LINGUIST List 28.1053

Tue Feb 28 2017

Review: Creole Arabic, Sudanese; Applied Ling; General Ling; Socioling: Watson (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 08-Nov-2016
From: David Robertson <>
Subject: Juba Arabic for Beginners
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Richard L. Watson
TITLE: Juba Arabic for Beginners
PUBLISHER: SIL International Publications
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: David Douglas Robertson,

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Juba Arabic for Beginners”, by Richard L. Watson, is a somewhat slim (ix+201 pp.) paperback, the intent of which is to provide nonlinguist expatriates in South Sudan with communicative grounding in the creole lingua franca, Juba Arabic (JA; also called “Arabi”, “Arabi Juba”, and formerly Sudanese Colloquial Arabic). Chapter 1, the Introduction to the Course (pages 1-4), orients readers to the succeeding lessons' recurring structure: a “Kalaam” (Dialogue) is followed with “Kelimaat” (Vocabulary), supplemented by “Kelimaat Ziada al Der Arufu” (Extra Things You Want to Know), reinforced with “Asilaat le Temriin” (Questions for Practice). Brief tips here suggest ways of maximizing both in-class and real-world learning of JA.

Chapter 2, Pronunciation (pages 5-10), is an overview both of the spelling system used and the segmental phonology of colloquial vs. educated JA, contrasting these with standard (Sudanese) Arabic. Subsections examine consonants, vowels, stress and syllables, and example words for practice in pronouncing.

The bulk of the book (pages 11-174) is devoted to 33 numbered Lessons structured as already noted. In a thirty-fourth, a story, “The Bad Elephant”, substitutes for a dialogue.

Glossaries facilitate quick reference, keyed from JA to English (pages 175-187) and English to JA (pages 187-200).

Finally, references occupy page 201.


As I have noted in my review of Nkengasong's comparably nonspecialist grammar of Cameroonian Pidgin (Robertson 2016), sometimes a description not aimed toward linguists can end up answering most of the questions a professional would ask about a language – and even some that are typically neglected in linguistsʹ grammar descriptions. This is the case with Watson's lesson book, an accomplishment to be attributed to the heavily textual (that is conversational, as opposed to lexical or morphosyntactic) orientation taken here. Overt descriptive comments are at a minimum in this book, typically totaling a few sentences per lesson, and students are explicitly left to “take guidance from the way their own teachers speak” (page 1). In that spirit, then, I am writing this review as a sort of questionnaire, enumerating mainly from the first several chapters some inferences that I as a student would hope to check with a South Sudanese instructor. My hope in doing so is to illustrate how rich a linguistic resource a lay description can constitute, proceeding from a sense that a less adequate grammar sketch would fail to raise such educated questions in the first place. Many of these inferences parallel ones that I have asked about Nkengasong's grammar, and serve a second thesis: that the documentation of languages generally and of pidgin/creoles in particular has typically and consistently missed opportunities to notice and mention these particular kinds of phenomena.

The Pronunciation chapter tells nothing about prosody or intonation, although isolated observations come later – for example that polar questions are distinguished from declaratives by some instantiation of rising intonation (Lesson 1). More details are wanted. For example, in a content question (cf. “Ita deru kam?” [2.SG to.want how.much] meaning 'How much do you want?', page 11), one wonders whether a rising intonation is involved, and if not, whether an identically-worded clause can take the Y/N intonation to give a meaning such as 'Do you want some (amount or other)?' A query raised by the JA orthography's representing stress only in polysyllabic words is precisely which monosyllabic words are stressed/stressable (perhaps e.g. “fi” as one of the many copulas, and initial-stressed “deru” [to.want]) and which are not (perhaps e.g. “fi” as a preposition, and the seeming grammaticalization “deru” > “der” in “Kelimaat Ziada al Der Arufu” above [literally: words more REL ?need to.know]).

From Lesson 1 onwards a lack of WH-fronting is abundantly evident, though never commented on. But Lesson 3 points out the optionality of WH-movement with a “noun” subject (e.g. “Esh wenu?”/“Wenu esh?” ['Where is the bread?'] in contrast with a “pronoun or a proper noun” (e.g. “Ita wenu?” ['Where are you?'], “John wenu?” ['Where is John?'], pages 24-25). The sparseness of this characterization leaves us wondering if it is indeed all common nouns, or instead just inanimate ones, that allow WH-fronting.

There is a good deal more going on syntactically than is explained, a similar example being the varying constituent orders found in JA passives: N V (versus) V Pron (versus) V PersName/PersName V (pages 25, 66-67).

