa Sheni, Doya Sehni, Idrisu Tinu, Musa Idi, Abdullahi Tinu, Habila Yunana. Most of the speakers are over 60, but the youngest, Habila Yunana, is in his 40s.

The Seni people have essentially switched to becoming Hausa-speaking and are broadly Muslim. They now call themselves the Shenawa and their language Shenanci. The loss of the language is taken as a fait accompli. There is no interest in reviving it and its continued existence is simply a curiosity to most residents. Nonetheless, the remaining speakers are reasonably fluent and it seems that Shimizu was probably unlucky with his informants.

The following are the correct names for people and language in the Seni language;

one person ņnņSeni people anaSeni the language tģSeni

The Seni language A list of some 200 words of tiSeni was compiled in a group elicitation session. Shimizu suggests that the tone system of Seni is High, Low, Downstep; this would be atypical but possible for this group. I began by recording tones but found they were rather unstable between speakers. I think there is significant interference from other languages and that if speakers spent more time interacting, the tones would ‘settle down’. Shimizu did not record plurals and Meek only gives the plurals for only a few words; these indicate that tiSeni has prefix alternations resembling other East Kainji languages. However, tiSeni appears to have a quite exotic plural morphology which rather suggests interference from an unknown but typologically quite distinct language.

This system where a quite distinct new plural morphology has come in and restructured the conventional Bantu-like plurals is quite remarkable and should be of considerable typological interest. Something similar has occurred in the Plateau language Hasha, although this is sufficiently remote to be unrelated.

Note on Ziriya and Kere
The Ziriya language seems to be first referred to in Shimizu (1982: 108 ff.) where a brief wordlist is given. Our Sheni informants insisted it was the same language as Ziriya; the wordlists in Shimizu seem to differ from one another, probably as a result of faulty recall. We were able to visit Ziriya on 30th December 2003 and to interview Sarki Abubakar Yakubu, probably the last person with any recall of the language. Ziriya village is situated at N10° 22.6, E 8° 50 (Figure 1). Ziriya was divided into a number of wards as follows: Ziriya, Salingo, Kajakana, Wurno, Ungwar Marika, Funka and Farin Dutse.

The language has definitively disappeared, and even Sarkin Yakubu had only spoken it as a child, some sixty years ago. He could recall some greetings and some numbers, all of which corresponded to Seni, suggesting that the assertion that they were the same language is correct. There is a third village, Kere, somewhat further north where the language was dropped even longer ago.

Crozier, D. & R.M. Blench 1992. An Index of Nigerian Languages. Edition 2. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Gunn, H.D. 1953. Peoples of the Plateau Area of Northern Nigeria. IAI, London.
Nengel, J.G. 1999. Precolonial African intergroup relations in the Kauru and Pengana polities of Central Nigerian Highlands, 1800-1900. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Shimizu, Kiyoshi. 1982. Ten more wordlists with analyses from the northern Jos group of Plateau languages. Afrika und Übersee, 65(1):97-134.
Temple, Olive 1922. Notes on the Tribes, Provinces, Emirates and States of the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. Argus Printing and Publishing Co. Capetown.

Sarkin Yakubu (left), the last person to remember the Ziriya language