Nuer Field Project

Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer Translation of Genesis in Nuer Others

The Development of Nuer Linguistics

by Edward Miner,

The first description of the Nuer language was published in 1912 by Diedrich Westermann, based upon data collected during his stays in Khartoum and at the APM station at Doleib Hill. His language consultants included two Eastern Jikany Nuer from near Nasir; a Lou Nuer and her ethnic Dinka husband from the Bahr al-Zeraf region; and two other Nuer individuals from the White Nile area. As such, Westermann was working from very heterogeneous linguistic data. Rather than a phonemic analysis, he attempts an exhaustive phonetic inventory. As his interests lie purely in linguistic description, he does not discuss matters of orthography. Westermann discerns fifteen distinct vowel qualities, eight of which he found to exist in lengthened form. In contrast to subsequent analyses, he does not identify anything like “breathiness” as distinctive among Nuer vowels, although he mentions in passing the existence of nasalized vowels. He notes the frequency of diphthongs and lists eight of them. For the consonants, he found twenty nine. Additionally, he gives a long inventory of the contexts in which vowels and consonants exhibit change, without formulating general rules. Finally, in his transcriptions he marks five tones: high, low, middle, high-low (falling), and low-high (rising), and briefly discusses the distinction between etymological and grammatical tone.

Westermann’s article goes on to provide a brief grammatical outline of the Nuer language, a wordlist, and a selection of oral texts with translations. It would provide the best description of Nuer until Crazzolara published his extensive analysis in Outline of a Nuer Grammar in 1933. Major C.H. Stigand, Governor of the Upper Nile Province in 1917-18, made a serious effort to attain proficiency in the Nuer language and compiled an extensive vocabulary list before being transferred to Mongalla Province. A student of Kiswahili and Arabic, he had authored a number of publications on linguistic and administrative topics. His Nuer-English Vocabulary was published posthumously in 1923, four years after his death during a patrol against the Aliab Dinka. It was published with little or no editorial revision, as evidenced by the absence of any pronunciation key or discussion of his transcription practices. Possibly more research could uncover what transcription principles he employed. In an indication of the interest that the colonial administration was beginning to take in the proficiency of its officers in Southern Sudanese languages, however, the vocabulary was published by Cambridge University Press with a grant from Khartoum.

The interest of the colonial administration in Nilotic (including Nuer) linguistic description and literacy development arose in the years leading up to the formulation of the Southern Policy. Sir John Maffey, Governor-General of the Sudan from 1924-1934, initially unconvinced that use of pidgin Arabic in the South was a harbinger of Northern cultural hegemony, was eventually won over to this view by Sir Harold MacMichael and J.G. Matthew, the Civil Secretary and Minister of Education and Health, respectively. Speaking to the Rejaf Language Conference in 1928, Matthew reiterated the government position that English should replace Arabic as the language of administration in the South. He further commented on the unsuitability of Arabic as a regional lingua franca (Rejaf 1928: 10).

Whereas East Africa has Swahili and West Africa Hausa, both languages with a respectable literary tradition and capable of further development, the Southern Sudan has nothing really corresponding to them, though practical necessities have led to the increasing spread of pidgin Arabic, a jargon severely limited in its means of expression and therefore incapable in its present state of fulfilling the functions of a language of intercommunication.

The Rejaf Language Conference brought together government and mission stakeholders in Southern Sudanese education to formulate a coordinated language policy. In actuality, it was third in a series of conferences on education that had been convened first in Uganda in 1918 and then in the Belgian Congo in 1924. Representatives from missions working in Uganda and the Belgian Congo were likewise in attendance at Rejaf in 1928. The particular objectives of the third conference were fourfold:

  1. to construct a classified roster of languages and dialects;
  2. to determine whether a subset of these languages and dialects could suitably function as media of education;
  3. to explore the possibility of a unified system of orthography; and
  4. to explore cooperation in textbook production and the development of templates for a skeleton grammar, reading books and primers that would facilitate standardization of the curriculum across language groups.

