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Nilo-Saharan Language Family 

nilo-saharan

The Nilo-Saharan language family includes 204 extremely diverse languages spoken by roughly 35 million people in the interior of northern Africa, including the greater Nile basin and its tributaries, as well as the central region of the Sahara desert.

Scholars have argued for over 100 years about the best way to classify Nilo-Saharan languages. Today, many accept the genetic unity of the Nilo-Saharan languages as proposed in 1963 by Joseph Greenberg, an American anthropologist and linguist. Ethnologue follows Greenberg’s classification by including the following branches of the Nilo-Saharan family. However, there remains some disagreement about the membership within the branches themselves. As you can see from the table below, the Central and Eastern Sudanic branches account for the majority of Nilo-Saharan languages (160 languages).

Branch
Number of languages
1
65
95
6
1
9
9
8
3

Status
Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken in Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. By far the largest number of Nilo-Saharan languages is found in Sudan. Most of them have relatively small populations of speakers. Only six are spoken by a million or more people. The two most populous languages (each spoken by 3.5 million people ) are Luo of Kenya, and Kanuri of Nigeria.

3.5 million
Kenya
3.5 million
Nigeria
2.5 million
Kenya
Zarma
2.2 million
Niger
1.3 million
Sudan
1 million
Uganda
978,000
Uganda
883,000
Kenya
792,000
Uganda
760,000
Democratic Republic of the Congo
750,000
Chad
620,000
Democratic Republic of the Congo
588,830
Uganda
Fur
500,000
Sudan
450,000
Sudan

Only two languages enjoy official recognition:

  • Central Kanuri is one of the national languages of Nigeria.
  • Zarma is one of the national languages of Niger.

NiloSaharanMapA number of Nilo-Saharan languages became endangered in the 20th century because their speakers adopted other, more prestigious and more widely used languages such as Arabic and Swahili. This is particularly true of languages spoken by fewer than 1,000 speakers. Increased mobility, urbanization, and political upheavals have also contributed to the decline of some Nilo-Saharan languages. Nevertheless, most of them continue to serve as vital means of oral communication within ethnic communities for millions of people.

Today, the governments of the African nations are making an attempt to integrate indigenous Nilo-Saharan languages into their educational systems, usually along with official European languages, e.g., English (in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda) or French (Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, and Congo) and national languages, e.g., Swahili (in Kenya) and Amharic (in Ethiopia). For instance, in Kenya, Dholuo and Maasai are taught in primary schools along with English and Swahili. In Eritrea, Kunama and Nara are taught in primary schools along with Oromo and Amharic.

Dialects

Nilo-Saharan languages display great dialectal diversity. In fact, most of them consist of a group of varieties, rather than a single language.

Structure

Sound system
Nilo-Saharan languages are as linguistically diverse as they are geographically spread. As a result of extensive contact with their neighbors as well as long-term bilingualism, some Nilo-Saharan languages have consonant systems that are similar to those of the Niger-Congo languages, while others share common features with Afro-Asiatic languages.

Vowels
The vowel systems of Nilo-Saharan languages are extremely complex. In addition to a large number of vowels, most of the languages have additional vowel features that make a difference in word meaning. Among them are the following:

  • vowel length
    The duration of vowels can range from short to long. Dinka, for example, has three distinct vowel lengths.
  • breathiness (breathy voice)
    These sounds are produced with the vocal folds vibrating as in normal voicing, but the glottal closure is incomplete, so that the voicing is somewhat inefficient and air continues to leak between the vocal folds throughout the vibration cycle with an audible friction noise.
  • creakiness (creaky voice)
    This is a special kind of articulation in which the vocal cords are tightly shut, resulting in low frequency of the vibration (about two octaves below normal voice) and in slow airflow through the glottis.
  • advanced tongue root (ATR)
    Advanced tongue root refers to the feature of a sound made by drawing the root of the tongue forward. This feature distinguishes between tense vowels as [+ ATR] and lax vowels as [- ATR]. This feature is present in Dholuo.
  • vowel harmony
    This feature mea
    ns that all vowels in a word must belong to a certain set, each consisting of five vowels. One set is marked for advanced tongue root [+ATR], while the other set is not [-ATR]. Dholuo, for instance, exhibits vowel harmony, which means that all vowels in a word must belong to a certain set, each consisting of five vowels. One set is marked for advanced tongue root [+ATR], while the other set is not [-ATR]. In Dinka, on the other hand, all vowels in a word must be either breathy or creaky.

