Identifying languages of Ajami commentaries

Identifying an African language written in Arabic script may be problematic even for speakers of the language. It is especially challenging when the Ajami items are represented by isolated words in the margins of an Arabic manuscript. Moreover, if the Ajami item is not visually linked to the intended Arabic phrase or word, it is almost impossible to tell what the Ajami item means and in which language it is written.

It all becomes much easier if commentaries in Ajami are linked to their source Arabic content by way of placing the item exactly above (or exactly below) the Arabic word/phrase or by way of connecting the Arabic and Ajami counterparts with lines or by putting a mark signifying what connects to what (Bondarev 2013, 2014, 2017, Ogorodnikova 2017). Frequent use of function words in the Ajami commentaries further simplifies the task of language identification – to the extent that you don’t have to speak the language to correctly guess it! What one needs is a set of fixed correspondences between common Arabic and Ajami function items and frequent lexical items.  

The identification tables presented below have proved to work for non-speakers of the given languages.[1] The tables are still works-in-progress, and all feedback is very welcome.

  1. Ajami identification tables for Old Kanembu, Hausa, Fulfulde, Soninke (Bondarev, Dobronravin, Ogorodnikova)
  2. Ajami identification table for Hausa, Songhai, Soninke (Souag)



Bondarev, Dmitry (2017): “Islamic Education and Ample Space Layout in West African Manuscripts”. In: Andrea Brigaglia and Mauro Nobili (eds): The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Manuscript Cultures in Muslim sub-Saharan Africa (Studies in Manuscript Cultures, 12). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 105–142.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2014): “Multiglossia in West African Manuscripts: A Case of Borno, Nigeria”. In: Jörg B. Quenzer, Dmitry Bondarev and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (eds): Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field. (Studies in Manuscript Cultures, 1), Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 113–155.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2013): “Qur’anic Exegesis in Old Kanembu: Linguistic Precision for Better Interpretation”, In: Tal Tamari and Dmitry Bondarev (eds): Qur’anic Exegesis in African Languages. Special Issue of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies. 15.3, 56–83.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (2017): “ʿAjamī Annotations in Multilingual Manuscripts from Mande Speaking Areas: Visual and Linguistic Features”. In: Islamic Africa, 8, 111–143.

[1] We tested these tables at various workshops at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), Universität Hamburg, and at two training workshops, as follows: (with Nikolay Dobronravin) “Preservation and cataloguing of Nigerian Islamic Manuscripts”, 24-28 July 2017, Kaduna, Nigeria. A training workshop funded by SFB 950, The Islamic Manuscript Associtation, Arewa House, Kaduna, with participation of Wesleyan Library, USA and St. Petersburg University, Russia; and (with Darya Ogorodnikova) “Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts” 13-20 August 2017. A training workshop funded by Gerda Henkel Foundation, SFB 950, The Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), Northwestern University, and GHS. Bondarev and Ogorodnikova participated as lecturers.

Notes from the “Manuscripts and Development” Conference in Bamako

From November 16-17, 2018, myself and Dr. Maria Luisa Russo had the pleasure of attending and presenting at a conference on “Manuscripts and Development” put on by the Arabic Department of the University of Bamako.

Carried out primarily in French and Arabic, the conference had a number of interesting talks focused on various research initiatives being carried out in Mali and elsewhere. Here, I’ll highlight three that stuck out to me:

Dr. Goro N’DIAY (University of Bamako) did an interesting presentation entitled “Les vocabulaires thérapeutiques dans les manuscrits ajami : cas traitement des maladies mentales” that was well received by the audience. It was in Arabic so I couldn’t follow it all, but I recognized a bunch of Manding plant names in the midst of his presentation. Dr. N’Diay’s work is part of an initiative of the University of Bamako’s Arabic Department focused on medicinal plants listed in Ajami manuscripts.

Dr. Abdoul Karim HAMADOU, did an interesting talk in French on one or two Songhai-Arabic lexicons from the Ahmed Baba Institute that are found in MS27538 and MS2457. The date of the manuscripts is unknown but the author’s name is mentioned somewhere within the documents. Dr. Hamadou used some of Paul Marty’s works to make links to the potential author.

Dr. Hamadou presenting on Songhai-Arabic lexicon manuscripts

Dr. Hamadou BOLY did an interesting presentation on one (or two) of the only extant writings of Cheikh Ahmadu Lobbo (founder of the Macina Empire of the 19th century).

The conference also included an exhibit of select manuscripts from either SAVAMA-DCI or the Ahmed Baba Institute.

One of the manuscripts on display at the conference

Looking forward to reading future publications stemming from some this work. Thanks again to the Arabic Department and the University of Bamako for organizing the event!

New Technical Notes for Using Tropy to Analyze Manuscripts (en français)

We just released two working technical notes (in French) to help researchers get set up to use Tropy to analyze Ajami annotations/segments in West African manuscripts:

  1. Comment créer un premier projet Tropy « portable » pour une collection manuscrite
  2. Instructions pour créer un nouveau projet « portable » Tropy pour analyser une nouvelle collection/bibliothèque

We’re working on also putting out some other draft standards/workflows regarding how to use Tropy to “annotate” manuscript images that include instances of Ajami. More news to come!

Ajami Lab Workshop, 31 Oct-1 Nov, 2018

The Ajami Lab is pleased to announce its next workshop which will take place from 31 October to 1 November, 2018, at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg.

Programme and abstracts available here.

This session is the first of the DFG-funded project “African voices in Islamic manuscripts from Mali: documenting and exploring African languages in Arabic script (Ajami)” and will be held in conjunction with the meeting of the “Old Mande Research Network.”

Welcome to A-label!

This blog is a companion to the research of the Ajami Lab within the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the Universität Hamburg. Focused on historical and modern instances of Ajami—that is, sub-Saharan African languages written in Arabic script—we aim here to share updates, anecdotes, and conceptual and methodological tools as we work to catalogue and analyse African Islamic manuscripts. In doing so, the blog will serve both other scholars of Ajami as well as a wider audience of scholars interested in the insights that can be gleaned from these understudied documents and literacy practices.