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Metre and melody in Dinka speech and song

Research funded under the AHRC Beyond Text programme has brought together specialists in linguistics and ethnomusicology to study Dinka, one of the major languages of the new Republic of South Sudan. Dinka is a thriving language with more than 2 million speakers, but literacy levels are very low. There is a standard orthography (spelling system) for Dinka, but it is generally agreed that it needs reform, because Dinka makes many phonetic distinctions of pitch, vowel length, and tone of voice that are difficult to indicate in an alphabetic writing system. Studying these aspects of Dinka was one of the main aims of the Beyond Text project Metre and Melody in Dinka Speech and Song.

Both speech and song were included in the project because composing and singing songs is an important part of the Dinka social and cultural system. Songs are used to communicate all aspects of life including social, pastoral and spiritual issues, and often act as a form of oral history. The project team, under the overall direction of Principal Investigator Professor D. Robert Ladd (University of Edinburgh), included ethnomusicologist Dr Angela Impey (School of Oriental and African Studies), linguist and phonetician Dr. Bert Remijsen (University of Edinburgh), sociolinguist Prof. Miriam Meyerhoff (now of Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand), and Dinka colleagues who had been involved in literacy work and language development in South Sudan, especially Peter Malek and Elizabeth Achol Deng.

Three Dinka men involved in the project, Credit: Bert Remijsen
Three Dinka men involved in the propject. Credit: Bert Remijsen

South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, has some of the world’s poorest indicators for education, largely as a result of decades of unbroken civil war. Continuing violence, a lack of infrastructure and displacement of people are exacerbating the situation. Consequently, there is a great need to rebuild civil society, and literacy is a key part of this effort. This project provided the research behind the production of a CD of Dinka songs, with texts and English translations, and a combination book/CD of Dinka children’s songs to be used in literacy training. Hundreds of copies of these materials, the first non-religious published resources to be used in literacy training and one of the only collections of transcribed and recorded Dinka songs, were distributed to schools, churches running literacy programmes, community centres, government ministries and foreign NGOs.

Reactions to these resources from those working in education in the Republic of South Sudan has been overwhelmingly positive. Ezra Simon, an education officer of The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), noted that,

“I have been in this job for two and a half years and this is the first time that I have been offered materials for education. All other materials are either religious or are extremely outdated. The CDs created quite a stampede in the office and we need more! They are so exciting and there is simply nothing like this anywhere in South Sudan.”

As well as making a contribution to literacy and education in RSS, these materials, along with high quality field recordings made by Dr Impey during the project, will make a significant cultural impact by forming an important part of the holdings of a new national archive that is being established in South Sudan. Lodoviko Lual, parliamentarian and chair of the Dinka Language Development Association (DILDA) attests,

“This is the first CD like this that is a document of Dinka history, and particularly of the war. This is a document that we can keep. It is not like the way our grandfathers remembered word for word, and when they died, the songs died with them. These documents will contribute toward the continuity of our culture.”

The materials produced by the project team have provided tangible, practical tools to strengthen a new and vulnerable national culture.

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