This page contains introductory information on the state of Sakun language studies, including on its transcription; on the difference between Sukur and Sakun; the spelling of the chief’s title; the classification of Sakun among other Chadic languages; the medium of communication between the authors, their assistants and other Sakun; and the linguistic conventions used.

This is followed by sections on Comparative wordlists; Parts of speech and grammar; the Lexicon Sakun – English and English-Sakun that we developed in the period 1991 – 2008; and finally Sakun phrases and Sakun texts


Transcription of Sukur/Sakun language

In transcribing Sakun we follow (so far as we are able) the conventions of Thomas as used in his as yet unpublished Lexicon. Four letters are used with which the reader may not be familiar. These are, in their lower case and capital forms:

ɓ Ɓ : b with hook, a consonant representing a voiced implosive bilabial stop

ɗ Ɗ : d with hook, a consonant representing a voiced implosive lamino-alveolar stop

ə Ə : a schwa, an unstressed mid-vowel as in the word sofa

ŋ Ŋ : the “eng”, a dorso-velar consonant, as found in the word sing



Sukur or Sakun?

Sukur is the name used by others. The Sukur call the place, themselves, and their language “Sakun”. There is neither a published dictionary nor a grammar apart from Thomas’s dissertation. However, between 1991, when on a brief visit we were accompanied by Roger Blench, and 2008 we collected linguistic materials 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, Tliɗi?

The Sakun word translated as “chief” or sometimes, especially in Nigeria, as “king” 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. Xidi appears to be a dialectical variation. Let the linguists sort this out. 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 to Tliɗi/Hidi change in the Sakun:English lexicon and texts linked to this page. These include the Sakun phrases that appear at the top right of the main title pages in this website, which remain in our amateur transcription.

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 at least 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 was at that time no lingua franca in the region. Very few adult residents of the Sukur plateau spoke more than a few words of 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 Ken 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 ND often made mistakes, his rendition of Sakun words is relatively systematic and 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 we asked John Habga or Philip Sukur to reproduce an English phrase in Sakun, they gave us 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 study of their language.

Linguistic conventions

In order that all users of these pages will see the same characters, 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.

CharacterSound representedExamplesNotes
ghvoiced velar fricativeas in German ‘ach 
ghrharsher voiced (rhotacized?) velar fricative like the previous, but appears to us to end with a guttural ‘r
xvoiceless velar fricativeas in German ‘Ich 
zhvoiced postalveolar fricativeas in ‘measure’ 
jvoiced palato-alveolar affricateas in ‘judge’ 
shvoiceless postalveolar fricativeas in ‘measure’ 
cvoiceless palato-alveolar affricateas in ‘church’ 
dlvoiced lateral fricative  
tlvoiceless lateral fricative  
glottal stop (except before b and d)
as in ‘glo”al stop’
ɗvoiced implosive d  
ɓvoiced implosive b  
əschwa, an open vowel  
-awvowel plus labial word endingas in English allow 
-aivowel plus palatal word endingas in English die 
-iyvowel plus palatal word endingas in English tea 
(?)a very short, epenthetic (not tone-carrying) vowele.g., k(?)ra (dog)noted on the root only
a grave accentrepresents a low tone 
rarely noted in our transcription 
an acute accentrepresents 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.

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 təka and təkava 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.

Dry season: women at the well.

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 wish, 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. Dalatə’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 characters ɓ and ɗ’ to represent the two implosives. 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 title-holder Dalatə 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.

Culture Of The Mandara Mountains.