One would like to add the unmentioned null third-person (inanimate/indefinite) object form to the discussion of pronominal paradigms, since it occurs in large numbers of examples including “Aniina amalu Ø kalaas” [1.PL to.make 3.OBJ finished] 'We finished making it' (page 25). Contrast this with “Huwo nadii huwo” [3.SG 3.SG] 'He called him/her/it', page 110. Is the second “huwo” there perhaps a highly topical inanimate? There are so few examples of animate object pronouns that it is hard to reach a conclusion from the bookʹs evidence.

Another paradigmatic null, by which I mean an absence-of-a-form alternating with a functionally parallel overt morph in analogous position, is a relativizer. The unelucidated contrast between say “zol Ø ja ainu bet” [person REL to.come to.see house] '(a) visitor' (page 23), and “usbuu al jay” [week REL to.come] 'next week' (page 54) is perhaps again one of definiteness.

Reduplication, which is full-root in scope and apparently constitutes an unstressed suffix, is first evident in Lesson 5 with “bodaboda” 'motorcycle' and “ta kulu kulu” 'at all'; another instance is in Lesson 34's narrative text: “...u bada dugu dugu fil” [and begin to.peck RDUP elephant] '...and began pecking him [the elephant]'. These look to be respectively based on a noun (?) “boda”, the quantifier “kulu” [all], and the verb “dugu”; surely a rich additional lesson could examine the uses of JA reduplication with various syntactic classes.

Despite going uncommented-on in the lessons, serial-verb constructions, here highlighted in curly braces, are a presence in sustained discourse such as the just-mentioned “Bad Elephant” tale. The verb “gum” [to.arise] occurs frequently in these, and is arguably simply grammaticalized into an inchoative-aspect marker, as in “{Huwo gum shilu Ø be ida to}, … {gum dusu iyaal ta ter}...” [3.SG to.arise to.take 3.OBJ PREP trunk his, … and to.arise to.stomp babies POSS bird] 'He took it [nest] in his trunk, … stomped the baby birds...' (page 169). Quite clearly not grammaticalized, however, are other shared-subject constructions lacking coordination like “...{gi arfau adaana to kebiir gi durubu kureen to}...” [PROG to.raise ears his big PROG to.pound feet his] 'flapping his big ears and pounding...his feet...' (page 170). “U ~ wa” [and] can freely conjoin verb phrases, as above in '...took.....[and] stomped...', so when it is absent between them, it would be illuminating to learn why, and how to exploit this distinction colloquially.

As I have suggested, if a reader is able to formulate such detailed questions and hypotheses upon engaging with his text, Watson has indeed created a well-rounded picture of JA that is obviously based on close acquaintance with the language. This book's shortcomings – such as the lack of an Index of grammatical features and the scant three References – are only what is to be expected in the first place in a course-type treatment. Moreover, where I have pointed out that phonologically non-overt forms have been omitted from discussion, that probably reflects nothing at all harder to grasp than that conscious human cognition finds nulls challenging. Consider the lengthy span between the invention of written numerals and the innovation of a placeholding symbol for 'zero' circa AD 876 (Casselman [n.d.]), as well as the recurring lack – no pun intended—of recognition of null pronouns and prepositions in creolistics despite their significant frequency (cf. Robertson 2011 on Chinook Jargon).

This volume's limitations are vastly outweighed by its successes, from its ample recognition of sociolinguistic variation to its tremendous quantity of full sentences, dialogue, and sustained text. As a linguist I can readily envision this book providing ample material toward interesting research papers in creolistics, syntax, and more.

I would like to end by mentioning a highly useful substitute in the event that readers have no access to the preferable resource of a JA-speaking teacher: the lively Facebook community 'Juba Arabic' (Facebook 2016). Pertinent questions and structural points are frequently discussed there.


Casselman, Bill. [n.d.] All for nought. Feature Column, American Mathematical Society. Online at

Facebook. 2016. Juba Arabic. Online at

Robertson, David Douglas. 2011. Kamloops Chinuk Wawa, Chinuk pipa, and the vitality of pidgins. PhD dissertation, University of Victoria. Online at

Robertson, David Douglas. 2016. Review of Nkemngong Nkengasong, A Grammar of Cameroonian Pidgin. Online at


David Douglas Robertson, PhD, is a freelance linguist who specializes in languages of the historical western North American frontier, both pidgins/creoles and the Indigenous languages of the region, such as the Salish family. Current projects include an interlinearized text collection and dictionary of the Chinook Jargon newspaper ''Kamloops Wawa''. See for more information.

Page Updated: 28-Feb-2017