In this thread, frequent commenter (and infrequent blogger) MMcM linked to an interesting Bostonia article by Art Jahnke called “Lost Language,” about the Arabic-based orthographies called “Ajami” (Arabic for ‘non-Arabic, foreign’) used to write various African languages. I had been aware of the phenomenon but hadn’t known much about it, so it was good to get some additional background; it was irritating to see the script referred to as a “language” (“it became, in the twentieth century, the chosen language of anticolonial nationalist resistance”; “the language used to disseminate the teachings of the Koran and other texts was Ajami”), but as journalistic sins go, that’s fairly minor. I did wonder what was meant by “Without Ajami … Africa would be very different; you would probably have a lot more ani­mism and more religions similar to those of Native Americans”; if Ajami is a vehicle for “black African culture,” surely it helped preserve animism against the incursions of Islam and Christianity? Anyway, it’s well worth a read, and if you want more, PanAfriL10n (“African localisation wiki”) has a page on it, from which I gleaned the most surprising thing I’ve learned today: Afrikaans was written in Ajami! “‘From about 1815 Afrikaans started to replace Malay as the language of instruction in Muslim schools in South Africa. At that time it was written with the Arabic alphabet.’ (Omniglot).”


  1. Fascinating. I wonder: since Afrikaans replaced Malay as the language of instruction in the Muslim schools in SA, did the Ajami script used for Afrikaans emulate Jawi with regards to non-Arabic characters? I suppose there would have to be a few extras as well, notably for the letter V.

  2. Presumably the idea is that without Ajami effective Islamic missionary work would not have been possible, thus allowing animism to persist. (That is, the villages that use Ajami retain their allegiance to their culture within the general framework of the ummah, but if Ajami had not existed they would never have joined the ummah to begin with.)

  3. There’s a Wikipedia article on Arabic Afrikaans with an example.

  4. From about 1815 Afrikaans started to replace Malay as the language of instruction in Muslim schools in South Africa. At that time it was written with the Arabic alphabet.
    My first reaction was no, that’s impossible, the “it” must refer to Malay, which was written in Arabic script well into modern times (maybe still today for some purposes). Afterwards I thought that probably the Muslims were the first to want Afrikaans in written form. Until well into the 20th century the Afrikaners considered that the language they spoke was Dutch, and probably when they wrote it they wrote it as Dutch. If I remember correctly from my stamp-collecting days it was only around 1910 that they started writing the name of the country as Suid Afrika rather than Zuid Afrika.
    Anyway, there is no doubt that that is also the most surprising thing I’ve learned today. Next time I write to one of my Afrikaner friends I must ask them if they knew.

  5. Athel,
    which only goes to show how strongly religions are connected not with language, as one might think, but with scripts.
    Also, Malay or Swahili in Arabic script is fine, and so is (to most) Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian*. But one of our very own Western languages – eeeeeeew 🙂
    *I would link to the respective page in the catalogue of Bašagić’s Collection, but alas, it appears to be offline.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    And then there’s Polish and Byelorussian (and, I would think, Lithuanian) in Arabic script, used by the descendants of Tatars. I’m sure I learned about it here.

  7. I was always under the impression that “ajami” meant “foreign” ie. it referred to anything written in a language other than Arabic, but using the Arabic alphabet.
    Off topic: Bosnian literature written during the Ottoman era is referred to as ajami (adzamijska also called ahamijado – pronounced alhamiado). The Arabic alphabet was later regularised to fit the phonology of the Bosnian language during the Austro-Hungarian rule. This reformed alphabet was taught in Bosnian schools during the Austrian rule. Omniglot has a link of what this looked like at: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/serbo-croat.htm

  8. I have a two volume collection of Hausa folklore, a bilingual text with Hausa facing English. And the Hausa is all facsimile of a manuscript that was solicited from some wise old Hausa Shaykh, written in purest Ajami from one end to the other. Well, it starts out with a pious bismillahi-rrahmani-rrahimi in Arabic, but then it drops into Hausa for the remainder of the text.

  9. At some point, Bosnian (ultimately, Serbian/Croatian used by converts to Islam) was written in Ajami as well. (I never knew that the script applied to a different language was called that; does it apply to Persian or Urdu?)

  10. I was always under the impression that “ajami” meant “foreign”
    We used to use “ejnabee/ejnabeeya” (m/f) to mean “foreigner” (in colloquial Arabic) when referring to ourselves. If we were looking for a friend’s house we would just say “wen ejnabeeya?” and someone would point to their house.

  11. I was always under the impression that “ajami” meant “foreign”
    It does; see “Arabic for ‘non-Arabic, foreign'” in my post. I believe it originally applied specifically to Persians.

  12. It looks like Afrikaans Ajami is based on Jawi; I think the ڠ (ayn with three dots above) standing for ‘ng’ is telling. Jawi is alive and well in Peninsular Malaysia, especially in the north-eastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

  13. alfanje says:

    For sure Ajami is the same word as Aljamía, as in “español aljamiado” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aljamiado

  14. Yes, the Real Academia dictionary says “Del ár. hisp. al‘aǧamíyya, y este del ár. clás. a‘ǧamiyyah.”

  15. caffeind says:

    Haven’t yet seen anything indicating the term “ajami” was used in South Africa, which was distant from the West African tradition.

  16. George Gibbard says:

    As to the etymology, I just found in Rubin (2014) The Jibbali (Shahri) language of Oman : grammar and texts the adjective ʕígɛ́m ‘dumb, mute’. So it looks to be parallel to OCS němĭci ‘Germans’ from němŭ ‘mute’.

  17. Fascinating, thanks for that!

  18. It looks like Afrikaans Ajami is based on Jawi

    Is there some sort of tree diagram of the ajamis, showing which is related to which? Some come through Persian, obviously, Urdu, Malayalam etc. Afrikaans through Jawi, and I think there is some sort of Arwi-Jawi connection as well (?). Then the West African ajamis might have some relationship with each other.

  19. That would indeed be a useful thing.

  20. I did already know about the Afrikaans ajami because just this summer I read Archie Dick’s Hidden History, about reading cultures and educational initiatives in South Africa. It is a fascinating book, particularly the early parts about the competition between Christian and Muslim educational efforts to teach slaves and freedmen.

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