Manding’s Islamic Scholarly Register: An Initial Look

A “way of speaking” particular to learned Muslims of West Africa.

As part of my work in the Ajami Lab, I am currently working to analyze and contextualize the existence and emergence of Manding’s scholarly Islamic register.

Manding is a West African trade language spoken by tens of millions of people. From one perspective, it is well documented. There are a range of linguistic grammars and dictionaries that describe both the four major varieties–Bambara, Jula, Maninka and Mandinka–as well as smaller local dialects.

While such studies are essential, they reduce variation in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar to a question of dialectology. Differences in the ways that we speak with one another, however, are never just a question of dialect.

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Online Ajami Sources and Resources

Where can one find African languages written in Arabic script on the internet?

One need not go to West African or anywhere else to contribute to research of manuscripts that contain instances of African languages written in Ajami (that is, Arabic characters).

What follows is a list of the most prominent collection of Ajami texts and or resources available on the internet that I could find.

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Connections between N’ko and Ajami

Today, one is more likely to come across Manding written in N’ko than in Arabic (or even Latin) script. But did N’ko stifle Ajami or emerge from it?

This post is related to this publication which was accepted in the African Studies Review in September 2019.

Robust traditions of Ajami exist and have been relatively well documented and studied for major West African languages such as Wolof, Hausa, and Fulani. It surprising then that thus far there have been few Ajami texts found for major Manding varieties such as Bamanan, Maninka and Jula1.

Today, in many Manding-speaking areas, one is more likely to come across the language written in N’ko than in Arabic (or even Latin) script.

Map of the Manding language continuum.png
By Coleman DonaldsonOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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  1. The exception is Mandinka, spoken at the western edge of the language-dialect continuum. In this case, there are at least two major scholarly works investigating local history through Ajami texts (Giesing & Vydrin 2007; Schaffer 2003). []

Transliterating Ajami into the Latin script

The conventions we use to transliterate African languages from Arabic to Latin script.

One of the hardest things about working on Ajami manuscripts is interpreting the African language that is written in the Arabic script. This is because oftentimes certain contrastive sounds (phonemes, nasalization, tone) are not marked.

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How to use Tropy to analyze Ajami manuscripts

Working through Ajami manuscripts can be slow-going. Here is a standard workflow using Tropy that can make it a little easier.

Working through Ajami manuscripts can be slow-going. One important tool in our workflow is the open-source software Tropy from the same people behind everyone’s favorite reference management software Zotero.

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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.

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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:

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