| Beja Language History and Prehistory
University of Cracow and University of Vienna
††††† †I discovered Beja people, its history and language in 1962 as an undergraduate student at the Cracow University, Poland. I wrote my MA thesis on Beja history according to medieval Arabic sources finishing it in 1964. It appeared in 1966 (as Zaborski 1965) after I got my MA degree in 1965. Working at the Cracow University for many years I was not allowed to travel abroad officially and for the first time I could go to Egypt in October 1974. At the very beginning of January 1975 I could visit Assuan and to meet the Beja people for the first time. I was greatly impressed when upon my arrival to the Beja camps in Assuan the Beja nazir welcoming me said: "We, the: Beja are here since the times of Ancient Egyptians and Romans. After this very short visit I could come to Assuan again in March 1975 for a week which I spent working on the Bishari dialect with Ahmad who was a native speaker of Bishari working at the Combonian Mission. 1 could visit Sudan in January 1988 but due to my very limited financial means I could spend only some two weeks in Khartoum, Port Sudan, Suakin and Kassala. In this way I had a glimpse of the fascinating Beja country and of even more fascinating Beja people. I kept working on Beja language in Europe concentrating on the only aspect that I could study having no direct contact with the Beja i.e. on comparative and internal reconstruction of Beja language prehistory. At several international congresses I used to appeal to my colleagues who were in a better position to get grants and other necessary support to undertake the study of the Beja language which is one of the most important languages from the scientific point of view. I was happy to see my colleague and good friend Dr. Didier Morin go to Egypt and the Sudan to study the Beja language, literature and culture. In 1985- 1988 I was trying to organize a group of scholars to write the first scientific history of the Beja People since the existing "History" by Paul (1954, reprinted in 1979) is a shame since it ignores the sources, misses most of the facts and offers wrong interpretations. Unfortunately my colleagues were too busy to start the project although it cannot be excluded that indirectly my initiative facilitated the publication of the part of Updegraff's doctoral thesis on the history of Blemmyes. All of this taken together explains why 1 am especially happy not only that I am here meeting illustrious representatives of the Beja people, but also witnessing the historical moment of the beginning Beja writing and being able to present a paper myself.
The beginning of Beja history
††††† †There is a chance, although a limited one, that the name Md3 can be found in the first part of the name of Megabari mentioned by the Greek geographer Eratosthenes (middle of the 3rd century B.C., he mentions also the Blemmyes) so that the Greek version could be only a pliancy Greek reinterpretation of the name Med3. I must also mention a hypothesis proposed by I. Hofmann (1969, 1124-1127) that the Beja should be identified with a very enigmatic people mentioned in the Ancient Egyptian sources as Bwgm which has been ignored by Zibelius (1972).
††††† †Nothing is known about the language of the Md3-yw and about their use of foreign languages although there is no doubt that at least some of them must have been fluent in Egyptian and most of those in Egyptian service must have had some knowledge of the language of their employers. Already then i.e. in the second millennium B.C. some Egyptian loan words could have been taken over although very few have survived in the contemporary Beja language (cf. Vycichl. 1960, Roquet 1972-73). We have to remember that some of them could have simply fallen into disuse or could have been eliminated by new rival loans e.g. from Arabic.
The Blemmyan Beja and the begining of Beja writing:
††††††† According to an old hypothesis going back to HalŤvy (1869) which I discussed in my paper presented at first at the Conference on Greek and Arabic Studies in Delphi in 1985 and finally published in 1989, the name Blemmy-es is most probably derived from the Beja word balami/ balemi which means "a nomad, an inhabitant of the desert" which Leo Reinisch (1895, 47) quotes in the sentence hanīn balemī-b-a "we are inhabitants of the desert". There is one obstacle - in the Coptic versions we find -h-. Perhaps some naitive speakers of Beja who are present at this Conference could tell us whether the word balami/ balemi is still known and used among the Beja people. Already HalŤvy connected this noun with Beja verb bal-am "to be dry" while Reinisch added also the noun bal "desert" which, according to him, should be a plural of bāl "drought". Whether there is a connection between "nomad, inhabitant of desert" and "to be dry" is a question but such a connection cannot be ruled out. In any case I do not think that there is a safe ground for accepting a connection between the Blemmyes and the enigmatic people called Baliyyūn (the form of the name is uncertain !) mentioned by al-ldrīsī as done for the first time by Stern 1881, cf. Sethe, 568. The dating of the information transmitted by al-ldrīsī is uncertain and is quite unclear whether there is any relation between al-ldrīsī's "Baliyyūn" (?) and the name Belāwi (most probably going back to *Bā'lawi and being of Ethiopic origin) used for one of the noble clans of the Hadandiwa tribe (cf. Reinisch 1895, 49).