Consonants
The consonantal systems of Nilo-Saharan languages often show similarities with those of neighboring Afro-Asiatic and Niger-Congo languages as a result of extensive contact that had resulted in borrowing of vocabulary and stable bilingualism. For instance, some Nilo-Saharan languages have complex consonant systems featuring ejective and implosive consonants that are typical of Afro-Asiatic languages, while others have relatively simple consonant systems that characterize Niger-Congo languages. These languages have few, if any consonant clusters with mMost syllables ending in a vowel or a nasal consonant.

Tones
Like the surrounding Niger-Congo languages, most of the Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal, i.e., they use relative pitch on syllables or words to distinguish meaning. The number of tones varies from language to language. For instance, Dinka has two level and three contour tones (high falling, low falling, and rising), while Dholuo and Lugbara have four tones. Tones are not always indicated in writing. When they are, accent marks are used.

Grammar
Nilo-Saharan languages share a number of grammatical features that speak of their common origin. Not all these grammatical features are present in all Nilo-Saharan languages.

Nouns
Nouns in Nilo-Saharan languages are relatively simple:

  • Case
    There are few, if any cases that are overtly marked. Case is marked by suffixes or tones.
  • Number
    Number is marked by suffixes in most Nilo-Saharan languages, e.g., in Baribari ‘people’ and bari-nit ‘person.’
  • Gender
    Gender is marked in some, but not all, Nilo-Saharan languages.

Verbs
Nilo-Saharan verbs are considerably more complex than nouns. Verb markings are often similar across widely spread languages.

  • person and number are marked by verbal prefixes, as in these examples from Dholuo for the verb chiemo ‘eat’: 
    person
    singular
    plural
    1st
    achiemo
    wachiemo
    2nd
    ichiemo
    wuchiemo
    3rd
    ochiemo
    gichiemo
  • The languages make numerous tense and aspect distinctions.
  • There are several moods, including declarative, subjunctive,and imperative.
  • There are special markers for negative, causative, and dative constructions.

Word order
Word order varies from language to language. In some languages the word order is Verb-Subject-Object, in others, it is Subject-Verb-ObjectVerb-Subject-Object languages tend to have prepositions and auxiliaries preceding the main verb. Subject-Verb-Object languages tend to have post-positions and auxiliaries that follow the verb. Some Nilo-Saharan languages have relatively free word order.

Vocabulary
Nilo-Saharan languages share a large number of lexical roots that point to their common ancestry. Yet there are significant differences in even the most basic vocabulary, such as numerals.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Dinka
tok
róu
dyak
‘nguan
wdyech
wdetem
wderóu
bêt
wde-nguan
wtyer
Fur
tok
awu
iis
ongal
oz
ozundik
saabi
taman
tise
weye
Lugbara
àlö
ïrrì
nna
ssu
tääù
azia
aziiir
ààrò
òòròmì
möödrí
Luo
achiel
ariyo
adek
angwen
abich
auchiel
abiriyo
aboro
ongachiel
apar
Acholi
acel
aryo
adek
angwen
abic
abicel
abiryo
aboro
abungwen
apar
Bari
geleng
murek
musala
ingwan
mukanat
buker
buyo
budök
bungwan
pwök
Kanuri
tilo
ndi
yakkə
degə
uwu
araskə
tulur
wusku
ləgar
mewu
Mangbetu
kana
sóórú
sóta
sósua
tózerena
tónóru
‘bógina
‘tébgelégí
‘tééké

Writing

Most Nilo-Saharan languages have no long-standing literary tradition. The only exception is Old Nubian used by Christian communitics in northern Sudan in the 8th -11th centuries AD. Old Nubian was written with an uncial (i.e., one that uses all capital letters) variety of the Greek alphabet supplemented with three letters borrowed from Coptic and three that were uniquely Nubian. Old Nubian was replaced by the Arabic script after Islam spread to northern Sudan.

Today, most Nilo-Saharan languages are written with Latin-based alphabets developed by European missionaries in the 19th-20th centuries. A number of Nilo-Saharan languages spoken in Ethiopia are written with adapted versions of a syllabic script that was originally developed to write Ge’ez, an ancient South Semitic language that spoken in the region that is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. Some of the languages have develped an extensive written literature. For instance, the Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek writes in Acholi.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Kanuri.

Babu 1
Adamgana woso kambe katambo ye daraja-a hakkiwa-ason kalkalye. Hankal-a nazaru-asoro kschwazschwapkschwa ye suro hal nschwamharamiben kamazasoga letaiyin ye.
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Nilo-Saharan languages?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Nilo-Saharan languages for speakers of English.

2 Responses to Nilo-Saharan Language Family

  1. Peter Onyinyechukwu Gloria

    Thanks for this post but don’t you think you should have done something on the consonant chart of the nilo-sahara language?

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Which Nilo-Saharan language do you have in mind? Nilo-Saharan is a term that refers to a family of languages, each one of which may have different consonant inventories.

       

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