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Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa

A study of Old Kanembu in early West African Qur’anic manuscripts and Islamic recitations (Tarjumo) in the light of Kanuri-Kanembu dialects spoken around Lake Chad

Ancient manuscripts written in local languages are very rare in sub-Saharan Africa. However, in the late 1950s, some copies of the Qur’an were discovered in northern Nigeria, written in Arabic, with commentaries in Old Kanembu, an archaic variety of Kanuri-Kanembu. The manuscripts date back to the 16th/17th centuries and thus are among the earliest written examples of a sub-Saharan language.  This archaic variety of Kanuri-Kanembu is now represented by a corpus of more than 3,200 digital pages.

In 2005, during the course of a field trip to the Kanuri-speaking area of northeastern Nigeria, Dmitry Bondarev and Abba Tijani discovered a previously undocumented sacred language Tarjumo (< Arabic tarjama 'translate, interpret') – used by local Islamic scholars to deliver religious recitations and commentaries mainly on religious texts in Arabic. Tarjumo is the offspring of Old Kanembu, and the fact that it is unintelligible to speakers of modern Kanuri attests to its antiquity—it is at least 600 years old on linguistic and historical evidence.

In early 2009 an international team of specialists were awarded funding to carry out a 36 month interdisciplinary project as part of a joint framework of agreement between the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to support collaboration between German- and UK-based humanities researchers.

The aim of the project is to document and analyse this virtually unknown manuscript culture in its linguistic and social setting and explore previously unresearched phenomena, i.e. how Old Kanembu and Tarjumo relate historically to linguistically distinct modern Kanuri-Kanembu, and what they can tell us about migrations and linguistic-cultural assimilation and integration in the Lake Chad basin.

Drawing on preliminary results from an earlier AHRC-funded project Early Nigerian Qur’anic manuscripts, and in cooperation with the research group Manuscript cultures in Asia and Africa (MCAA) in Hamburg, the project team is carrying out a linguistic study of Old Kanembu as attested in the manuscripts, in addition to a socio-cultural and linguistic analysis of Tarjumo recited by local Islamic scholars, and a dialect study of modern Kanembu.

The research team comprises Professor Roland Kießling, Professor Michael Friedrich (main applicants), Dr. Doris Löhr (principal researcher) (all based at the Asien-Afrika Institut, Hamburg University), Professor Philip J. Jaggar (main applicant), Dr. Dmitry Bondarev (principal researcher), and Dr Abba Isa Tijani (project assistant) (all based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London).