††††† †What is most important, the Blemmyes have left a series of texts, the first of which might be an inscription from Memphis (Vycichl 1978, 370-371). The first text in Beja language may be extant in the form of an undeciphered ostracon in an unknown language which might be a text in Blemyan language written in Coptic characters. In the first line we find wōxara. in which initial wō- might be Beja masculine article and there are three other words which may be verbs with the third person masculine prefix yu-/yē (for transcription cf. Satzinger 1990, 314, first publication by Griffith in Quibell 1909, 109, Table XLII.3; cf. also Vycichl 1978, 370-371). Meroitic graffiti from Philae might also be Blemmyan although it is impossible to prove it.
††††† †The existing corpus of Blemmyan texts consists of inscriptions from Philae and Dodekaschoinos in Demotic Egyptian and Greek, an inscription in Greek from Talmis (cf. Wilcken 1901, Hägg 1984), a letter from the Blemyan king Phōnēn to the Nubian king Aburni in Greek (cf. Skeat 1977 and Rea 1979) as well as thriteen legal documents written down by local notaries from Gebelēn on leather and paleographically dated late 6th century A.D., including four texts in Coptic and nine in Greek (cf. Hide, Hägg, Pierce 1984, Satzinger 1968, 1985 and 1990). There are also documents from Qasr al-Ibrīm. All of this shows that normally Blemmyan Beja being analphabets used official notaries and scribes but it is probable that some, probably very few Blemmyes might have had a knowledge of writing since official letters and documents could be accepted only if there was at least a chance of checking them by a Blemmyan knowing how to read them. In any case some Blemmyes must have known Coptic and some of them even some Greek although the knowledge of the letter could be very rudimentary especially since we know that even the Gebelēn documents written by professionals who were Copts, are in rather poor Greek. Since the Greek language of the Phonen's letter is quite corrupted (although the term "Pidgin Greek" suggested by Hägg 1981, 1986 is rather an exaggeration), nevertheless this fact might suggest that the scribe could have been rather Blemmyan than foreign. It is quite natural that for more or less "international" documents the Blemmyes i.e. the Northern Beja used Greek and Coptic.
††††† †A rather long series of personal names of the Blemmyes is known but so far it has been possible to find in them only few elements which could be explained with the help of limited data that we have on the Beja language in the modern times (Satzinger 1990 and Zyhlarz 1941). Some of them might contain the word kena/ kina "owner", tak "man", perhaps also some animal names like kurib "elephant", hadda/ hada "lion", yās "dog" as parts of compound personal names (cf. Zyhlarz, 1940-1941) which is not surprising especially since even in modern times some names of such a type (i.e. totemistic names containing names of animals) survive, e.g. Tankwira as a name of a Beja tribe (cf. Reinisch 1895 p. 145_ which contains kwire "ostrich".
††††† †There have been attempts (cf. Millet 1973, Hofmann 1979) to explain the name of the king *Kharamadoye of a Meroitic inscription as Blemmyan (preposed *hara- found also elsewhere, cf. Satzinger 1990) but this hypothesis is rather weak. It is even less probable that prefixed y-e- and t-e- found in Meroitic inscriptions could have anything in common with Beja verbal prefixes i- (masc.) and t- (fem.) as hypothetically suggested by Hofmann (1969, 29; 1989/90). Moreover we have to remember that personal names are sometimes borrowed and our knowledge of genuine Beja personal names is extremely limited since the Beja introduced Islamic viz. mainly Arabic names a long time ago. Compound names may be explained in future research work.
