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Verbs in Saba can be divided into 3 groups depending on the arrangement of consonants (C) and vowels (V).
(ŋ sounds like ‘ng’ in ‘sing’, ɲ sounds a bit like ‘ny’ and ə sounds like the middle vowel in ‘photograph’)
Can you classify the following verbs as to which of the three groups they belong to?:
In Saba, there are various ways of turning these verbs into different forms to express the idea of a future action, a past action, an action in progress (progressive) and a repeated action (habitual). For the future, the form comes out different when it is combined with ‘him’ or with ‘you’. At the top of each column in the table below, there is an example word. Then below, you can see how the word changes for the future form etc. There is normally a change in the ending and there can also be a change of vowel. The main word might be repeated, and sometimes the consonant or vowel gets doubled while double consonants or vowels become single! (There are also other small words added, but these are left out in this puzzle).
Here are some of these forms with an example for each group of verbs:
ɑdɑ 'will leave him'
ədəŋ 'will leave you'
sɑɑlɑ 'will chase him'
səələŋ 'will chase you'
wissirɑ 'will turn him'
wissirəŋ 'will turn you'
əde ədiŋ 'left'
səəle səəlɑ 'chased'
wissire wissir 'turned'
ɑdə ɑdiŋ 'leaving'
sɑɑlə sɑɑlɑ 'chasing'
wissirə wissir 'turning'
ɑɑdə ɑɑdɑ 'keeps leaving'
sɑllə sɑllɑ 'keeps chasing'
wiisir wiisir keeps turning'
The only vowel that changes to another vowel is ‘ɑ’, which sometimes becomes ‘ə’.
Can you figure out the correct forms (like in the table above) for the following verbs?
bɑriŋ ‘give’ tuulɑ ‘sadden’ gessiy ‘hope’
If you have managed that, you are well on your way to learning Saba – because you could do the same thing with all of the verbs above.
Try to translate the following:
‘in the process of walking’
‘will enclose him’
OK, you don’t have any subject pronouns, and there is quite a bit more to do before you can say you speak Saba, but hopefully you have enjoyed this glance at how the language works.
One more thing of interest…
You hopefully noticed that the habitual form plays around with the number of vowels and consonants. VVC becomes VCC, (so a double vowel becomes a single vowel and the single consonant becomes doubled). But if it starts as VCC, it becomes VVC (where the single vowel becomes doubled and the double consonant becomes single).
sɑɑlɑ ‘chase’ > sɑllə sɑllɑ vs. kɑllɑ ‘hit’ > kɑɑlə kɑɑlɑ
wissir ‘turn’ > wiisir wiisir vs. eeper ‘tap’ > epper epper
This process is called “compensatory lengthening” where one bit gets shortened (made single) and the next bit (or previous bit) gets longer (or doubled) to make up for it. This keeps the same rhythm for the word as a whole, and rhythm is often very important in languages. It is unusual though to see this working starting with both vowels and consonants within the same language and even within the same grammatical form! Saba speakers have no trouble knowing the original forms and when they need to double or make single – but for anyone learning the language as a second language, this would be a challenge.
Saba is on the borderline for being classified as an “endangered language”, but despite not having a large number of speakers, it has some very interesting linguistic properties and the speakers are right to be proud of their language.
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Classification into groups:
issir 'wipe nose'
lollɑ 'cry out'
viyəŋ 'give birth'
3 verbs with grammatical changes:
bɑrɑ 'will give him'
bərəŋ 'will give you'
tuulɑ 'will sadden him'
tuuləŋ 'will sadden you'
gessiyɑ 'will give him hope'
gessiyəŋ 'will give you hope'
bəre əriŋ 'gave'
tuule tuulɑ saddened'
gessiye gessiy 'hoped'
bɑrə ɑriŋ 'giving'
tuulə tuulɑ 'saddening'
fessiyə gessiy 'hoping'
bɑɑrə ɑɑrɑ 'keep giving'
tullə tullɑ 'keep saddening'
gessiy gessiy 'keep hoping'
Translation of certain expressions:
‘in the process of walking’
Saba is a Chadic language spoken in the Guera region of Chad. For more information, see:
Data from: Adeye Abakar and Younous Abbazene, representatives of the Saba Language Committee, and part of the regional association of language committees, FAPLG.
This puzzle was devised by Mary Pearce.
The Saba given here is slightly simplified for the purpose of this puzzle, so please do not quote the information found here in any linguistic publication.