The Conference determined that Bari, Dinka, Latuka, Nuer, Shilluk and Zande would collectively suffice for the educational needs of Southern Sudanese peoples. Moreover, the orthographic guidelines developed would become the standard reference for all later orthographic development of Southern Sudanese languages.

Matthew, as Chair of the Conference, addressed in his opening remarks each of these working objectives, including that of a unified system of orthography. He endorsed the principles of one character per phoneme and a Roman-based alphabet. On the morning of the second day, Westermann presented his recommendations for a unified orthography. There are interesting tensions that emerge from a close reading of his remarks. On the one hand, he appeals to principles of administrative convenience when he points out the advantages of a unified orthography when working with substantially interrelated languages in geographically contiguous areas that are “also for the larger part within one administrative unit” [the Sudan] (Rejaf 1928: 14). On the other, he argues against European convenience in the actual construction of the orthography (Rejaf 1928: 14-5).

The script we want to introduce is intended for use by Africans, not for use by Europeans who want to learn the language. We should keep this constantly in mind. It means that we should try to look at the problems from the African’s point of view, not from our own. His difficulties are not always ours; we are to remember that our views on orthography are always hopelessly restricted by the historical orthography of our European languages.

Westermann goes on to outline two options available to the Conference in providing for sounds not represented in the Roman alphabet. The first is the use of diacritics (otherwise knows as the Lepsius system). The second, which he recommends, is the IPA phonetic script as "adapted to African languages in the Memorandum on Orthography published by the International Institute on African Languages and Cultures" and which uses "new letter forms instead of diacritical marks" (Rejaf 1928:15). He mentions several African peoples among whom it was already in use and that it had been recommended by the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

On this and over the next few days, Westermann and the four Language Committees (for Dinka-Nuer, Shilluk-Acholi, Bari-Latuko, and Non-Dinka Languages of the Bahr el-Ghazal Province, respectively) worked to create a harmonized orthography for the languages of the Southern Sudan. After the Language Committees had deliberated and reported, the full Conference was able to agree on the following points of orthographic harmonization.

  1. For interdentals, a solid majority voted that th, dh, and nh be adopted in preference to using single characters with diacritics. Archdeacon Shaw led a vocal minority in its dissenting opinion favoring the use of diacritics. He pointed out that the majority position violated the basic principle of one character per phoneme. As a point of interest, the Report (Rejaf 1928: 26) records the following comments by two members of the Nuer-Dinka Language Committee:
  2. For the velar nasal, the character ŋ was adopted without controversy in preference to ng.
  3. For the velar fricative, the character ɤ was adopted without controversy in preference to q (commonly used for the voiceless uvular stop in Arabic).
  4. For open vowels, the characters ɛ & ɔ would be adopted when necessary for particular languages. In the discussion, there was general agreement that they might be necessary for non-native learners but not necessarily native readers. The Nuer Sub-Committee of the Nuer-Dinka Language Committee, however, adopted them into the standard orthography for Nuer.
  5. For the central vowel, a majority voted forö in preference over ə. The majority opinion pointed to the undesirability of adding a new character, while the minority pointed to the undesirability of a diacritic.
  6. For tonal representations, the consensus was that only high tones should be marked, with an acute accent, and only if necessary for a particular language.
  7. For long vowels, the consensus was that they should be represented by a doubled character rather than a diacritic.

Appendix I to the Report gives the Reports of the Language Committees. One decision of lasting importance made by the Dinka-Nuer Committee was that the two languages were so different that they could not share one written form. The Sub-Committees for Dinka and Nuer made decisions concerning their respective languages. The members of the Nuer Sub-Committee were Rev. Fr. Crazzolara (Verona Fathers), Rev. W. J. Adair (APM-Nasir) and Miss Ray Huffman (APM-Nasir). The three of them agreed that the differences among Nuer dialects were so small that separate written forms were not justified. Apart from the points on harmonization that had been decided in the full Conference, the Sub-Committee arrived at the following additional orthographic determinations:

  1. final interdentals would always be represented as th.
  2. all voiceless alveopalatals would be represented as c.
  3. the finalized Nuer alphabet consists of the following characters, which are equivalent to the phonemes of the Nuer language:

    d, k, l, m, n, p, t, w, g, j, r, y, ŋ, ny, th, dh, nh, ɤ, c, a, e, i, o, u, ö, ɛ, ɔ

The recommendations on orthography emanating from Rejaf would be finalized the following year by A.N. Tucker, Professor of East African Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.

