Monday, January 11, 2010

Ajami in Boston

The Boston Globe has an article today about Ajami, the tradition of transcribing African languages in the Arabic script. It focuses particularly on the efforts of Fallou Ngom, whose work has been mainly on Wolof Ajami in Senegal, the subject of one of my first posts here. In the article he emphasises the potential historical significance of such work in opening up neglected sources on African history. While most African manuscripts are in Arabic, some historically rather interesting Ajami sources are known; for Mandinka, published historical manuscripts include the Pakao Book and the Bijini manuscript, the latter outlining regional history over the past 500 years. There are undoubtedly more out there that have gone uninvestigated simply for lack of enough historians who can read them. My work on Ajami has focused more on issues of orthography, however: most African languages have rather different sound systems to Arabic, and it's quite interesting to see what kind of devices they developed to make the alphabet fit better.


Maria said...

(New to commenting here. Hi!) That's an interesting article. I live in one of the few (only?) corners of the Malay world that still use Arabic script instead of Roman. It really shocked me at first to see how alive it is here. All of the religion textbooks, as well as teacher notices, announcements and random flyers around town are written in Jawi script. It's heartening, really. (And you should see the looks of surprise on my students' faces when I casually start reading their religion homework aloud!)

I did have one major 'what' moment with the article, though. One historian grumbles:

“How much is there to learn about history, per se? I don’t know,” Hall says. “I don’t think they’re going to provide chronicles of events. I don’t think they’re going to provide diaries of particular individuals, or military or political histories.”

Um, what? This rogue philologist is amazed that a historian would consider stuff about daily life, business transactions or practical lists useless. (That's to say nothing of the evolution of the script's adaptation to radically different languages, its dispersal and the lives of the manuscripts.) This is the very attitude that colonial British historians took to Jawi Malay texts back in the colonial days and that, ultimately, led to the demise of Jawi in British and Dutch holdings. (Sadly, the Thai government/academy has proposed the same thing, with Thai script in place of Roman. Happily, they also know not to push their luck.)

I'd better stop before I get too upset. As a parting idea, might it be worth looking at other adaptations of Arabic script, like Jawi or other Asian versions? (I've heard of Arabic script being used for Tamil, which is super amazing considering literary Tamil's reliance on spelling for meaning. Once I'm back in the research saddle, that's something I'm going to pursue.)

Keep up the good work. :)

Lameen Souag said...

Thanks for the comment! I had heard that Pattani Malays still wrote in Jawi, but I had no idea it was doing that well. Tell me if you post any photos of it. Arabic script Tamil would certainly be an interesting topic - Wikipedia has a not bad article on it (

And yeah, Hall's quote is an astonishingly blinkered view - so much so that I almost suspect it of being unfairly edited.

Maria said...

That's what I get for not actually pursing the topic of Arabic-script Tamil in more than, like, four years. :) Curse you, Wikipedia!

Jawi is very happily alive here in the three provinces (Pattani, Yala and good ol' Narathiwat). I could even send you some of our kids' textbooks. What makes them even better is that a lot of them are actually tri-lingual, with things in Arabic, Malay and Thai. (Words that are present in standard Malay but not in the Patani dialect often have to be glossed with Thai.)

I really hope that your suspicions about the historian are correct. Otherwise...

David Marjanović said...

I've heard of Arabic script being used for Tamil

...and for northeastern Mandarin. Tone isn't marked, but everything else is.

David Marjanović said...

Northeastern? I meant northwestern. But turns out northeastern is also correct. So make it "northern". :-)

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