The first appearance of the name Buğa/ Bega
Christianity among some Beja
Although the sources about Christianity among some northern Beja are scanty, nevertheless some additional data are found in Beja lexicon. Beja silel "to pray" and sille, plur. silel "prayer" has been connected by Reinisch (1895, 199-200) with Arabic salla "to pray" but it should be connected rather with Nubian silel "to pray" (Browne 1996, 158-159) which is a loan from Coptic šlel "to pray" (cf. Vycichl 1983, 260; Černy 1976 240). This could be a hint that Christianity might have reached some Beja from Christian Nubia. There has been only a secondary association with Arabic sallā which is, by the way, also a loan (cf. Leslau 1987, 557). Another Beja word: baski "fast; Ramadan" (Reinisch 1895, 52-53) is also a trace of Christianity although a connection with Pesach i.e. "Passover" (cf. Vycichl and Zyhlarz) may be less certain than a hypothetical connection with Coptic sok, sek, sk "to spend the fast" (Westendorf 1965/1977, 180). Nubian loanwords in Beja are not very numerous at all and Beja loans in Nubian are even less numerous (cf. Zaborski, forthcoming) but there can be no doubt that the relations between the two peoples are quite ancient.
The contacts with Arabs
The historian and geographer al-YaĎqūbī mentions several Beja tribes and says that their "kingdom" or "state" is called *N.qīs and their capital is H.ğ.r. The "name" of the "capital" most probably goes back to Ethiopic hagar "town" (cf. Marquart 1913, CCCXIII; Zaborski 1965, 291, n. 10; cf. Vantini 1975, 619, 625, 627) and therefore there is a chance that the name of the "kingdom" is also Ethiopic, i.e. derived from the root n-g-ś "to rule, to be king" although there is a philological problem since no form with long -ī- i.e. *nagīs is recorded in Ge'ez where we find e.g. n∂gś. But there is a possibility that *Nagīs reflects an unrecorded Semitic dialect form or that the root had been borrowed (it occurs as a loan in Beja, Saho, Afar and Bilin not to mention other languages) and then the form was changed in Beja.
I should like to emphasize that although in his "History" al-YaĎqūbī mentions three (not five as alleged by some scholars !) "Beja kingdoms", only the first of them was really Beja while the second was Tigre and the third one i.e. Bāzīn/ Bazen was Baria. This shows that Arab geographers used the name "Buğa" sometimes as a general term for different neighbouring peoples just like the names Nūba i.e. Nubians and Habaša i.e. Ethiopians.
What is more important, Hadarab are mentioned for the first time in history by al-YaĎqūbī both in his "History" as *al-Hadārab (spelled, due to a copyist's error as al-Hadarāt) and in his "Geography" as al-Hadāriba. This is a genuine Beja name which has nothing to do with Hadramaut as alleged already in the 19th century (cf. also Paul 1959) although this folk etymology has been accepted by some Bejas willing to boost their prestige after the islamisation. There is another etymology deriving the name Hadarab from hedāri (cf. Tigre and Ge'ez, Leslau 1987, 259) "to be settled, to live, to dwell" (Reinisch 1895, 112 giving as example: ani ō-Sōk-i hedārību "I live in Suakin") but it is derived rather from hadā' "to be a sheikh, a chief" plus ar "sons", so that the name means "sons of a chief" or "overlord tribe". What is important, the Beja case ending -ab (probably occuring also in the second name of a Beja tribe mentioned by al-YaĎqūbī but which lacks diacritical points), later adopted also by Arab and Nubian clans (it is not Nubian as suggested e.g. by Hohenwart-Gerlachstein), appears here for the first time in history apart from its occurence in the name of the sea port 'Aydab and later in the name of Kassala which occurs in an-Nuwayrī's (died 1332) text as *Kassalab (Zaborski 1983, 410; cf. Reinisch 1895, 148; Vantini 1975, 491) as well as another place name- *Arbībāb(?).