Ray Huffman arrived to start her work at Nasir station in about 1924. Much like Vandevort a generation later, her primary task was to describe the Nuer language and to create pedagogical materials for both native speaker and second-language learner. Her treatment of the social life and culture of the Nuer people around Nasir station, Nuer Customs and Folklore (1931), is a product of its time and context in how it is unburdened by the kind of self-reflexive critique of the missionary project that emerges from a reading of Vandevort’s A Leopard Tamed (see Frank-Wilson’s essay on this point). Huffman’s contributions to the description of Nuer, however, are considerable. Armed with the new, phonemically sensitive Rejaf orthography, she developed the first pedagogically useful reference work on the Nuer language as her Nuer-English Dictionary (1929). In the preface, she comments that the complete draft was reviewed by up to six Nuer readers before publication. Interestingly, there is also evidence that she had refined her phonemic analysis of Nuer since Rejaf, although she cautions loyalty to the harmonized orthography (1929: 3).

All open vowels have been marked in this dictionary because it is for the use of the Europeans but I do not urge the marking of the open A, I and U in books for the Nuer as the eight vowels – a, e, i, o, u, ɛ, ɔ, and ö are sufficient.

Huffman had ‘uncovered’ three new phonemes – in short, that Nuer had a nearly complete set of corresponding close and open vowels! One can read a tension in Huffman’s language above somehow similar to that seen in Westermann’s at Rejaf – between the principles of greatest practical simplicity (and perhaps administrative convenience?) on the one hand and that of scientific accuracy (and perhaps native-reader acceptability?) on the other. In 1931, Huffman published the companion to her first work as the English-Nuer Dictionary. She describes the state of Nuer linguistics in Nuer Customs and Folklore (1931: 80-1) thusly:

The Nuer language so far has not been very largely transmitted to paper. The two missions among the Nuer [APM and the Verona Fathers] have a limited number of school-books printed in this language. The American Mission has six readers, one of which contains much folk-lore. They also have a translation of Mary Blacklock’s book on Hygiene. But the white man when he arrives in Nuerland has but little to help him to a quick understanding of the language. A Nuer-English dictionary has just been published, and an English-Nuer dictionary will soon be ready for the publisher. In each a few pages of Nuer grammar has been included. But so far the white man has had to extract his knowledge of the language from the Nuer himself, and this process takes time—and patience.
The Nuer language as I have found it has an extensive vocabulary. I have listed over 3,100 words in the above mentioned dictionary, many of them root-forms only, and I constantly find how limited my knowledge of the language is. One finds new words each day. It seems like an endless mine.

Huffman developed a close working relationship with Westermann, as evidenced by the fact that Nuer Customs and Folklore was published under the imprint of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, of which he was the Director. In his introduction to the work, Westermann gives it the following endorsement (1929: v):

It is not, nor does it pretend to be, a complete monograph on the Nuer tribe, but it gives a considerable amount of information, practically all of which is new. The special value of the material presented by Miss Huffman lies in the fact that it is absolutely reliable. The author, who has a thorough practical knowledge of the language, speaks of what she herself has experienced and seen during several years’ life and work among the Nuer. Whenever her information is not first hand she says so.

