The Iraqw Language

This article is based on a speech delivered in Swahili by Frøydis Nordbustad during a seminar in linguistics at the Iraqw Culture Festival in Dar Es Salaam, on the 18th of December 2004.

Introduction: Shame

Before I go in to the details of the language, I want to tell you a story. Some years ago I and a female friend of mine were visiting Arusha. We went shopping for some necessities, and in one of the stores my friend spotted an Iraqw girl she knew from back home. She greeted the girl in Iraqw, however, the girl hid and did not replay. She did not want to be recognized as an Iraqw girl. That day I learned that there are those who are Iraqw, but who are ashamed of their mother tongue and their tribal origin.  

I’m not going to talk more about the feeling of shame. Nevertheless, I would like to share with you an incident related to shame, though in a positive sense. Some time ago I conducted an Iraqw literacy class in Mbulu on the subject of Iraqw grammar; the rules of the language, how it’s constructed and how it function. The participants in this class were pastors and church leaders. Their reaction to what they learned was a reaction of rejoiceful astonishment. “Imagine, the Iraqw language is a genuine language, just like any other written language. It even has its one grammar, its ones rules. That's nothing to be ashamed of, is it not?”

When I, all those years ago, started the investigation of the syntax of the Iraqw language, I often praised the Lord for creating such a beautiful language. Let’s not be ashamed because of it!

The Iraqw Language and its Neighbours

I didn’t study linguistics from a historical point of view. I would like to talk about our language as it is, just like we use it in our speech, and about the foundation needed for those learning how to read it.

The second subject, the subject of our lingual relatives here and there, I will not go so much into. However, I would like to draw up a lingual map of East-Africa, especially of Mbulu, Hanang, Karatu and Babati. This area is linguistically unique in a world wide sense.

It’s not the sheer number of different language that makes this area unique. It’s the fact that the languages in this area belong to different language families. Four major language families are represented in this area. The group often called “The Iraqw Group”; that is to say Iraqw, Gorowa, Alawa, and Burunge, belongs to the Cushitic language family, or even more precisely; the South Cushitic language family.  

We heard the story about their descendence from Ethiopia. Now they are here, and their neighbours, who are they? The languages of the Maasai and the Datoga tribes belong to the large Nilotic language family. These languages are quite different from those of South Cushitic origin.  

Moving along to the small Hadzape tribe located down in the valley, their lingual relatives are located far, far away in South-Africa. The Hadzape language is recognized as belonging to the Khoisan language family. In our area, the Hadzape people lives close to the Iraqw and Datoga tribes. Some linguists claim that the Hadzape peoples’ language is related to Iraqw, others disagree. I’m not to bring up this discussion here. However, they live down in the valley, really close to us, and their language is quite different compared to the Iraqw language.  

And finally, we move along to the fourth language family in this unique lingual area; the Bantu languages. Of all the languages in Tanzania, most belong to the Bantu group. Bantu languages are very different compared to the Iraqw language. In the following, I will compare Swahili; a Bantu language, with Iraqw; a Cushitic language.

The Iraqw Language: How to write it

There is no need to be alarmed; I’m not to going to dig deep into the linguistics of these languages. I will focus on the pragmatic aspects of the subject. Pragmatic linguistics; also known as applied linguistics or pragmatics, has been the focus of my studies. In pragmatic linguistics, the researcher studies how people comprehend and produce a communicative act in a concrete speech situation, and transcribes this in to a written language that can be compared to the actual utterance or communicative act. The result of this process is a written language that is easy to read, especially for the speakers of the language in question. All this is part of this field of studies.

If we here and now set up a comparison of Swahili and Iraqw, it would be fairly easy, as you all can read Swahili. Some claim that they can read Iraqw, while others claim that they can’t. And here we are.

The first example: Tonemarks

Writing Iraqw is quite different from writing Swahili. In written Iraqw you will have to communicate whichever the syllable you are writing is pronounced with a high or a low tone. A high tone is indicated by using an accent as a tonemark above the vowel in the syllable (á, é, í, ó, ú).

      Hee naa hardáh    a person has arrived

      Heé naa hardah    who has arrived?

If you don’t pay attention to the tonemark, the little accent above the letter, you would not know whether to pronounce the above as “hee naa hardáh” or “heé naa hardah”. The use of the accent in the first word, heé, and in hardáh, is communicating the actual intent or meaning of the written communicative act.

