A se ca gema sakun
(Past marker) know he language Sakun
He understands Sakun

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Michael Thomas, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Colarado, is now working on the Sakun/Sukur language. Our amateur attempts to understand and describe it are superseded. Therefore EVERYTHING IN THIS PART OF THE WEBSITE IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE AND REVISION.
We will provide further information as we obtain it.

Sukur or Sakun?

Sukur is the name used by others. The Sukur call the place, themselves, and their language "Sakun" or "Sakwun". There is neither a published dictionary nor a grammar. We do however have linguistic materials to offer that include a limited lexicon, a very few texts including what we believe to be the first in Sakun written by a Sakun (Waziri 1993), and a number of phrases that we have attempted to construe. We hope that not only will these will be of general interest and of some use to linguists, but also that Sakun will themselves correct and develop these materials.

Hidi, Xidi, Llidi, Tli'di?

The Sakun word translated as "chief" has been represented in various different ways by different writers. In 1991 Roger Blench heard it as "Xidi" with an initial voiceless velar fricative. Judy Sterner and I adopted that spelling in various publications. More recent work by Michael Thomas suggests that the correct initial consonant is a voiceless lateral fricative commonly represented in Nigeria by "tl", close to the double L ("ll") of some writers in the pre-independence period. Let the linguists sort this out: there may well be dialect differences. In the meantime we recommend use of the commonly and locally accepted form "Hidi" in all but technical and linguistic writing. We have not however made the Xidi -> Tli'di/Hidi change in the Sakun:English lexicon and texts linked to this page.

The classification of Sakun

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) has recently 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.

Seated under the giant baobab on the Patla, Judy Sterner, Nic David, and assistants John Habga and Philip Sukur work together on the translation of Sakun phrases. Under the same tree a young woman tends to her sister's hair.

Context … and a disclaimer

Learning Sakun would have required us to stay for perhaps a year at Sukur before beginning our anthropological fieldwork, and that was impossible. On the other hand it was essential to record the vocabulary of the areas of culture on which we were working, whether this related to artifacts or concepts of kinship and descent. We also wished to have interactions with our neighbors that did not have to be mediated by our assistants. There at present no lingua franca in the region. Very few residents of the Sukur plateau speak any English, which until recently was learned in schools on the plain. Older men often spoke some Fulfulde (Fulani) while younger men were frequently relatively fluent in Hausa, which is expanding in Adamawa state at the expense of Fulfulde. Although ND was once competent in Fulfulde, neither he nor the vast majority of respondents had the mastery required to use Fulfulde as the vehicular language of fieldwork. Moreover many Sukur regard Fulfulde as the language of a former oppressor. Therefore we and our assistants rapidly found ourselves developing an idiolect combining 'rotten' (as Saro-Wiwa termed it) English grammar and verbs with Sakun nouns and a few adjectives and phrases.

Words and phrases were recorded, and to a very limited extent analyzed, as time allowed during fieldwork. A comparison of wordlists suggests that, while I often made mistakes, my rendition of Sakun words is relatively systematic and is therefore useful within limits. The enterprise was affected in 1992-93 by our assistants' poor control of English. Our idiolect had to be negotiated at every step, and we sometimes found that "he went" meant "she is coming." Thus, despite a concern for accuracy and reproducibility, there was always a danger that when I asked John Habga and Philip Sukur to reproduce an English phrase in Sakun, they gave me something rather different. In 1996 we were lucky to have been able to employ an undergraduate, Markus Makarma, with a substantially greater competence in English. Lacking formal training in linguistic analysis, I found it very hard to elicit explanations of why a phrase meant what they said it did. Indeed it was often difficult to identify separate words. There are good reasons for this, for example the phrase ga-ca-va-n (I show him) could be written in various ways as it comprises four elements: a verb root, an infixed 3rd person pronoun object, a verbal extension of uncertain significance, and a suffixed (and abbreviated) 1st person pronoun subject.

A revealing if slightly embarrassing example of our experience with Sakun is the pair of speeches delivered by ND and JS at a party thrown for us by the village on the day before we left Sukur in 1993. Judy and I decided that we should thank the village in their own language and wrote draft speeches in English which were translated into Sakun by a committee of John, Philip and ND. However, notice was short and I had to take a lot on trust. The speeches were well received but, on returning to them for purposes of analysis some ten years later, I can by no means always explain why they mean what I believe them to mean!

