Documenting and preserving lesser-known languages - Dza of Nigeria in Africa

About 100,000 Jenjo people live along the north bank of the Benue river at the intersection of Taraba, Gombe and Adamawa States in northeast Nigeria, and speak the Dza [jen] language. Language development work began among the Jenjo in 2004 when two Dza speakers, Jigans Jigans and Albert Alu, attended an Introductory Course in Applied Linguistics run by the Nigerian Bible Translation Trust in Jos, Nigeria. Two years later, another Dza speaker, Nelson Yerima, attended the same course, and together, the three of them proposed a standard orthography (writing system) for Dza and produced its first reading and writing booklet in 2008.

In 2013, a fourth Dza speaker, Nlabephee Othaniel, studied for a B.A. in linguistics and translation at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN), where several SIL staff have taught. Upon graduation, he continued working toward an M.A. in language documentation and description. He is due to complete this degree in May 2019, which seems appropriate given that 2019 has been declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the UN.

Part of his culture documentation includes still photos of a traditional pipe, a woman telling a folktale, and the burial ceremony of a clan elder, as well as an audio story file, “The Prince and his Word.”

Map of the Jenjo and surrounding areas | Jenjo woman telling a folktale | Jenjo man with traditional pipe 
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Othaniel at TCNN | Othaniel in traditional Dza clothing 
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Photos by Nlabephee Othaniel, Paul Toma and Dimas Gajere

Othaniel’s studies have been a huge boost to language development efforts among the Jenjo people. Apart from the linguistic descriptions he has written, he has also set up a Jenjo Facebook page:

One of his most well-received Dza documentary projects is a short video about the endangered traditional art of mat-weaving. People in the community are encouraged because it promotes the use and status of the language. Creating the video has helped Othaniel become more familiar with his language. “I’ve learned that there is sometimes a whole philosophy or worldview behind certain words, like ‘yinjwifo’, meaning ‘it will turn to dust’, suggesting that nothing that we do lasts forever, and so you should not take pride in your accomplishments or status, but remain humble and respectful at all times”. Similarly, the weaver in the video, Abas Madi Windang, said that being asked to help document the skill helped him recall words for certain items involved in the weaving. “If not for this exercise, I would have forgotten some words, but the process of explaining all this has made me remember them.”

The  elder sister of Abas (the weaver) wishes their father were still alive to see the video being made. It would have pleased him to see this traditional weaving skill documented for future generations. Other community members who viewed the video said there are additional cultural practices, like canoe-making, house-building, and traditional marriage ceremonies, that also need documenting. 

Othaniel has also been collaborating with two top linguists at the Centre National de la Reserche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, who have seen his work and recruited him to use his spare time helping them with their research. One day he hopes to return to be on staff at TCNN to help train other Nigerians in language documentation.


SIL is pleased that 2019 has been declared as International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) by the United Nations. For us, every year is a year of languages. That’s because researching, revitalizing and promoting use of lesser-known languages is at the heart of who we are and what we have been doing for the past 85 years. This article is one in a series that explains SIL’s work as it relates to key themes of IYIL.


Documenting and preserving lesser-known languages