If you do pay attention to the tomemarks above the vowels when you start learning to read Iraqw, you have taken an important step towards learning to read Iraqw without frustration.

Second Example: Long and Short Vowels

This example is taken from the story about Lách the hare; a story about the relationship between a hare and a hyena. Many of the sentences in this story start like this:

    Iri oó’    ” and he said”     (that is to say; the hare said)

    Iri ó’      ” and she said”      (that is to say; the hyena said)

When the text states iri oó’or iri ó’, not specifying whether it concerns the hare or the hyena, how can you then know how to pronounce it correctly? The solution to this problem is as follows. When the vowel is expressed as a twin, in this case as a double o; oo, the vowel is pronounced as a long vowel as in the sentence: “Ookwa/ángw iri oó’,- ”. However, if there is only a single vowel present, and not a twin; o, the vowel is pronounced as a short vowel as in the sentence: “Hhaawú iri ó’,-”.

The Iraqw language contains both long and short vowels. If you don’t accept this fact, you will find it hard to learn how to read Iraqw. You will then have to guess how to interpret and pronounce what you read. On the other hand, if you accept the existence of both long and short vowels, you will find that learning Iraqw is quite easy.

It is not my intention to put you through the full Iraqw grammar today, if so you would be both famished and exhausted. However, I will give you one more finale example where you need to pay attention to both tonemarks and vowel lengths.

    1) aama (grandmother)

    2) ama (a loop on a rope)

    3) amá (where?)

To enable the reader to understand the difference between these three words, you will have to make use of a double a in the first word (aama), a single a in the word ama (loop), and a tonemark above the last a in the word amá (where?).

Literacy Training

These principles concerning the use of tonemarks and vowel lengths are extremely important when developing learning material intended for literacy training programs in Iraqw. Basing their approach on the techniques used in the teaching of Bantu languages, focusing their teaching on learning the students; “ma, me, mi, mo, mu”, and “da, de, di, do, du”, this is where many attempts on creating Iraqw literacy programs are made futile. When it comes to Iraqw, such an approach is not quite enough.

Syllables in the Iraqw language are closed syllables. That is to say that the syllables are stopped at the end. More practically, this means that in addition to teaching the students ma, the teacher would have to teach them mar, mas, mak and so on.

If the learner in his efforts to learn the Iraqw language does not receive training on these matters, he will find the road towards literacy in Iraqw pawed with trouble.

In our Iraqw study book, “Mátle nee Amsí”, Mátle teaches Amsí how to read Iraqw. The characters, Mátle and Amsí, are two young adults of Iraqw origin. The book is written in Swahili. Nevertheless, the learner learns how to read Iraqw.

Basic literacy training is aimed at those who can’t read and write in beforehand, while transitional literacy training is designed for those who are literate in Swahili but needs help in their efforts to learn reading Iraqw. The literacy programs we have in operation today (2004), are programs in transitional literacy. These programs are organized as 3-day seminars. 

A new era for the Iraqw Language

The Iraqw Bible

This year, the year of 2004, is an extraordinary year in the history of the Iraqw language. I will just present a few events illustrating the fact that we now have entered into a new era for the Iraqw language. The first event I would like to mention is the Iraqw Bible. This year we received the Bible fully translated into Iraqw. It has taken many years to accomplish, and now it is printed, it is available, and it is here. 

In the history of any language, the day and the year the bible is published in that particular language, is a historical event. It is not simply something that jus happens, pass into history, or might happen again. No, it will never happen again, it has happened. It is now, in this year, that we received the bible for the first time. It is her, and it is real. We have actually and factually received the Iraqw Bible. This marks the beginning of a new era. You are now able to take the bible in hand, and examine and experience the Iraqw language. As someone uttered, “The Iraqw language can no longer be extinguished. The Iraqw Bible is here, and the bible will preserve the language.” Just as the bible safeguards the word of God, the bible also safeguards the Iraqw language. If you look closer, you will notice that you now can compare. I noticed this myself during the translation of the bible.

The bible contains several types of literature. Take for instance the Proverbs. There are a lot of proverbs in the Iraqw culture and Iraqw language; there are also many proverbs in the bible. If you examine both the Iraqw proverbs and the proverbs in the bible, you might notice that many of them are quite alike. Some of the Iraqw proverbs is in fact so much alike biblical proverbs, that the translators of the Iraqw Bible were tempted to use Iraqw proverbs in the bible. Obviously the translators understood that they could not do so, they had to translate the bible. Nevertheless, the similarities between Iraqw proverbs and biblical proverbs are noticeable. 

