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A documention of Tabaq, a Hill Nubian language of Sudan, in its sociolinguistic context


Language Tabaq
Depositor Birgit Hellwig, Gertrud Schneider-Blum, Gerrit Dimmendaal
Affiliation Universität zu Köln
Location Sudan
Collection ID 0200
Grant ID MDP0212
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Tabaq (kko) is a Hill Nubian language spoken by 800 speakers in the Nuba Mountains (N 11°55’53” E 29°26’34”) of the Sudan. This entire region is characterized by an extreme linguistic diversity, and we know very little about the languages, their genetic affiliations and their contact histories. The collection therefore takes a comparative perspective: it documents Tabaq in the form of an annotated audio/visual corpus, and collects parallel information on surrounding non-related languages (Katla, Julud, Tima). This approach allows us to investigate the historical and sociolinguistic context, and to trace contact influence in these languages.

The documentary data in this collection will contribute to a better understanding of Nuba Mountain languages, including their typological make-up and their genetic and areal relationships.


Group represented

800 speakers in the Nuba Mountains of the Sudan

This project documents Tabaq [kko] (N 11°37’0” E 29°7’0”), a Hill Nubian language of the Sudan, in its sociolinguistic context. That is, the project is interested in documenting the language in its relationship to the (possibly) non-related neighbours Katla/Julud [kcr] (N 11°45’0” E 29°19’0”) and Tima [tms] (N 11°40’374” E 29°14’474”). All languages are spoken by small speech communities in isolated areas of the North Western Nuba Mountains of the Sudan: Tabaq (800 speakers); Katla (8.000), Julud (6.000); and Tima (3.000) (estimates based on the Ethnologue and our previous research in this area).

These languages have to be considered severely endangered. Their endangerment is, on the one hand, the result of a long-standing and successful policy of Arabicization and Islamicization on the part of the central government. And it is, on the other hand, the consequence of 20 years of civil war that has destroyed much of the original settlement structure in this area, and has led to the large-scale displacement of people to larger towns outside this area and to so-called peace villages within this area. Many speakers now live outside their homelands in close proximity to speakers of other languages, and are rapidly losing both their languages and their cultures (see also Mugaddam 2006; Mugaddam and Dimmendaal 2005; Patriarchi and Rottland 1995). In the larger settlements, children grow up with Sudanese Arabic as their only language; and in the rural areas, Arabic has become the language of commerce, media, education and religion, and is even intruding into intra-group contexts.

Despite this serious situation, the past years have seen some change: a peace agreement has led to the stabilization of the Nuba Mountains, people are rebuilding their villages, and they are highly motivated to document their old ways of life and their languages (as evidenced by the fact that most communities have set up language committees). The project team has first-hand experience with Katla/Julud and Tima, and has collected additional sociolinguistic information on a number of neighbouring languages. Our experiences show that the older generations are still competent speakers and possess an invaluable knowledge of their material and spiritual culture – even though they usually do not practice it any longer. For example, many older speakers still remember songs from their youth, even though they are only rarely performed these days (because they used to form an integral part of the festivities surrounding rituals, which have disappeared with the advent of Islam). The documentation of the few remaining performances and of remembered songs is especially important in light of the fact that Nuba Mountain song genres are very versatile: songwriters allude to contemporary events in different ways (as dictated by the genre), and the song texts are thus of historical value. We have also seen a huge gap of knowledge to the next generation: middle-aged speakers grew up during the war years, and were never exposed to their languages and cultures in the same ways as the older generation.


