search catalogue

Sakun (Sukur) Language Documentation


Language Sakun
Depositor Michael Thomas
Affiliation University of Colorado at Boulder
Location Nigeria
Collection ID 0252
Grant ID IGS0083
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection from the Sakun (Sukur) Language Documentation Project provides a discourse-based corpus of an endangered and undocumented language of the Mandara mountains, Nigeria. Sakun is spoken by approximately 15,000 people. Since the enlistment of Sukur in 1999 as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape, the increased contact following infrastructure development has caused Sakun to give way to Hausa in a number of domains.

Working with local stakeholders, this project assembled a corpus that captures a broad range of cultural practices identified as important by the community, and provides the foundation for a grammar, dictionary and pedagogical materials to support the community’s own efforts at language maintenance.


Group represented

This collection represents members of the Sukur community in Nigeria.

Sakun is spoken by approximately 15,000 people living in the Sukur District of the Madagali North Development Area in Madagali Local Government Area of Adamawa State, Nigeria.

With around 15,000 speakers, Sakun is not moribund. However, Sakun and related languages in the Mandara mountains are under serious threat from Hausa. With the inscription of Sukur Cultural Landscape on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999 and the increased contacts that have followed infrastructure development, Sakun is giving way to Hausa. The Sakun are aware that their language is in danger. In the words of Bitrus Yakubu, Chairman of the Sakun Development Association, “Development is more than roads and electricity. We want cultural development as well so that our language does not give way to Hausa like so many languages in Nigeria”.

The community advocates what can be described as a domain specific approach to corpus planning in order to insure the continued use and development of Sakun. Targeted domains include mother tongue education, translation of texts widely used by the community into Sakun, the writing of histories and the development of oral story telling traditions into a written literature. At the same time there is also a need for second language materials to serve the Sakun diaspora who have grown up outside the community and wish to learn the language.


Language information

Sakun (also called Sukur) is spoken by approximately 15,000 people in the Mandara mountains, Nigeria. Since the enlistment of Sukur in 1999 as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape, the increased contact following infrastructure development has caused Sakun to give way to Hausa in a number of domains. Sukur is the name used by others. The Sukur call the place, themselves, and their language “Sakun” or “Sakwun”.

Crozier and Blench (1992:99) following Newman (1990) classified Sakun as the sole member of a Sukur group within a Mandara-Matakam-Sukur major group assigned to the Biu-Mandara sub-branch of Chadic. Chadic is a family within the Afro-Asiatic phylum of languages which also includes Ancient Egyptian, Semitic, Berber and Cushitic languages. This has interesting historical implications on the continental scale. The Summer Institute of Linguistics’ Ethnologue web page places Sakun in a group of its own (A6) within the Biu-Mandara sub-branch of Chadic. Blench (2003) classified Sakun as a Central Chadic language that forms its own group within the Wandala cluster of the Wandala-Mafa group. The terminology has changed but little else. This assignation is based upon very little evidence – primarily brief wordlists collected by Meek (1931), Paul Newman in 1973, Ekkehard Wolff in 1974, and by Roger Blench when he accompanied us to Sukur in 1991. The Sukur themselves are quite clear that their language is more similar to those of the Higi (kamwe) and Kapsiki (psikye) than to any others, which would suggest that it be classified (according to the Blench 2003 terminology) as a member of the Central branch/Bura-Higi major group/Higi group of languages. However, until a linguist undertakes a detailed comparison, it would be foolish to say any more than that Sakun has a long history as an independent language in the region.

Other than a handful of wordlists collected by anthropologists working in the region (David 2003, Meek 1931) there has been no published description of the language. As an isolate in Biu-Mandara, subgroup A, the description of Sakun will fill an important gap in the empirical coverage of this diverse phylum. Sakun exhibits a number of characteristics that contrast with its sister languages including syncretism across third person pronominal paradigms rather than the typical syncretism across first and second person in these paradigms; distinct patterns of coding aspect not related to the morphological complexity of the verb stem attested in other related languages; and unique word order configurations conditioned by tense, aspect and mood. A detailed description of Sakun will provide important evidence for historical reconstructions as well as genealogical groupings which Newman (1977, 1990) admitted are not above challenge.


Special characteristics

Since 1999, the Sukur Cultural Landscape has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click on“.

The documentation in this collection provides a baseline of data for determining the long-term effects of UNESCO enlistment on the Sakun community. In accordance with the Conservation/Business Plan for the Sukur World Heritage Site for 2006-2011 negotiated between the community and other stakeholders (i.e. the NCMM, state and federal government of Nigeria), this project will help provide the ‘inventory of intangible cultural resources’ targeted by 2011 as well as providing the identified success indicator of making available ‘paper and electronic copies of all documentations on site’.

A better understanding of Sakun’s relationship with other Chadic languages will provide results with implications well beyond linguistics, helping ethnographers and archaeologists in the region have a clearer picture of the history of the groups they study and providing supporting data for their analyses. Hypotheses about historical migration patterns and the transfer of cultural traits and features between autochthonous groups of the region and immigrants require such supporting evidence. The archaeological record is often equivocal and historical ethnographic data are sparse, especially on the Nigerian side of the border (MacEachern, 2003:86-89). Documentation of the Sakun language will also contribute to the growing body of contemporary ethnographic data on the communities of the Mandara mountains. For example, conversations including members of the smithing caste will provide data for analyzing the linguistic performance of caste and shed light on the gradations of what is generally considered a particularly elusive category (Sterner, 2003:172).


Collection contents

When completed, this collection will include

  • around 24 hours of video recordings from a broad range of cultural contexts identified as important by the community, including traditional narratives, historical narratives, conversations and formal discussions
  • an electroinic lexical database with an expanded wordlists from the collected texts as well as elicitations
  • time-aligned transcriptions, glosses, translations and annotations for two hours of the recordings for inclusion in the AfroAsCorp project
  • an improved and standardised orthography
  • literacy materials in Sakun
  • a trilingual Sakun-English-Hausa dictionary
  • a PhD dissertation ‘A Reference Grammar of Sakun (Sukur)’


Collection history

Michael Thomas conducted a pilot project between May and July 2008. The materials in this collection were gathered and prepared between 2010 and 2011 during Michael Thomas’s PhD research supported by an ELDP Individual Graduate Scholarship.


Other information

Texts collected will be archived locally in the form of hardcopy and digitally on two laptop computers donated for the project. The entire corpus will be archived at the library of the University of Maiduguri where it will remain accessible to Nigerian scholars. The corpus will also be archived with CSIL (Center for the Study of Indigenous Languages, University of Colorado, Boulder).


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Thomas, Michael. 2014. Sakun (Sukur) Language Documentation. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

Powered by Preservica
© Copyright 2024