We can go on to another book in the bible, a book that you might not be so familiar with. I’m talking about the Leviticus; The Third Book of Moses, in the Old Testament. If you read about the traditions described there, e.g. those concerning sickness and uncleanliness, you will notice that those customs are quite similar to those practiced among the Iraqw people.   

Yet another example we find in Wara’ami or the Psalms as they are called in English. If you read the Psalms in the Iraqw Bible, you will notice that they are much alike something we have heard a lot of during this culture festival that has been going on since yesterday. I’m of course now talking about the “Sluufaay” (psalms giving thanks). A number of the Psalms in the bible that gives thanks to God, are much alike some of the psalms in the Iraqw culture.

Before I move on to the finale part of this presentation, I would like to ask Mch. Zakayo Xufo, the coordinator of the bible translation project, to come forward an read a short example of one of the “Sluufaay” we actually can find in the bible. (Click here to view this samle).

This was about the Iraqw Bible, the fact that we now have received the Bible in the Iraqw language. The Iraqw Bible marks the beginning of a new era for the Iraqw Language.

The Culture Festival

The culture festival we are taking part in here today, is yet another event indicating the beginning of a new era for the Iraqw language. It is in fact something new that the Iraqw culture and language is honoured, accepted and embraced in such a manner. It feels like we have entered a new era together with the Iraqw Bible. And it might just happen, that some of the things we have experienced during this festival, will be or already is written down in the Iraqw language.

And this is something I regard as something quite new, the fact that the Iraqw people now are able to produce written material in their own language. Back in the days when I first started this work, if I then had asked someone to write something in Iraqw, they would not even pick up a pencil and try. Iraqw? Never.

Now we have entered a new era, and we have taken a major step forward since then.

Since 1973, there has been an agreement regulating the way in which the Iraqw language should be written. Today this agreement has real support. The agreement was coined by the Catholic and the Lutheran Church, who back then were the only ones writing in Iraqw. And they did in fact so. The leaders of these churches agreed on the grammar of the Iraqw language, to ensure that there was only on Iraqw language. They coined the agreement, and put their name to that case. You can find the agreement in the book “Historia fupi ya Uandishi wa Kiiraqw” (A short historical notation about Iraqw as a written language). In this book you can see the agreement signed by the late bishop Hhando and by the late bishop Yoram Girgis. We have inherited this agreement, and it guides us in our work. Even the Iraqw Bible follows the grammar regulated in this agreement.

The Awakening

Finally I would like to mention another aspect indicating the beginning of a new era. What I’m talking about is an awakening among the Iraqw people themselves, regarding reading and writing in Iraqw. People now wants to learn how to read and write their own language. It is just like the often repeated reply, “No, I’m not able to”, has lost some of its power. Today people are saying, “Let me try also, I want to learn who to read”.

So now we are conducting seminars. The team involved in the translation of the bible has travelled all over the four counties and conducted seminars, in an effort to remove the three obstacles in the Iraqw learning process that I mentioned in the beginning of this presentation. These seminars are 3-day programs. The list of those cuing up to participate in one of these seminars is getting longer and longer. In the period from the 17th of May until the 25th of July, in the days before the Iraqw Bible arrived, 1603 people who could read and write Swahili in beforehand, participated in such seminars and learned to read Iraqw.

This is an awakening that has marvelled me, and which really warms my heart. It feels like an act of God. He has given us the bible, and he has mad this culture festival possible, he has also brought us this awakening that makes the Iraqw people wanting to read and write their own language. This is the new era.

So, what about us?

Now we are here. And it is you that have to bring this forward. We want to safeguard our language and our history. There is only one way to ensure that, use the language and write it down. The degree in which you write new literature, write down the history of the past, your own opinions, and all you receive from others, will determine the degree in which you increase the inheritance you leave behind for your children.  – And, let them hear the Iraqw language in use in their homes, it is there the foundation is coined.  

The work involved in writing all this down on paper, is not a task for one person alone. Arbeidet med å skriva ned alt dette, er ikkje eit arbeid for ein person åleine. Let the Iraqw proverb guide your work, “A lonely finger can not catch a lice, nor kill a lice”.

Isn’t that the truth, maybe? Thank you very much!

And thank you for listening to me.

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