Language information

The linguistic relationships that hold between these languages, and to other languages in this area, are far from clear. Tabaq is a Hill Nubian language (of the Nilo-Saharan language family) (Bender 2005; Stevenson 1984; Tucker and Bryan 1966), and is unclassified within this branch. It is listed by the Ethnologue (together with Abu Jinuk) under the name of Karko. Due to a lack of data, we do not know the exact relationship between Tabaq, Karko and Abu Jinuk, but speakers and outsiders alike recognize them as three distinct ethnic groups speaking three distinct languages. Katla, Julud and Tima together constitute one branch of Kordofanian (of the Niger-Kordofanian language family). This branch shows considerable linguistic differences to the remaining Kordofanian languages, and there are considerable doubts about its genetic classification (Dimmendaal 2009; Schadeberg 1989; Stevenson 1964; Tucker and Bryan 1966). The Ethnologue lists Katla and Julud as dialects of one language. Again, speakers and outsiders recognize them as two languages; and Hellwig’s research shows that the two variants form part of a dialect continuum (with the dialects at the extreme ends of the continuum not being mutually intelligible). The difficulties in establishing genetic relationships follow, at least partly, from socio-historic factors: the Nuba Mountains served as a refuge for ethnic groups escaping from raids and warfare in the plains. These groups maintained their own linguistic identities, but there are clear indications of contact across linguistic boundaries (Thelwall and Schadeberg 1983). It is very likely that this contact has left its linguistic traces, thus making it difficult to separate genetic from contact-induced similarities.

Overall, our knowledge of Nuba Mountain languages is very limited. Our descriptive knowledge is restricted to data from surveys and sketches from the beginning of the 20th century, and from unpublished manuscripts targeting subsystems of a language (often phonology and noun classification). This is also true for all languages considered within this project. There are no modern published studies of Hill Nubian language (including Tabaq), but there is a recent documentation project on the more distantly related language Ghulfan (funded by ELDP). The situation is a bit better for Katla/Julud and Tima: members of the project team have researched these languages since 2006 (Hellwig within a descriptive project; Dimmendaal, Schneider-Blum and Mugaddam within a DoBeS documentation project). Our accumulated knowledge will be of benefit to the proposed project: it considerably facilitates the collection and analysis of parallel data in these languages, enabling us to place the Tabaq findings into an areal perspective /


Collection contents

The materials in this collection constitute a corpus of different data sources that illustrates as comprehensively as possible everyday communicative practices as well as the speakers’ metalinguistic knowledge.

When complete, the collection will provide an annotated audio/visual corpus of Tabaq that is comprehensive (with a special focus on narrative and poetic/song genres) and sheds light on sociolinguistic, historical and anthropological questions. In addition, the collection will provide texts from languages that are (presumably) non-related to Tabaq (= Katla/Julud, Tima), with a focus on texts that parallel those texts that were collected for Tabaq. In total, there will be

  • about 40 hours of audio/video data for Tabaq
  • about 10 hours for Katla/Julud
  • about 10 hours for Tima
  • time-aligned transcriptions, with at least half of the data additionally annotated for grammatical information and translated (minimally into English, subset into Arabic)
  • lexical databases of 2500 words per language, with a focus on the verb lexicon, with dictionary entries minimally containing headword, phonetics, link to audio file illustrating pronunciation, part of speech, gloss in English and Arabic
  • storybooks and dictionaries for the communities
  • metadata for all materials

For language documentation and description uses, the collected corpora and databases serve as:

  • a resource for developing literacy materials (developed by speech communities, in cooperation with the researchers)
  • a data source for the description of Tabaq (Schneider-Blum, Hellwig & Nada Sukkar)
  • a data source for the in-depth sociolinguistic study of Tabaq (Mugaddam & Khalifa Jabr Aldar)
  • a data source for the sociolinguistic study of language use and language attitudes in the North Western Nuba Mountains (Mugaddam)
  • a comparative semantic study on verb lexicalization patterns across non-related languages of the North Western Nuba Mountains (Dimmendaal, Schneider-Blum & Hellwig)
  • future ethnographic and historical projects in this area

The descriptive and sociolinguistic research is conducted in parallel to the corpus construction: it will benefit from the corpus data, and the analyses will find their way back into the corpus in the form of rich annotations (of the textual data) and semantic characterizations (of the lexical data).


Other information

The materials in this collection feed into a grammatical description of Tabaq (Nada Sukkar); a sociolinguistic study of Tabaq (Khalifa Jabr Aldar); language use and language attitudes in the North Western Nuba Mountains (Mugaddam); comparative verb semantics in the North Western Nuba Mountains (Dimmendaal, Schneider-Blum & Hellwig).


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. and Birgit Hellwig. 2014. A Documentation of Tabaq, a Hill Nubian language of the Sudan, in its sociolinguistic context. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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