The mystery of Maridi Arabic

Going down the list of notable and documented pidgins spoken all around the world, I came across a curious entry that, it verified legitimate, would be the oldest known pidgin in the world. The issue is, its existence was only known through 50 words in a single text, written some time in the 11th century. Welcome to the rather obscure, secluded “pidgin” that is, Maridi Arabic.

Maridi Arabic is known to be spoken somewhere in the Upper Nile, possible in what is today Sudan or South Sudan. Yet, it is a relative mystery what this Maridi means. There is a town in South Sudan called Maridi, but this is just about as far as we can get with that lead.

Another hypothesis somehow points to what is today Mauritania, almost across the length of the African continent. This involved inference from the only surviving text provided as evidence, which suggested that the Arabs encountered the Songhai at some point. But yet, the phonetic features of this Arabic suggested something closer to the Upper Nile or North Sudan, right where Maridi Arabic was thought to be spoken.

Beyond that mystery, comes this text. There is a transcription of the text on its Wikipedia entry, and the original text was written by an Andalusian geographer Abu ‘Ubayd al-Bakri, who supposedly published what a traveler from Aswan said about how the Arabic language was distorted in the town of Maridi, and that he complained to the Caliph in Egypt about that.

So, what kind of text is this? The following is a gloss of the only account of Maridi Arabic. Because Arabic is sort of an abjad script, you would not see much vowels around, since they are more or less interpreted by the reader.

by	wħd	ywm	rādwl	dwmā	lw	ʔsm.
LOC	one	day	man	Jumuʕa	to.him	name
One day there was a man whose name was Jumuʿa.
dml	lw	ʔw	w	bn	lw	ʔw.
camel	to.him	he	and	son	to.him	he
He had a camel and a son.
ʔmny	dy	rwħ	ʔʕdny	by	mħl
they.two(?)	CONT	go	stay.two(?)	LOC	place
They were going to stay in a place.
kyk	lw	ʔwl	ħrm	ʔnt	brbr.
people(?)	to.him	say	shame	you	barbarian
People(?) said to him, "Shame! You are a barbarian!
bn	nw	rwħ	ʔnt	brbr	lw	ʔʕdw
son	not	go	you	barbarian	to.him	sit/stay.him(?)
Your son should not walk, you barbarian, seat him!"
ʔmny	dml	fwʔ	ʔw
they.two(?)	camel	upon	he
They were on the camel.
kyk	lw	ʔwl	ħrm	ʔnt	brbr.
people(?)	to.him	say	shame	you	barbarian
People(?) said to him, "Shame! You are a barbarian!"
bn	ʔʕd	dwmā	rwh-.
son	sit/stay	Jumuʕa	go
The son sat and Jumuʿa walked.
kyk	lw	ʔwl	ħrm	ʔnt	brbr.
people(?)	to.him	say	shame	you	barbarian
People(?) said to him, "Shame! You are a barbarian!"
dwmā	ʔwl	kyk	mw	dyd	my	mhy.
Jumuʕa	say	people(?)	not	good	not	important
Jumuʿa said, "People(?) are neither good nor important."

So, for the majority of us who are not versed in Arabic, let alone Arabic of the 11th century, how do linguists infer which area “Maridi” refers to?

Remember the interactions with the Songhai mentioned earlier? It turns out that this hypothesis was made because of a specific word used in the text. The word kyk, which was glossed as “people”, could have referred to the Sognhai people, who used -koi, and the Arabic plural marker -k. As specific as it sounds, there appears to be no further evidence for this hypothesis, which is understandable considering the limited scope of interpretation from just 50 words possibly hinting at the pidgin’s existence.

Other evidence might support that hypothesis that Maridi Arabic was spoken somewhere in Sudan or at least in Upper Egypt. This was supported by the sound features of Maridi Arabic in the account, which was likely directly transcribed and published by Abu ‘Ubayd al-Bakri. These sound features were rather similar to the Arabic spoken in that particular region of Egypt and Sudan, but these said features are compared to the Arabic spoken in that region today, not almost a thousand years ago. The two particular sound features noted were the use of the ayn (transcribed as ) instead of q, and the use of j in place of d. There could have been certain vowel features shared between Maridi Arabic and Upper Egyptian Arabic or Sudanese Arabic as well, but because of how Arabic is written, we may never know.

There is also some evidence supporting influence from Nubi creole and Juba Arabic, tongues which are spoken in what is today Sudan and South Sudan. Grammatical features included the lack of inflection and agreement, which is quite special, considering how I learnt almost 10 ways to conjugate a verb for person, number, and gender for a single tense. There is also a single negative marker, instead of multiple ones dependent on context in Modern Standard Arabic, ʔmny for the third-person dual pronoun (aka “they” for two people or things), and possibly the use of jaʿal ‘make’ rather than colloquial qaʿad ‘stay’ for the progressive tense.

However, that is pretty much all leads end. It is unsurprising however, given that linguists only had 50 words to work with, from one singular text. If Maridi Arabic really is a pidgin, it is perhaps one of the only known Arabic-based pidgins in the world, and also the oldest-known pidgin ever. But it does makes one ponder, how many pidgins could have gone unnoticed, undocumented, or unheard in any way shape or form.

I guess this is time we ask the reader, do you think Maridi Arabic is an actual pidgin? Where do you think Maridi Arabic was once spoken? Let us know about your opinions in the comments below.

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