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.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Dmitry Bondarev (January 3, 2019). Identifying languages of Ajami commentaries. A-label: African Languages Between the Lines. Retrieved July 19, 2024 from

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