The personnel of APM-Nasir station also developed a close working relationship with Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, an anthropologist commissioned by the Sudan Government in 1930 to document the social and political structures of the Nuer. Such data was sought to inform the Native Administration that Khartoum wanted to develop under its Southern Policy. Evans-Pritchard accepted the commission reluctantly, as he had not yet completed a study he had undertaken among the Azande. Moreover, he would find that his analysis of an essentially acephalous society would be at times inimical to the need of the provincial administration to find leaders to blame for Nuer cultural resistance. Johnson writes of the strained relationship that developed between the anthropologist and the Governor of Upper Nile Province (1995: 21):

Willis at first thought Evans-Pritchard ‘a knowledgeable sort of man’ when the two had met briefly in Renk in 1927, but that was before his own problems with the Nuer. He certainly resented having Evans-Pritchard inflicted on his province and did much to impede his progress. Willis had excluded anthropological research from his 1928 proposals; such investigations were part of an administrator’s normal duties and did not need a technical expert. In some ways this handbook, being a presentation of his experts in the field, was a rebuttal of Khartoum’s decision to send Evans-Pritchard to his province to carry out redundant investigations.

Significantly, Willis’ disdain for competing knowledge extended to missionaries, and especially those of the APM. The cordial relations between Evans-Pritchard and Nasir station undoubtedly did little to endear either to the Governor. In his preface to what would become one of the classics of ethnographic literature (The Nuer), the anthropologist writes (1940: vii):

I thank also the staff of the American Mission at Nasser, of the Congregation of Verona at Yoahnyang, and of the Church Missionary Society at Ler. I wish to make particular acknowledgement to the staff of the American Mission, especially to Miss B. Soule, who unreservedly placed their home, their time, and their knowledge at my disposal. I dedicate this book to them not only as an expression of personal gratitude, but also as a tribute to their devoted service to the Nuer.

Elsewhere, Evans-Pritchard acknowledges the assistance of the linguistic and ethnographic research of Ray Huffman, all of which was either available or published after he had already begun his fieldwork. Something of the anthropologist’s more personal feelings about the work of the Nasir station emerge from a letter written to B. Cora Soule on December 24, 1931, after his first phase of research:

People in the Sudan often say that I am against Christian missions. It is largely true that I am against missions, but not against Christian missions, and by that I mean missions which regard it as a privilege to work among Africans and realize that Christianity is a spirit which can permeate any culture and not a body of ready-made and repressive rules of conduct which a native must accept in exchange for a higher social status. Yours is the only station I have ever been at where I felt that the Europeans were really at one with the natives and treated them as brothers and sisters. I hope you will not mind my saying this.

One might imagine that such respect for local culture was a Nasir station tradition that endured to Vandevort’s time and helped shape her growth among the Nuer as first a missionary, then friend, and ultimately lay ethnographer.

In the western part of Nuer country, the Verona Fathers carried on missionary work and also contributed to Nuer linguistic description. Father J.P. Crazzolara (Verona Fathers), who sat on the Nuer Sub-Committee at Rejaf with Huffman and Adair, undertook linguistic research while serving at Yoinyang station on the Bahr al-Ghazal. In 1933, his work culminated in the publication of his Outlines of a Nuer Grammar, representing the single most comprehensive treatment of the structure of the language to the present day. In his introduction, Crazzolara describes the inductive methods he employed in arriving at his analysis (1933: vii-viii):

My practice in dealing with a new language (as Acoli, Cɔllo, or Shilluk) has always been to collect numerous phrases as spoken by natives and to put them down in writing as accurately as possible. These phrases were then ordered in order to show the structure of the language; they became the examples for the rules deduced from them. This idea formed the plan to the present synthetical work; no European Grammar served as model.

