The Nilo-Saharan Family

by Kristina M. Brukl
Linguistics 450
Dr. Cynthia Hallen

The Nilo-Saharan family consists of approximately 160 languages and is one of four linguistic families in Africa. The family is subdivided into ten branches and further into other subgroups, languages, and dialects. The Nilo-Saharan languages stretch across the eastern Sahara, the upper Nile valley, and the regions surrounding East Africa's Lake Victoria. Members of the Nilo-Saharan family are also found in Northeastern Congo Kinshasa, west to the Chari River, and south to the Niger valley of South Africa (see Map 1).

Map 1. Shading indicates approximate locations of Nilo-Saharan Languages

My purpose in this paper is to present an introduction to the Nilo-Saharan family focusing on the primary elements of classification. This will give a brief history of the languages, an overview of research, and the typological diversity of the family. Following, I will present each of the ten major sub-branches with a brief description. The order of which is referenced from the Ethnologue Language Family Index, Thirteenth edition by Joseph and Barbara Grimes.

Historically, I found from my research that very few linguistic records exist of African languages. This can be contributed to the oral traditions and scarcity of writing. However, Arabic documents from the southern Saharan provide records of the existence of African languages dating back to the tenth century (Ehret and Posnansky 15). Because of contact with Egypt, two specific languages, Nubian and Geez, have writing systems that originate back to the fifth century. These languages along with Egyptian-Coptic and Arabic furnish what few ancient African texts that remain. Europeans began early studies of African languages with an ethnocentric interest in colonialization or missionary work. These initial studies produced rough lexicons and wordlist that later contributed to the field of African linguistics. Most of the recent research in the past century has been done by non-native speakers due to the fact of internal struggles of each country and the low literacy rate of the individual speakers. However today, many natives are pursuing education and studying their native languages, but much work stills needs to be done.

Detailed research began early in the twentieth century. The Nilo-Saharan family and its languages can be found under several names that, as I began researching, I found very confusing. Westerman in 1911 proposed the Sudanic languages under the classification of genetic unity (Greenberg 422). Joseph Greenberg first referred to these languages as the Macro-Sudanic group; later he subgrouped the Maco-Sudanic as the Chari-Nile subgroup and placed it under the Nilo-Saharan family with other languages that were isolated or independent. (Greenberg 1963). Tucker & Bryan are important sources due to their contribution of field studies of the non-Bantu languages of North-Eastern Africa (Greenberg 423). Other linguists, such as Bender, Perrot, and Schadenberg have also updated the Nilo-Saharan family with recent maps and surveys. All generally agree on the lower sublevels of the family, but the upper levels still cause debate, e.g. Chari-Nile and the East Sudanic.

Debates occur due to the diversity of the languages and the conciseness of similarities. The broadness of the family uncovers many similar features, yet differences are abundant. Greenberg first classified the Nilo-Saharan due to the similar morphological and lexical features of several African Languages (Dimmendaal 100). Quite different from the other African language families, many of the Nilo-Saharan languages contain a system of noun suffixes that signal grammatical relationships (Welmers). Many studies present data of vowel harmony and devoicing of word-final vowels as a common feature throughout the family. However, Dimmendaal states the Nilo-Saharan typology is very diverse and varies greatly from neighboring languages. Kuliak, some Nilotic, and Surma languages possess verb-initial word order where the Saharan languages contain verb-final. In Central Sudanic, there is alternating SOV and SVO structures. Morphologically, Central Sudanic has little marking with numbers, but Nilotic and Surma has a detailed system for number inflections (102-3).

The Nilo-Saharan classification is truly a diverse language family. As seen the typology, it displays a panorama of features that are similar yet very different. Many researchers have contributed greatly to the field of African Linguistics. However, I perceive these languages to be elusive, which pose much difficulty in developing the field of historical linguistics. The remainder of this paper will present each branch of the family followed by a brief description.

The first branch of the Nilo-Saharan to be considered is the Berta. Berta is a genetically isolated language that forms its own grouping and is found on the Ethiopian and Sudanic border. This sub-group with about 50,000 speakers in all countries is broken into two distinct languages, Berta in Ethiopia and Gobato in Sudan (Grimes). Geographically, it is situated among the Komuz languages (Dimmendaal 101).

The Central Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan is the second group and covers a large geographic area. The 23 Eastern division languages cover those peoples in Zaire, Sudan and Uganda. Forty-one Western languages stretch into Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic. An outline of these numerous languages is referenced in Notes at the conclusion of the paper.

The Eastern Sudanic branch consists of four major groupings: Eastern, Kuliak, Nilotic, and Western. Much research has been done in this branch, and one can find various field studies on the different dialects and languages.

The Eastern division of the Eastern Sudanic branch consists of Eastern Jebel (e.g. Aka, Kelo, and Molo) spoken in Sudan, Nara in Eritea, the Nubian languages and dialects also in Sudan, and Surmic in Ethiopia (Grimes). The Nubian languages may be the most familiar in the grouping. These languages are found in the Nile valley upon the Nuba hills, to the west and south in Kordofan, and also towards the Darfur hills. The Nubians were seen at one time to rival the Eygptian culture. The Nubians suffered greatly due to the building of the Egyptian Aswan Dam that consequently led to the flooding of the Nile valley. This flooding prevented any further excavations and linguistic findings such as scripts. Since then, the Nubians were relocated and thus the language has suffered immensely. Old Nubian was the language of the Christian Kingdoms of Nubia during the sixth and thirteenth century (Sidahmed). Its written form was rooted in the Coptic form of the Greek alphabet. Today, Nubian is spoken rather than written. Arabic is used for most written and formal speeches (Grimes).

