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Review of  Un Créole Arabe: Le Kinubi De Mombasa, Kenya

Reviewer: John H McWhorter
Book Title: Un Créole Arabe: Le Kinubi De Mombasa, Kenya
Book Author: Xavier Luffin
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Nubi
Issue Number: 16.3225

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Date: Tue, 1 Nov 2005 12:04:05 -0800 (PST)
From: John McWhorter
Subject: Un créole arabe: Le kinubi de Mombasa, Kenya & Kinubi

AUTHOR: Luffin, Xavier.
TITLE: Un créole arabe
SUBTITLE: Le kinubi de Mombasa, Kenya
SERIES: Lincom Studies in Pidgin and Creole Linguistics
YEAR: 2005

AUTHOR: Luffin, Xavier.
TITLE: Kinubi Texts
SERIES: Languages of the World / Text Collections
YEAR: 2004

John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute, New York

What happens when speakers of Nilotic languages serve in a British
army under Arabic-speaking commanders battling a revolutionary
uprising in Sudan, the revolution is successful enough that the British
withdraw the troops to areas where Arabic is not spoken, and the
troops stay there permanently, developing a new language based on
the Arabic words and constructions they have been using to
communicate with one another?

In terms of language acquisition, the situation is similar to the
importation of African slaves to New World plantations, and thus we
might expect a creolized Arabic in which much of the accreted
elaborations of ancient Arabic varieties would be shaved away. Yet
two popular schools in creole studies would predict otherwise. The
Relexification Hypothesis would predict a hybrid of Arabic and Nilotic
languages, susceptible to analysis as Nilotic grammar with Arabic
lexicon. Others would predict a combination of features "selected"
from the contact "ecology," lightly seasoned by Nilotic influence, but
with so much of the basic machinery of Arabic intact as to render the
concept of creole unnecessary.

However, Nubi Creole Arabic (Kinubi) is a stark contradiction to both
of these premises, as Xavier Luffin's grammar amply demonstrates.
Kinubi emerged among soldiers of southern Sudan, serving a Turko-
Egyptian government controlled by the British. The Mahdists gained
control of southern Sudan in 1881, and at the end of this decade the
British transferred these troops to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Meanwhile, a new contact language had developed among them,
which they carried with them in their exodus. Their descendants still
speak the language today, some having also settled in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo. The language that emerged from this situation
is neither Nilotic grammar with Arabic words nor just one more
colloquial Arabic variety like Moroccan or Egyptian Arabic. It is a
creole language -- in the sense that its grammar is a vast subtraction
of Arabic's, has only fragmentary inheritances from Nilotic languages
like Bari, Dinka, and Mamvu (or a few Central Sudanic ones), and is
plainly the result of a people who learned only a rudimentary Arabic
and expanded it into a new natural language. Nonconcatenative
morphology, richly productive in all colloquial Arabics, is completely
extinct in Kinubi, as is grammatical gender, the definite article,
phonemic length contrast, and other features.

Kinubi has played little part in discussions of creole genesis, partly
because its literature has rarely been channeled to creolist venues,
and partly because most creolists are more familiar with European
languages than with Arabic. Luffin's grammar, with its accompanying
volume of transcribed texts, joins a growing body of literature on
Kinubi which contains a valuable lesson for not only creolists but all
language contact specialists.

That is, it is often suggested that claims about the nature of creole
languages are premature in that most creoles emerged as the result
of contact between Romance and Germanic languages and certain
Niger-Congo ones. The suggestion is generally made with an
implication that creolization may not be as inherently subtractive a
process as often assumed and that creoles based on, say, Georgian
or Warlpiri might be well-inflected and perhaps even ergative or the
like. Many suppose, for example, that creoles are low on inflections
simply because Kwa languages like Twi and Fongbe are, rather than
because creolization entails incomplete acquisition of a target
language. Similarly, many note that the colloquial Frenches that slaves
were exposed to are much less inflectional than standard French,
such that the isolating typology of French creoles is merely a small
step further along a pathway of ordinary grammar-internal evolution.

There are serious problems with both of those claims, but the very
nature of Kinubi nicely addresses them by sheer example. Kinubi's
lexifier, Sudanese Arabic, is a richly inflected language, displaying the
famous nonconcatentative morphology of the Semitic family. Thus
Kinubi's analytic structure cannot be treated as a "natural"
development. Meanwhile, Nilotic languages are hardly chary of
inflection, and yet again, Kinubi is an isolating tongue. The lesson is
that creole genesis entails not only mixture, but simplification. All
Arabist analysts of Kinubi readily see that Kinubi's grammar renders it,
and its sister Juba Arabic spoken by those who stayed in Sudan, in a
class apart from colloquial Arabics elsewhere.

Luffin's grammar includes not only the usual sections on phonology,
morphology and syntax, but a substantial introductory section on the
language's history and sociological position, a brief discussion of
schools of thought on creole genesis, one on sources of its lexicon,
and even a rather extensive discussion of code-switching between it
and its main adstrate languages Swahili, English and Arabic (the latter
mostly from the religious literature adhered to by its speakers, who are
Muslims). Luffin limns a rich portrait of the language as it varies both
in time and, especially, space, based on fieldwork not only on his
principal focus, the variety spoken in Mombasa in Kenya, but also in
Uganda as well as with speakers of the variety spoken in Sudan.

Luffin gives especial attention to adstratal influences as they vary in
these locations, mostly lexical, and to an extent that renders the
grammar perhaps excessively listy in places. At times one supposes
that it may have been more useful to present this lexical coverage in a
separate article or monograph, as those seeking to use the book
strictly as a grammar must wade through quite a bit of diligent
tabulations of lexical variations.

