Soninke Ajami Manuscripts

An interview with Darya Ogorodnikova about West African manuscripts written in Arabic Script

Editor’s Note: One of the most promising, but understudied traditions of African manuscripts that include sub-Saharan African languages written in Arabic script is that of Soninke. To learn more about this, I recently addressed a number of questions to Darya Ogorodnikova who has been researching Soninke Ajami manuscripts as an Ajami Lab member since 2013. She will defend her PhD at the University of Hamburg in 2020. – CD

What are Soninke Ajami manuscripts?

By Ajami manuscripts, I mean manuscripts containing Ajami elements; that is, words and phrases in local West African languages written in Arabic script. Such writing may make up an entire text. Soninke Ajami elements in manuscripts, however, are mainly represented by annotations, written between the lines or in the margins. They typically serve to explain the phrases of primarily Arabic language texts.

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How to Analyse Soninke Ajami Manuscripts

A workflow for the analysis of Soninke Ajami manuscripts using the open-source software Tropy

This post lays out the software and workflow solutions that I use for analysing Soninke Ajami manuscripts. Together, they may be helpful for other researchers working on digitized manuscripts, especially Ajami manuscripts.

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How to prepare an aligned critical edition in plain text using Markdown

A flexible and sustainable way to analyze and publish about Ajami manuscripts

I previously shared two technical notes explaining how to:

  • digitize and annotate Ajami segments in a West African manuscript using Tropy
  • extract your digitized annotations from Tropy into a CSV file

By following these two steps, you can digitize and extract Ajami data into a tabular format that is useful for further analysis using tools of corpus linguistics (e.g., SketchEngine).

But what happens if you are interested in preparing a version of the text that can be read and appreciated by another person?

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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 open-access publication in the African Studies Review.

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). []

The Revelation: The earliest known use of ʿajamī as a label

The interlinear glosses written in African languages of West Africa often have a descriptive metalinguistic marker, asserting the presence of an Ajami segment.

Our blog has the acronym A-LABEL: we deal a lot with the African languages between the lines. But why “label”? This is because the interlinear glosses written in African languages of West Africa often have a descriptive metalinguistic marker, asserting the presence of an Ajami segment. This marker is typically a graphic variation of the word ʿajamī (عجمي – the form written on our logo) or ʿajam. Another way of the metalinguistic labelling of the Ajami glosses found in the manuscripts is the Arabic phrase fī kalāminā ‘in our language’ (في كلامنا) and its variations (for the use of ʿajamī and fī kalāminā in Soninke and other Mande manuscripts see Ogorodnikova 2017: 122-125).[1]

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Fur Ajami: an invisible tradition

More on “invisible” Ajami from our colleague Nikolay Dobronravin who already wrote for our Ajami Lab a piece on invisibility of Ajami writing in Nigeria, Chad and Sudan. This time he takes us to Darfur (‘the land of the Fur’) to explore a history of Ajami writing in Fur, a Nilo-Sahran language spoken in the west of the Republic of the Sudan.   

Read his fascinating account of Fur Ajami: The Fur (For, Fūranq bilī, Poor’íŋ belé) variety of Ajami: an invisible tradition.

Following Nikolay’s lead outlined in the above paper, I am heading to London next week to consult Kītāb Dālī , the mysterious Fur law book. Who knows, maybe we are just a short flight from another Ajami discovery.  

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