Unfortunately other tribal names mentioned by al-YaĎqūbī cannot be identified not only because diacritic points are lacking in their Arabic versions which have been, most probably, more or less corrupted. Perhaps one of them could be identified with the Tigre tribe of Mensa' (in Arabic spelled erroneously as m.nāsa ?) but this is not clear at all, especially since final 'ayn is lacking. But there can be no doubt that Southern Beja tribes were intermingled with Tigre who are mentioned by al-YaĎqūbī as Zanāfiğ with the main center in Baqulīn which was still known in the 19th century (cf. Reinisch 1895, Zaborski 1984; Vantini 1975, 624). In two names the three final Arabic letters are probably the same i.e. a letter without diacritic points which can be amended to *y, *t, *n or *b, then ' or g (Arabic 'ayn or gayn) and finally -h which may be a symbol for -a. Whether this means that there is a common postposed morpheme in these names is a big question.. In two names there is a final r (or *z ?) which might be interpreted as *-ar "sons" like in Amar'ar but it is quite unclear whether this is possible.
We owe more tribal names to the geographer Ibn Hawqal. Although full forms of some compound names cannot be identified, nevertheless two postposed morphemes are found: -tika meaning "people" (Reinisch 1895, 224) in *Bīwā-tīka, *'Arī-tīka. *Ganī-tīka, perhaps also in *Wāh-ika (<**Wāh-tīka ?). There are also names with -endowa/*andiwa meaning "people" (actually a compound enda-dawa where dawa/dawa means "tribe, settlement", cf. Reinisch 1895 21, 71 and 74; cf. Tigre enda "strangers" Littmann, Hofner 1956-1962, 373-374), i.e. *Sūt-andāwā (misspelled as Sūtabārwā), *'Akn-andīwā (misspelled as 'Aknibīrā), Nağr-andīwā (misspelled Nağrīrwā). It has to be emphasized that apart from the reconstructed -tika and -andiwa the spelling of the initial parts of the names is quite unclear due to the imperfections of the Arab writing and several conjectures are possible. By the way, the tribal name Hadandiwa goes back to *Hada'-andiwa i.e. "people/tribe of the lord(s)" in spite of the folk etymology occuring in Beja folk literature which derives the name from Hadat "lioness" (cf. the store published by Roper 1928, 123 where the alternative name of the Hadandiwa is given as Hadāt'ar "Sons of Hadat").
Later we find the name of Halenga mentioned by an-Nuwayrī (Mus'ad 1960, 276; Vantini 1975, 693 and 490-491,cf. Zaborski 1983, 410) but there is a hope that some new names will be found in Arabic manuscripts which have not been published or even discovered so far.
We know also some Beja personal names. A Beja chief is called Kan(n)ūn Ibn 'Abd al-'Azīz (al-Maqrizi 1927, t. 3, 272-274; QuatremŤre 1811, t. 2, 46). It is interesting that this paramount (?) Beja chief had a lengthy treaty signed in 831 "translated" by two Arabs (Vantini 1975, 628) and registered in Assuan.
Another Beja chief is called in Tabari's and Ibn Hawqal's (1938, 53-54), Ibn al-Atlr ( 1851-1876, VII, 51-52) and some other versions "Alī Bãbã" which is probably distorted and it is not certain whether it should be interpreted as Olbãb (cf. Sanders 1933, 124). It is interesting that a kind of letter is mentioned in a not quite clear report of the battle fought by the Beja with the Arabs in 856 A.D. Ali Bãbã was allegedly taken prisoner of war but he visited the calipha al-Mutawakkil from whom he received generous presents and returned to his homeland which means that his surrender was not quite unconditional and that his political position was strong enough even though he was still pagan (cf al-Balãdurī 1866, 238-239 and for a different version cf. Ibn Hawqal 1938, 54, cf. also Cuoq 1986, 43, n. 125). Also uncertain is the name of the Beja chief's transmitted as La'is by at-Tabarī (ser. III, 1431) but Ibn al-Atīr quotes the name as "Fīas which either shows that '"Alī Bābā" had two sons or that the spelling has been hopelessly distorted.
