Sunday, 29 May 2011

Who was this for?

Durham University has an amazing collection of resources on Sudan, probably the best in the world. The library has virtually every book published, there is the Sudan Archive and the Middle East Documentation Centre has a huge quantity of recent grey literature and government documents.

On a search for Dinka language material in the catalogue (of which there is quite a lot) I discovered a curious pamphlet from the Sudan Political Service…

It is called “Two Hundred Vital words” and it is crib of basic vocab in 11 Southern Sudanese languages;  Acholi, Bari, Dinka (Bor and Rek), Kresh, Lotuko, Madi, Moro, Nuer, Shilluk and Zande. It also has a key of the English words and a curious list of English words in phonetics (I’ll come back to this).

I first presumed it was issued to Sudan Political Service (SPS) officers and administrators – to help them with the local languages. But, after a bit more inspection, I was not so sure.

Some basic facts first, these words were selected by N.B Hunter. He was  in the education department of the SPS, serving in El Fasher (Darfur) and the Nuba Mountains before he took up is last position as Resident Inspector of Southern Education in Wau and Lalyo. His wife, Ysabel’s diaries and photos from their time in Sudan are in the Durham Archive The pamphlet was presented by a relative of JGS Macphail, who had a long career in the SPS, including serving as the District Commissioner of Upper Nile between 1933 and 1939. (He has also left his papers to the Sudan Archive in Durham).

The pamphlet itself was published in 1931. This struck me as being rather early, only 2 years after the last patrol against Ariandit, the time when ‘pacification’ in Dinka areas is nominally counted as having given way to regular civil administration. 

The pamphlet is fun and quite useful if you are interested in languages in Southern Sudan. Hunter has attempted to give the same 200 words in each language.  Here is a snippet of the Nuer page

It is very interesting which words he was/was not able to find in the 11 languages. For example, word no. 30 was ‘rainmaker’, in Kresh and Shilluk, he found no word for rainmaker. In Dinka Bor he listed the word for rainmaker as “Tiet” but in Dinka Rek it is listed as “Beny Bith” (with a question mark). My understanding is the “Tiet” in Dinka Rek and Agar means a kind of technical specialist, quite different from Beny Bith, I am not sure what the meaning is in Dinka Bor. In any case, a better translation of Beny Bith is ‘master/chief of the fishing spear’ (Beny = master/chief, Bith = fishing spear). In Nuer, he is also uncertain of the word and offers a tentative “Kwäär” for rainmaker. There appears to have been no word for ‘banana’ in Dinka Rek, Madi, Moro, Nuer, Lotuko or Acholi (although this could have been due to a disinterest in bananas on Mr Hunters side).

The really curious thing about the pamphlet is a list of English words at the back which are spelt out phonetically. 

To me, this implies that the pamphlet could have been intended for someone who did not speak English, because why else would you need to be told how to pronounce English words? However, whoever this was intended for would need to be literate in order to read the words and understand their meaning. You would think that someone in Southern Sudan at this time (1931) who could read English, would also be able to speak English…it is a bit of a mystery. Was it meant for a clerk? An administrative assistant? A Northerner or a Southerner?

It came to Durham via a District Commissioner, but we can’t know why he had it or if he ever used it. Perhaps this was just the education department having a bit of fun, but I’d like to know more, if anyone has ever come across anything like this, I’d love to know about it!


  1. I still kind of think the English pronunciation guide makes it an omni-dictionary for local and English-speaking administrators alike - and for local administrative staff, the English pronunciation guide might act as reminders, in the same way as the pronunciations in a standard English dictionary still do?

    Agreed, though, it's very wierd...

  2. You are probably right, but its so weird.

    It was published by Oxford University Press, I wonder how many were published, the print run might give a clue to its purpose...

  3. Have you contacted Oxford University Press about it?

    Studies show that one needs approximately 1000 basic words (give or take - depending on the purpose of the communication, and whose study) of active vocabulary for communication, though which 1000 words depends on the particulars of the communication; a person in an industrialized country has a different set than one in a developing country, a college student has a different set from a plumber, and so on. Among the earliest fruits of research into this topic (of which I am aware) was Charles Kay Ogden's book Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar which came out in 1930. He was developing a simplified form of English to standardize international communications.

    Anyone putting together such a document and publishing it through OUP in 1931 would likely have been aware of this kind of research.

    Something that may be similar: Back in "the day", US military aircrew were issued items that had certain basic phrases written in English and in the languages of the peoples over which the aircrew could be expected to fly. If they went down, they had a means of communicating with the local populace.

    Perhaps this was intended as a general reference for the use of government officials and military personnel. It would serve to help local colonial officials learn English; also, some of the British officials may have been natives of other colonies (for example, troops from India served in North Africa in World War II) - it may have been intended to bridge many gaps in communication.