Beria, also called Zaghawa by outsiders, is spoken by members of the Beria ethnic group, a tribe of between 100-200,000 pastoralists and farmers in Sudan’s North Darfur region and parts of Chad. In Darfur, ethnic Beria have been among the people terrorized by the janjaweed militias supported by the government in Khartoum. Substantial numbers of Beria speakers are now living in refugee camps in the Sudan-Chad borderlands. Others have made their way out of the region altogether. Although the Beria living in Chad constitute a very small percentage of the total population, some have achieved power and prominence.
Beria is classified by linguists as an Eastern Saharan language of the Nilo-Saharan language family, whose closest linguistic relative was Berti, a language of northern Sudan which may have been a variety of Beria but is now thought to be extinct. Wegi (Twer) is considered to be the dialect with the largest number of speakers within Sudan, followed by Kube. There seem to be a few other dialects, all of which are apparently mutually intelligible–though the dialect situation is likely to be in flux given the extraordinary mobility of recent years.
Most Beria speakers within Sudan also speak Sudanese Arabic; many within Chad speak Chadian Arabic. Even before the recent conflict, there was already evidence by Beria speakers of a gradual shift to Arabic, a language of national and regional importance. Although the language apparently remains vigorous among all age groups, its current status is in doubt as a result of the recent instability. With large numbers of Beria people now refugees scattered far from their homeland, linguistic pressures on the community have become that much greater. The disappearance of Berti, a closely related language variety of Darfur, indicates the vulnerability of languages in this part of the world.
Compared to many other languages of Sudan, Beria is relatively well described. Jakobi & Crass’s (2004) recent grammar covers the phonology and morphology in detail, and Wolfe (2001) provides a comparative phonology of several dialects. Nonetheless, only one dialect (that of Kube) is well described, and many questions still remain regarding Beria syntax. More importantly, there is no available audio or video documentation for the language, and very few texts have been published.
Jakobi, Angelika and Joachim Crass. 2004. Grammaire du beria. Nilo-Saharan Linguistic Analyses and Documentation Vol. 18, M. Lionel Bender, Franz Rottland and Norbert Cyffer (eds.). Köln: Rüdiger Küppe Verlag.
Wolfe, Andrew Miller. 2001. Towards a generative phonology and morphology of the dialects of Beria. B.A. honors thesis, Department of Linguistics, Harvard University.
The two largest dialects of Zaghawa, those of Kube and Wegi, both have representative speakers in the Darfuri refugee community here in New York City. ELA’s Darfur Languages Project aims to further understanding of Beria grammar and provide fully translated and annotated texts in the language, along with accompanying archive-quality audio and video. ELA has worked with a Beria speaker named Nasseruddin, now resident in the New York area but originally from a migrant Beria community in Khashm al-Girba, Eastern Sudan.
Following genocidal campaigns by the government-backed Janjaweed militias in Sudan in the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Darfuri fled to refugee camps in Chad and, when possible, elsewhere. Of the much smaller number who made it as refugees to the U.S., most settled in Iowa and Indiana, from which several hundred left for a small Darfuri enclave in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. All the dozen or so Darfuri languages are giving way to what is now called Darfuri Arabic, which was already making inroads before the killings, but has also been the principal medium of communication among all kinds of Darfuris, in the refugee camps and in exile. ELA worked with the Darfur People’s Association of New York and other groups to record speakers of Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit, of which there are a small number of speakers in New York but now many more now in cities across the U.S.
The following is a group of essential everyday words and phrases in Beria, recorded by the ELA in New York:
The audio recording below is about Tawila, a once prosperous town in Darfur before it was destroyed in the current conflict.