Three other names of Beja chiefs are mentioned by Ibn Hawqal: *Muhā/*Muhī- a Beja chieftain as well as *'Abdak and *Kūk (all the vocalisation and even some consonants are quite uncertain !) who are mentioned as two chiefs of the Hadāreb/Hadārab overlord tribe. The spelling and pronunciation of these three names is quite unclear but it is important that these names are not Arabic although both *'Abdak (?) and *Kūk/Kawk (?) were already interrelated with Arabs of the Bišr clan from whom the name Bishari(n) which is perhaps mentioned by al-Mutahhar al-Maqdisi in 966 must have been derived. The "accusative" case ending -ab does not occur here which probably means that the Beja chiefs already knew Arabic and used their names in Arabic without the Beja ending.
A Beja camelman's name is given as Kilār/ Kilāz (?) by al-Maqrīzī probably following al-Aswānī (cf. Vantini 1975, 618).
What is more important, Ibn Hawqal (1938, t.1, 10) speaks about the Beja language saying that they have a common language which is quite incomprehensible to the Arabs but some Beja have a language of their own. Most probably this is a reference to the Ethiosemitic language of Tigre people whose northern tribes must have been under "protection" of the Hadārab already then. There is a much later reference to Beja language by christianized Arab geographer Leo Africanus who lived between c. 1492- 1552 but might have used much earlier sources and who said (we have a French translation): "The Beja speak a language that is mixed, in my view, with Chaldean and which is quite similar to the language spoken in Suakin and in Upper Ethiopia where Priester John has his residence" (1956, vol. II, 484). Since Ethiopic viz. Ge'ez was called "Chaldean" in Europe in the first half of the 15th century A.D., it is possible to assume that the author (or his editor ?) referred to Tigre spoken by some Beja (cf. Zaborski 1965, 302- 303). It is remarkable that Leo Africanus (vol. 2, 537) mentioned a people living south of Assuan, being dominated by Beja and speaking a language being "a mixture of Arabic, Coptic and Ethiopian". It is not clear whether this might be a contamination of imprecise information on complicated language situation or a reference to Tigre.
Some northern Beja must have learnt Arabic as interpreters rather soon after the Arab conquest of Egypt and especially after the penetration of emerald and gold mines by Arabs but the real spread of Arabic began when Arab nomadic tribes started penetrating the Beja land and intermarriage began among the Beja and Mudar and Rabī'a Arabs already in the 9th century A.D.
When Ibn Hawqal visited Beja land in the 10th century, the number of northern Beja speaking some Arabic must have already been considerable but he says emphasizing Beja hospitality that they speak a language which is difficult to understand (or "full of barbarisms", Arabic 'agtām)- this pertains rather to Arabic as spoken by some Beja rather than to the Beja language since the latter was certainly quite incomprehensible to Ibn Hawqal (see above).
The enigma of Beia writing
The relevance of comparative linguistics
Genealogy of the Beja Language
Relations between Cushitic and other subfamilies
Futility of separating Beja from Cushitic
How do we know that Beja belongs to the Cushitic subfamily ? As rightly emphasized by Robert Hetzron who was the only linguist to develope the hypothesis about a separation of Beja from Cushitic, common innovations belong to the most important proofs of genetic relationship of languages. It is commonly taken for granted since Reinisch that a new suffix conjugation in which suffixes go back to prefix-conjugated auxiliary "to speak/ to be" reduced to the final vowel (e.g. tam-ta "you ate" goes back to verbal noun tam plus suffixed second person masc. t-a of the auxiliary verb "to be" in which t- is the prefix of the second person and -a is the stem) is the innovation of the Cushitic languages which is not shared with other Hamitosemitic/ Afroasiatic languages. Cf. Beja and Afar:
Past but still used as Present in negative sentences,††††††††
†Past Perfect/ Conditional
††††There is -a in the Present and -i/-e in the Past of the Cushitic suffix conjugation. Beja does have this Cushitic innovation which cannot be ascribed to borrowing and thus definitely Beja belongs to Cushitic.
††††Contrary to some premature and inexact lexicostatistic results, Beja has also quite a lot of common vocabulary with other Cushitic languages (cf. Zaborski 1989c and later studies by Blazek, especially 1997).
