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Preserving African languages with linguist Ahmed Sosal

Published 14 October 2019

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By official estimates, there are more than 100 languages in Sudan. 70-80% of these languages remain undocumented, and unwritten. Arabic is the dominant language in Sudan, spoken in schools, public spaces and institutions, and used in the media. Speakers of minority languages are thus relying on Arabic to communicate and participate in the national life, but the result of this is that young people are no longer speaking these tongues. If a language is neither spoken nor written, it is in danger of dying out.

Ahmed Sosal is a linguist at the University of Khartoum. Born to parents without formal education, Ahmed was the top student throughout primary and secondary school. His mother encouraged him to keep working hard, but he never thought that he would go to university. He planned to start working immediately to support his family, but word of this unusually bright boy had got out in his community, and family and friends rallied to send him to study in Khartoum. He did. “I started with English, hoping to get work as a translator between English and Arabic. Linguistics was one of my other courses, and I became fascinated by the Sudanese languages we studied.”

Ahmed became interested in documenting Sudan’s many minority languages. He began working with displaced communities from Darfur and the Nuba mountains in Western Sudan, who were living in Khartoum. “Some of the communities think that if their languages are not written, they are not real languages. They see and hear Arabic everywhere, and face stigma from Arabic speakers, and so youngsters ask themselves what the use is of speaking their own languages.” These minority groups are also economically and politically disadvantaged, and the lack of representation affects their self-confidence. Ahmed found that his job was far more complex than transcribing languages according to linguistics principles. It required the soft skills of building relationships and mediation – convincing people that their languages are worth studying. “We spend a lot of time with them, getting to know the people and their cultures, becoming friends. We are helping them to feel that their languages are part of their identities, and supporting them to form their own language communities.”

In addition to his own research, Ahmed teaches linguistics to undergraduate students at the University of Khartoum. He trains them in the basics of phonetics and phonology, basic tools required to understand, transcribe, and analyse any language. Ahmed argues that linguistics is something vital and urgent for Africa. “Languages are spoken by everyone in the world. Put yourself in the shoes of a minority, and think about how you would feel to see your language being written and studied for the first time, equal to any other language, with no linguistic discrimination. This is the importance of African linguistics: to make minority speakers feel that they are not less than anyone else, that their language is as complicated as anyone else’s. It has systems, rules, and it’s important as part of the social system of every community. Each language has a culture and a knowledge that’s worth knowing and spreading. Today you can only spread knowledge if it’s written.” He hopes to increase knowledge production about African languages by Africans, to balance out the predominantly Western body of knowledge and approach to linguistics. He says that finding funding is the biggest obstacle to attracting students and getting research projects off the ground.

Studying and revitalising Sudanese languages is also an epistemological project, an intervention in the power dynamics of knowledge. “Including these languages in linguistics may also change many ideas – we are still studying languages through the eyes of European researches. This way we can look at African languages through African eyes, which helps us understand linguistics better – not only according to the dominating languages,” Ahmed says. Decolonising linguistics is a long-term project, but clearly an important one – watch this space.

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