Everywhere and nowhere: Ajami writing

In African formal education systems, the Latin script dominates, with the exception of Arabic-writing North Africa and the Horn of Africa, writing in Ge’ez. In secular state schools, literacy is mainly taught in the ex-colonial languages, which all use Latin-based orthographies. But even schools that teach so-called “national languages” – indigenous languages that are officially recognised – teach these languages in the Latin alphabet. Outside of Arabic lessons, the Arabic script is nowhere to be seen in the formal education sector.

This insistence on the Latin script, which is often seen as a neutral, modern, choice, flies in the face of longstanding writing practices that have emerged all over Africa in areas in the sphere of influence of Islam. Just as the Latin script spread with Christianity and was adapted to write languages other than Latin originally in religious contexts, the Arabic script was extended to write in the languages of Islamic scholars. West Africans cultivated this type of literacy, called Ajami (from ‘Ajamiyy ‘stranger’ in Arabic) from the 13th century onward. All over Africa, writers engage(d) with the Qur’ān, writing in the margins of religious manuscripts, penning personal letters, religious prose and poetry, using the Arabic script for the writing of Fulfulde, Hausa, Mandinka, and many other languages. For some languages, this writing crystallised into language-focused literary traditions roughly from the 17th century onward. In others contexts it remains a fluid informal practice.

Important West African languages with Ajami writing traditions (Souag 2010: 1)

To this day, Ajami writing is an important form of literacy, especially in areas that ironically are regarded as hot spots of illiteracy in official literacy statistics. According to this logic, which ignores the many different types of
Qur’ānic schools, where Ajami writing is learned alongside writing and reading of Arabic by some of the students, somebody without literacy knowledge in the Latin script is illiterate. Not surprisingly, this lack of recognition often leads its practitioners to under-report Ajami skills or even hide them from authorities, because these eye Qur’ānic schools and the knowledge acquired there with suspicion. This is a real shame, since Ajami writing is a very ergonomic form of literacy for languages for which not many resources are available. Ajami extends the writing conventions of Arabic to any language and has intricate design principles adjust it to this purpose. One of these tweaks is a special character called by Souag 2010 the “Ajami diacritic” that signals to the reader that a sound must be pronounced differently from its Arabic counterpart. This flexibility has turned Ajami writing into a robust practice that doesn’t require much costly infrastructure, quite unlike standard writing of national languages in the Latin script. But standard language ideologies are so strong that with growing recognition of Ajami, calls for its standardisation are getting louder. Yet, just like many language ideas exported from Western monolingual standard cultures, such a move would rob Ajami of the very underpinning of its success in linguistically diverse and fluctuating societies.

Read more on the ingenious design principles of West African Ajami writing in this article:

Souag, Lameen (2010): Ajami in West Africa. In Afrikanistik Online 7, pp. 1–11

2 thoughts on “Everywhere and nowhere: Ajami writing

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