Some Beja-'Afar-Saho isoglosses:
††††Jussive with -ay (cf. Roper's alyternative transc. p. 52), in 'Afar -ay, e.g. in Beja negative 1st sing, b-ā-tam-ay "that I may not eat", 1st plur. bi-ntam-ay "that we may not eat" etc. and 'Afar 1st Sing, fak-ay "that I may open/ let me open", 1st plur. fak-nay etc., also with prefix conjugated verbs: adūr-ay "let me return", 1st plur. nadūr-ay etc.
††††Conditional with -ek: Beja (Roper 1928, 61) a-dif-ek, ti-dif-ek, i-dif-ek, ni-dif-ek etc., tama-an-ťk, tam-tān-ťk etc., 'Afar -k: u-dūr-e-k "if I return", tu-dūr-e-k, yu-dūr-e-k etc., fak-e-k "if I open", fak-t-e-k, fak-n-ek etc.
Archaic features of Beja
††††Some verbs make the past tense with t-, which corresponds to Akkadian Perfect iptaras and to the cognate form in Berber (cf. Zaborski 1975, 16; Zaborski 1997).
††††Intensive with long -ā- after the first root consonant, e.g. kitim "to arrive" and kātim (cf. also kātatim !) "to arrive repeatedly at the same place", inflected a-kātim, te-kātim-a etc., dibil "to collect" and dābil (and dābabil !) "to collect a lot". This has a correspondent in the third class of derived verbs in Arabic (qātala) and in Ethiopic (with traces e.g. in Hebrew) -these class of verbs with -ā- was originally intensive and actually a variant of qattala; it occurs also in Modern South Arabian Present.
††††Alternation h/s in third person pronouns is preserved: bar-ū-s "he", bat-ū-s "she" etc., -hos- "him/ her", -hos-na "them", -ū-s, -ā-s, -ū-s-na, -ā-s-na for 'his", "her", "their", and independent possessive pronouns bar-i-ū-s, bat-i-ū-s "his", "hers" etc. in Halenga but in Hadandiwa dialect -hi-na (both sing, and plur.), -ū-h-na, -ā-h-na and bár-ih-i-yi, bāt-ih-i-yi etc. As is well known, Semitic languages are divided into a group having -s/š (Akkadian) and a group having -h (Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopian etc.) while within Epigraphic South Arabian and Modern South Arabian there is a cleavage into -s and -h dialects.
††††In nominal morhology there is nominative ending -u, genitive -i and accusative -a, there are also internal plurals (cf. Zaborski 1986).
Innovations separating Beja from East Cushitic languages
It is remarkable that Beja pronouns with bar- have been borrowed into at least some Sudanese Arabic dialects (Reichmuth 1983, 10), e.g. in Shukriyya Arabic there is even the first person ana barāy "I alone/ myself", barāna "we alone/ ourselves" apart from barāk "you alone/ yourself" etc. and there is also adverbial baray.
Numerals "one", "three" and "five" (old "five" survives as asa- < *hamsa in 6-9) as well as the system of "five" to "nine" viz. "five plus one", "five plus two" etc. are Beja innovations while "hundred" še is a loan from Egyptian (cf. Coptic še). Only the numerals male (*lama) "two" which occurs also in asarāma <*asa-lama "seven" (cf. Somali lama), "four" fadig (cf. 'Afar ferey) and "ten" tamin (cf. 'Afar taban) go back to Proto- Cushitic (cf. Zaborski 1987, Blazek, forthcoming a). Although some linguists may claim that compound numerals 6-9 are primitive since their etymologies as compounds are clear, nevertheless I think that they are rather later innovations.
The loss of East Cushitic subjunctive/ jussive with final -u/-o is also a Beja innovation.
††††† †In spite of the very scanty sources Beja language which belongs to the Cushitic branch of Hamitosemitic/Afroasiatic as the oldest member of this branch and which is also one of the oldest viz. archaic Hamitosemitic languages in general has not only a very long prehistory but also a very long history. Beja language being a part of the ancient Beja culture and one of the major languages must be put into writing and certainly it has a long and great future both as spoken and written language.