Readers should therefore be warned that these data are presented in only very partially digested form. Although I have done some cleaning up, I have neither the skills nor the opportunity for further analysis. I have been unable to check such analysis as I have done with Sakun speakers either while we were living at Sukur or later.There are inconsistencies both within the phrases and between phrases and lexicon. The phrases contain various words that have not yet been entered in the lexicon. We are delighted that Michael Thomas has taken over the analysis. His work should provide the Sukur with the wherewithal to, as time goes by, take over the analysis.Top of Page

Linguistic conventions


In order that all users of these pages will see the same characters, and to encourage Sakun with only typewriters available to them to write in Sakun, we have used English letters to represent Sakun sounds. The table below emphasizes the most important ones. We have not attempted to represent tones except where their importance became obvious, often emphasized by our interlocutors.

For ease of reference, the table, with equivalent IPA characters, is also available as a .pdf file.

Character Sound represented Examples Notes
gh voiced velar fricative as in German 'ach'  
ghr harsher voiced (rhotacized?) velar fricative   like the previous, but appears to us to end with a guttural 'r'
x voiceless velar fricative as in German 'Ich'  
zh voiced postalveolar fricative as in ‘measure’  
j voiced palato-alveolar affricate as in ‘judge’  
sh voiceless postalveolar fricative as in ‘measure’  
c voiceless palato-alveolar affricate as in ‘church’  
dl voiced lateral fricative    
tl voiceless lateral fricative    
glottal stop (except before b and d)
as in 'glo"al stop'
‘d voiced implosive d    
‘b voiced implosive b    
ë schwa, an open vowel    
-aw vowel plus labial word ending as in English allow  
-ay vowel plus palatal word ending as in English die  
-iy vowel plus palatal word ending as in English tea  
w inserted to separate syllables e.g., Ruwa not Rua  
( ) a very short, epenthetic (not tone-carrying) vowel e.g., k(ë)ra (dog) noted on the root only
a grave accent represents a low tone  
rarely noted in our transcription 
an acute accent represents a high tone   rarely noted in our transcription 

Comparative wordlists

If you are familiar with or ready to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, then the best way to evaluate the materials collected by the authors is to compare their representations of Sukur words with those of linguists and the anthropologist Meek. To avoid difficulties with fonts, the wordlists are presented in the form of an Adobe Acrobat file. It includes instructions on how to generate the special characters using the SIL Doulos IPA font.Top of Page

Parts of speech and grammar

The longer we stayed in Sukur, the less certain we became of the real semantic content and range of some Sakun words, and the less certain of the reality of designating them as 'nouns', 'verbs', or whatever. Sakun, like English, has roots that can be used nominally and verbally. Thus ngus appears to mean 'death', a 'dead person' and 'die'. Distinctions are likely made on the basis of tone and verbal auxiliaries. Sakun also has verbal extensions that we don't understand. For example, some verbal forms elicited end in '-va,' '-ma' or similar morphemes. These seem not to be parts of the root but something that specifies the manner in which whatever it is is done or relates to the nature of the doing. To divide was, for example, collected as tëka and tëkava on separate occasions, and there are variants of 'to go': go down, go up, go across, etc. There are many examples among the phrases collected.

Sakun uses markers, usually beginning a clause, to indicate tense-action-moods, for example whether action is ongoing and incomplete, past or complete, future or of some other nature that we cannot as yet define (e.g., imperfect, potential, conditional... There is a set of pronouns, disjunctive ones such as 'myself' being hard to grasp. There are several ways to form negatives and questions. What little I have been able to infer of such matters is summed up in some notes. These should be looked at before reading the phrases, and tested in the context of my attempts to construe them. But before studying the phrases it would be wise to print out the lexicon.

The lexicon

Click on either the English to Sakun or Sakun to English halves of the lexicon below to open the .pdf files in a new window that you can, if you sish, keep open while you browse the site.

Sakun to English and English to Sakun

Sakun phrases

I have only begun the work of construing these Sakun phrases. They deserve much fuller analysis; together with the texts below there is enough material to establish the basics of the gramma.

Sakun texts

1. Waziri Christian and biblical texts.
2. Dalatë's prayer
3. Midala's prayer

For the moment I am only including a small number of documents, starting with the Reverend Waziri's (1992) translation into Sakun of some well known Christian and biblical texts. As noted above this is the only such text written by a Sukur and I am grateful to him for allowing me to reproduce it. His transcription of Sakun into roman characters is reproduced as published, except that I have used the character 'ë' instead of his (more correct) upside down 'e' to represent the schwa. However, there are differences between his transcription and that of ND and JS, and, interestingly, his word divisions also differ.

The second text is a short prayer offered to God by the titleholder Dalatë at the Yawal festival held in February 1993. The third is another prayer offered by the ritual war leader, Midala, as part of the Zoku purification ceremony.Top of Page

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