Systematic Interlinear Ajami Glosses (Type 3)

Ajami phrases written above or below corresponding Arabic phrases in the space between the lines.

This is the fourth post in a series on types of Ajami. Read the initial introduction here and find all of the posts here.

In “interlinear” Ajami manuscripts, annotations in Ajami are systematically applied to the source Arabic text in order to explicate its grammatical structures and render accurate translations.1

The annotations are systematic in the sense that rather than being random occasional translations, they are written methodically above (or sometimes below) the elements of the Arabic text. The phrases in the target language are written above the corresponding phrases in Arabic and the output translations have a high degree of consistency in their lexical and grammatical features across manuscripts.

The interlinear annotations reflect the spoken translation of Arabic texts that is widely practiced in sub-Saharan Islamic Africa. In many West African cultures such translational practices had a codification effect on vernacular languages whereby the registers used for translation developed into special scholarly linguistic codes, often venerated and considered second to Arabic, prompting the terms “awkward translation”, “learned vernaculars”, “translational reading” and “metalanguages” (Egouchi 1975, Brenner and Last 1984, Bondarev 2013b; also see this recent A-label post by Coleman Donaldson). Whatever the accuracy of the terms, they all point to the unique property of these linguistic codes as (a) being used in the context of translation, (b) part of scholarly and pedagogical milieu, and (c) formally acquired.

Research Potential

Ajami Type 3 gives clues about scribal practices during the process of Islamic education, most typically at intermediate phases of education (Bondarev 2017). Additionally, it reveals cultural and ethno-linguistic identities (Ogorodnikova 2016), and it helps us understand the formation and stabilisation of core curricula in traditional Islamic learning.

Such manuscripts also provide rich linguistic data. As mentioned above, they often are written using specialised registers used in Islamic education. As they shed light on earlier stages of language, they are useful data for historical linguistics. Some manuscripts of this type are important sources on the interaction between languages in diglossic or multiglossic situations, for example Soninke used as a scholarly language for interpretation of Arabic texts in Mandinka-speaking communities (Ogorodnikova 2017).

Examples of Type 3 Ajami in Old Kanembu

The examples demonstrated in the figures below are from the Old Kanembu manuscript tradition developed in the pre-19th century Borno Sultanate.

The Islamic scholars of Borno used several interpretational levels, or layers, in order to present the Qur’anic Arabic in Old Kanembu with minimal loss of grammatical and semantic content. These layers include morphosyntactic analysis, and phrase-by-phrase and sentential translation and interpretation.

Manuscript “1 Yerima Mustafa”, Qur’an, chapter 2 (Sūra al-Baqara), verse (aya) 67.

The figure above shows the Layer 1 type – morphosyntactic parsing – represented by short grammatical morphemes in Old Kanembu written above those Arabic words that are subjects and objects of verbal phrases, heads of prepositional phrases, nouns with genitive endings, etc. (The Arabic terms given after English ‘subject’, ‘indirect object’ and ‘direct object’ are their approximate equivalents in Arab grammatical tradition.)

Manuscript “1 Yerima Mustafa”, Qur’an, chapter 2 (Sūra al-Baqara), verse (aya) 65.

The preceding figure shows Layer 2 and 3 types. Layer 2 – phrasal/lexical translation – is represented by short verbal and noun phrases in Old Kanembu written above the corresponding Arabic phrases. Layer 3 – sentential translation – is seen in full Old Kanembu clauses written either interlineally or in the margins if the interlinear space has already been exhausted by the preceding procedures (see detailed discussion in Bondarev 2013a).

Old Kanembu and Soninke manuscripts are not unique in having annotations of Type 3 Ajami, but they are currently better studied in terms of the systematic annotations written between the lines of the main Arabic texts.

Other West African manuscripts which have Type 3 Ajami are those with annotations in Hausa, Songhai and Fulfulde, but they have not yet been systematically studied.

This is the fourth post in a series on types of Ajami. The next will be on Ajami Type 4 – Occasional Ajami.

Read the initial introduction here and find all of the posts here.


Bondarev, Dmitry (2013a), ‘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 (2013), 56-83.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2013b), ‘Language change induced by written codes: A case of Old Kanembu and Kanuri dialects’, in: Esther-Miriam Wagner, Ben Outhwaite, Bettina Beinhoff (eds), Scribes as agents of language change, Studies in language change. Boston, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 291-323.

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.

Brenner, Louis & Murray Last (1985), ‘The role of language in West African Islam’, Africa, 5/4, 432-446.

Eguchi, Paul Kazuhisa (1975), ‘Notes on the Arabic-Fulfulde translational reading in Northern Cameroon’, Kyoto University African Studies, 9, 177-250.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (2016), ‘Exploring paratexts in Old Mande manuscripts’, in Giovanni Ciotti and Hang Lin (eds), Tracing manuscripts in time and space through paratexts (Studies in Manuscript Cultures 7). Berlin: De Gruyter, 1-34.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (2017), ‘ʿAjamī annotations in multilingual manuscripts from Mande speaking areas: Visual and linguistic features’, Islamic Africa 8, 111-143.

Cite this blog post
Dmitry Bondarev (2019, September 9). Systematic Interlinear Ajami Glosses (Type 3). A-label: African Languages Between the Lines. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from

  1. Here I use the notion of annotations as a cover term for “glosses” and “commentaries”. The distinction between the two in the context of West African Islamic manuscripts is discussed in Bondarev 2017: 121. []

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