Another questionable aspect of the coverage is the occasional
exhaustive comparisons of Kinubi with Sudanese Arabic. It is certainly
not a flaw that the book is as much a comparative presentation as a
strict description: this makes the tome useful in assessing Kinubi's
implications for tracing the nature of creole genesis (especially since
the overlap between creolists and Arabists is very small, meaning that
presentations of Kinubi will be most useful with ample examples from
Arabic itself). The problem is simply that the comparison so
resoundingly reveals again and again that Kinubi has simply flushed
away so very much of the machinery of Arabic. For example, when
Luffin takes each Arabic triconsonantal verb pattern one by one and
lists the handful of Kinubi forms that happen to have been based on it
rather than the usual source, the simple imperative, he is showing not
living grammar but what today qualifies as fossilizations: these
patterns have no grammatical status in Kinubi itself. Or, Luffin carefully
tabulates the conjugational patterns in Sudanese Arabic with the
unchanging verb in Kinubi -- which leads one to wonder whether just
stating that Kinubi has no conjugational patterns would not have

But the grammatical coverage also reveals assorted interesting
features that demonstrate that, as many creolists consider so urgent,
complexity is not alien to creole grammars. Stress alone encodes the
passive: kútu "put," kutú "be put" and also deverbalizes to create
nouns: kúruju "cultivate, grow," kurúju "agriculture." (Heine 1982 is
apparently unique in treating Kinubi as tonal, and thus describing
distinctions like this as tonally encoded.) Kinubi pronouns, typically of
a creole, do not vary for case, but there is a paradigm of bound
pronominal affixes used in certain contexts, and unlike many creoles
which have clitic pronominals phonetically still close to the free ones,
two of the Kinubi ones are suppletively distinct from their free
equivalents (1S and 2S -i and -ki for free ána and íta).
Morphophonemic processes include assimilation in the vowel of
progressive marker gi- to the initial vowel of the verb: gi-
kélem "talking" but gu-úza "buying" and ga-já "coming." Stative verbs
are rarely modified by tense or aspect markers, and moreover, as has
proven the case with many creoles, the semantic contribution of some
of Kinubi's preverbal markers is by no means semantically
prototypical, conditioned by complex aspects of pragmatic and
discourse phenomena.

Something else that stands out in the grammar, however, is a striking
amount of free variation. Words often occur in alternate forms,
sometimes conditioned by regular processes such as a tendency for
final /aC/ to become [e] in color terms (áswad > áswe "black), but just
as often varying randomly (ábyad ~ ábya "white," or alsán ~
alshán "because," káfu ~ kófu "fear"). Preverbal gi- does not
assimilate vocalically to the verb in regular fashion, since there are
ample exceptions such as gi-só "going." Future marker bi- usually
does not assimilate -- but does so with a few roots. Stress only
encodes the passive and the deverbal in a subset of cases, and in
fact Luffin only finds the latter process marginally in Mombasa: these
appear to be changes in progress like the English stress variation
distinguishing between nominal and verbal uses of words like survey,
record, and permit. It is an especially admirable aspect of Luffin's
grammar that he pays assiduous attention to this kind of variation, its
distribution and extent, especially since little of it is a matter of
gradient influence from the Arabic lexifier; that is, Nubi's variation is
not of the well-covered sort on view in creole dialect continua in the
Anglophone Caribbean.

Luffin's portrait of Kinubi can be taken as indicating what a "real"
language is like, i.e., languages other than the 200 or so that have
extensive written traditions and norms: a basic pattern varying in fluid
fashion according to surrounding languages as well as the processes
of transformation that all linguistic systems undergo as used in human
mouths over time. However, the sheer amount of variation Luffin
presents is not typical even of unwritten languages that are old -- and
is also quite common in creole languages, especially in areas such as
morphophonemics in which complication usually has no semantic
function and is obviously the result of phonetic transformations over
time. Luffin's presentation of Nubi -- although his discussion does not
occasion specifying this -- has all of the hallmarks of a language only
a century-plus old, having yet to freeze into the degree of obligatory
stricture typical of a grammar in which countless speakers over
countless centuries have converged upon arbitrary

Meanwhile, Kinubi Texts collects transcriptions of the speech of
twenty speakers, showing the language in all of its reality including
ongoing code-switching and borrowings. The volume is compact
enough that ideally it would be an appendix to the grammar.

The grammar's format is user-friendly. The text is clear, except the
account of Kinubi's hitsory: the political situation of late nineteenth-
century Sudan is remote to most today, and Luffin's description is
rather difficult to follow without very close reading (and, truthfully, is
best engaged with supplementary descriptions from elsewhere).
There is also an unsuitable amount of repetition of the sort that word
processing allows: certain text blocks were copied into other sections
without being deleted from their original place.

Notwithstanding, the two books together stand as the most
comprehensive single source on this creole now available. Luffin's
presentation presents Kinubi in all of its dynamic variety such that it is
alive on the page in the same way as Tok Pisin has been in work by
Peter Mühlhäusler, Suzanne Romaine and other scholars. This will
hopefully allow Kinubi to play a larger part in scholarship on language
contact and creolization in the future.


Heine, Bernd. 1982. The Nubi language of Kibera -- an Arabic creole.
Berlin: Riemer.


John McWhorter was formerly Associate Professor of Linguistics at
U.C. Berkeley and is now Senior Fellow in Public Policy at the
Manhattan Institute. He is the author of The Word on the Street, The
Missing Spanish Creoles, The Power of Babel, Defining Creole, and
the forthcoming Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native
Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars.

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