Prince’s Death, and Chris Bishop’s, and a Wukari Jukun Proverb

Some time ago I uploaded a video about tone languages and intonation languages. I referred to Wukari Jukun, called Wapan by native speakers in Nigeria, as a fine example of a tone language.

In this video/essay I will resort to this language again, this time to note another sort of beauty besides that of tone.

Wapan is monosyllabic, each separate word being a separate syllable. It becomes obvious that, if this is so, there must be a rather severe limit as to how many discrete words can be produced in this language. Yet, as in perhaps every real language, most everything one thinks or discovers can be described in words. How does a language with a tightly prescribed word structure manage to convey infinite thoughts and descriptions?

One way speakers of Wapan do it is by encasing deep meanings in terse sentences, often thought of as proverbs. In such sentences the words themselves have meanings, but the combination of the words into the single sentence expresses far more meaning than the same words used in ordinary conversation. Here is one example.

A wo pa ta ka wo cu.

I heard this sentence more than thirty years ago while driving by car from Wukari to a nearby city. Three Jukun passengers were with me, and they were discussing a recent death in their community. I must have said something about how sad I felt about this death. One of the passengers, a local pastor, said, “ci numa, wapan ka nda dan ‘a wo pa ta ka wo cu.”
I had no Idea of the purpose of the sentence, although I knew every word in it. In English it would have been something like this:

“You’re right, because the Jukun have a saying: a person wind hits harder than a rain wind.”

wo = wind
pa = person
ta = hit
ka = more than
cu = rain

wind-person-hit-more than-wind-rain

The meaning? I had to ask for it, and the explanation was simple and clear.

How do you feel when it rains and a cold wind blows? You feel chilly. But if you begin to feel really cold, you wrap a blanket or cloak around you, and you feel warm again.

But how do you feel when a person you care for dies? It’s almost the same sort of cold, and you feel it deeply. You feel colder and colder. But there is no cloak or blanket you can wrap around you to make the chill go away.

I began constructing this presentation a day or two after the untimely death of Chris Bishop, husband of Kimberly Lambe Bishop, and a loved son of my wife’s sister Sarah and her husband, Doug, and a day or two before the announcement of the untimely death of Prince, on Thursday April 21, 2016. Today is the day after, and the airwaves are filled with reports of his death and the many, many thousands of persons who are lamenting his passing.

So this Wukari Jukun proverb comes to mind twice, and helps describe the way I and many other feel. No cloak or coat removes the cold chill that strikes us when we face untimely deaths.

Thank you, you Wukari Jukun people. M mbu mykin. Mgbaye ni, ani pajukun.


(the video of this essay will be posted to my page on YouTube at


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