Running over 200 pages, Outlines of a Nuer Grammar would become the standard reference work for missionaries and administrators; this would be formalized in a proposition passed by the Malakal Language Conference in 1944 (described below). Crazzolara acknowledges a lack of uniformity in his orthographical and intonational transcription, and attributes this to the heterogeneity of his data: "pronounciation varies so much and its difficulty is a characteristic of the Jii-languages" (1933: viii). One of the goals of his grammar is actually to document important points of phonetic variation, and he avoids a discussion of their implications for orthography. Generally, Crazzolara adopts a modified Rejaf orthography for transcribing phonetic values, and seems to recognize eleven vowel sounds as somehow basic. In an attempt to capture variation not readily reducible to these eleven vowels, however, he adds a number of his own diacritics to represent intermediary and “hollow” or “bag-sound” values. In this, he departs from the principle informing the Rejaf orthography pertaining to the avoidance of diacritics. Indeed, he even worries that his phonetic descriptions may have erred too much on the side of “mechanical uniformity”. In a departure from the Rejaf orthography, Crazzolara has two extra consonants.

Although the Rejaf Language Conference had established a baseline for missionary cooperation in linguistic description and literacy development, there came to be in practice considerable variation in orthographic representation. This variation was sometimes due to divergent phonemic analyses, and sometimes to differences of opinion as to what phonemic distinctions were crucial for purposes of literacy. A decade and a half after Rejaf, the stakeholders in Nuer linguistic description met at Malakal in 1944 to reharmonize their orthographic practices. Several significant agreements were made, most notably the abandonment of the character ö, adopted at Rejaf for the central vowel, as “Nasir Nuers and missionaries were the only ones using it” (Malakal 1944: i). It appears that another character, ä, had been found more intuitively useful – and was used by Crazzolara by the time his grammar was published in 1933. Also noteworthy is that no proposal came forward for representing in the orthography the three phonemically open vowels discovered by Ray Huffman. The characters representing consonants remained unchanged. As mentioned above, Outlines of a Nuer Grammar was recognized as the standard reference for matters of structure (including word division), but not spelling. The conference report includes comments by Ray Huffman on dialectal variation, and a set of grammatical exercises with a vocabulary entitled Rudiments of the Nuer Language that incorporates the agreements made on the emerging standard Nuer language.

The Verona Fathers tradition of linguistic description would continue with the publication of Nuer-English Dictionary in 1948 by Father J. Kiggen. In his preface, Kiggen acknowledges his heavy intellectual debt to Crazzolara "for his notes in pencil on a proposed Nuer dictionary. Although his translations were mostly in German short-hand, which I could not read and although, so he wrote, they were not intended to be read by any one but himself, yet they formed an interesting and useful clue to further investigation, which brought a harvest of thousands of new words and meanings" (1948: 6). Like his intellectual forebear, Kiggen seems also to have been closely connected with the Yoinyang station. In contravention of the agreements reached at Malakal, he persists in a number of Crazzolara’s transcriptional practices (e.g., 22 consonants rather that the standard 20). Rather that the standard eight vowels, he gives seven; of ä, the central vowel, he directs the learner to memorize the contexts in which it occurs so as to phonetically distinguish it from a.

This was the state of the field when Vandevort began her work at Nasir station in 1949. At some point she did have access to a copy of Kiggen’s dictionary, as she made a gift of it to the Indiana University Libraries along with the rest of her materials. In reading between the primary documents of her linguistic research in this digital archive (index cards [1], [2], [3], [4] showing nominal declensions with consultant and date; Appointments with Nuer Verbs) and her ethnography entitled A Leopard Tamed, one begins to get a sense of the process she navigated in finally compiling her manuscript Pedagogical Grammar of the Nuer Language and translation of the Book of Genesis. While an extended discussion of her linguistic analysis will not be undertaken here, developments in Nuer orthography will be briefly noted. While the number of characters for consonants is the standard 20, Vandevort’s characters representing vowels have doubled from eight to sixteen! At some point between the publication of Huffman’s dictionary and Vandevort’s tenure at Nasir, a decision was made to orthographically represent the three phonemically distinctive open vowels that the former had ‘uncovered’, as well as a series of "breathy" vowels. Vandevort mentions that these sixteen vowels are represented in the Nuer translation of the New Testament. The arrangement of these vowels in articulatory space, together with her analysis of the feature of "breathiness", can be in the section on The Sounds of the Nuer Language from her Pedagogical Grammar.

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Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others