The Nilotic division is grouped into three: Western, Southern, and Eastern. Western and Southern share common features such as case determined by tones and VSO word order. Shilluk, of the Western Lou division, was one of the first Nilo-Saharan languages researched by Rippell in 1829 (Dimmendaal 100). It is spoken in southern Sudan with about 175,000 speakers (Grimes). About two million speakers in southern Sudan speak Dinka and its dialects of the Western division.

Regarding the research of the Nilotic languages, some studies have revealed similarities with Hamitic languages and thus present a classification in a Nilo-Hamitic family (Greenberg 422). This classification is considered through a common lexical list; however, some African languages have differences with grammatical gender than those that are Hamitic, or visa versa. This Nilotic classification with Hamitic languages presents an area of disagreement with many African linguistic scholars and continues to undergo extensive examination.

Fur, the fourth branch of the Nilo-Saharan family, separates into Amdang, spoken in Chad (1,800 speakers), and Fur in Sudan (Grimes). The ancient Fur is also associated with the Fur Sultanate, which was at one time a dominant ruling kingdom (Dimmendaal 103). Sudanic Fur is dominant along with Arabic in the Darfur Hills with about 500,000 speakers. The group is fairly consistent with a few dialectal differences.

The next branch of the Nilo-Saharan is found spoken in specific areas along the Sudan-Ethiopian border. The Komuz branch is subgrouped into Gumuz and Koman. Sudanic Gule of the Koman grouping is now extinct due to the Arabic linguistic dominance.

Following Komuz, Kunama is considered a genetically isolated language and is spoken in Eritea. This language is one of 11 spoken languages with approximately 140,000 speakers. Barka is its major dialect and is intelligible with the eight other dialects.

The Maban subgroup is found primarily in Chad Republic. It is the official language of the Wadai Kingdom and has had numerous publications (Greenberg 426). Work is still in progress. Many of these 120,000 speakers also speak Shuwa Arabic as a second language (Grimes).

The Saharan branch stretches up in to the northeast of Nigeria and Niger. It also breaches into Chad and the southern section of Libya and returns to Sudan. Prominent languages are the Berti of Sudan, Kanuri of Nigeria, Teda of Niger, and Zaghawa of Sudan.

Songhai is the most western branch of the Nilo-Saharan Family. It is found in Mali, Niger, and Nigeria embracing the Niger River, which flow through these countries. It is a single genetically isolated language related to the Songhai Empire and contains four distinct dialects (Greenberg 424, Dimmendaal 103, Grimes). Dendi of Niger appears to a be close language and also Gao and Timbuktu dialects have a 77% lexical similarities (Grimes).

The last branch of the Nilo-Saharan family is subheaded as Unclassified. This includes a language called Shabo and it is spoken by between 400-1000 speakers. According to Grimes, this linguistic group lives in family units rather than villages in Ethiopia. They are situated near the Cushtic languages and have some lexical similarities. Shabo contributes a small percentage to the 82 languages within Ethiopia.

While much study still needs to be done in this family, what I have found and researched is remarkable. Many of the Nilo-Saharan languages still exist even though the dominance of the Arabic language and Islam hovers above. The Nilo-Saharan family is definitely an interesting classification due to the vast geographical area, the range of speakers, and the number and variety of languages found. As I have studied and learned about this topic, it is apparent that field studies and comparative studies in African Linguistics are difficult and tedious tasks. I highly recommend for further reading the studies of Greenberg, Tucker & Bryan, and Bender.

Works Cited

Bender, M. Lionel, ed. Topics in Nilo-Saharan Linguistics. Nilo-Saharan Series Volume 3. Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1989.

---. The Non-Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1976.

Creider, Chet A. The Syntax of the Nilotic Languages: Themes and Variations. Language and Dialect Studies in East Africa 9. Berlin: Reimer, 1989.

Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. "Nilo-Saharan Languages." International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 1992.

Ehret, C. and Posnansky, M., eds. The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley: UCAL Press, 1982.

Greenberg, Joseph H. "Nilo-Saharan and Meroitic." Current Trends in Linguistics 7 (1971): 421-42.

---. "The Languages of Africa." International Journal of American Linguistics 29:1 (Jan 1963): 130-48.

Gregersen, Edgar A., Language in Africa: An Introductory Survey. London: Breach and Gordon, 1977.

Grimes, Joseph and Barbara <> "Ethnologue Language Family Index, Thirteenth Edition (1996). <> (January 23,1998).

Rottland, F. and Omondi, L.N., eds. Proceedings of the Third Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium Kisumu, Kenya, August 4-9, 1986. Nilo-Saharan Series Volume 6. Hamburg: Helmute Buske, 1986.

Sidahmed, Abubakr <>. "The Nubian Home Page." November 23, 1996. <> January 23, 1998.

Welmers, William E. MicroSoft Encarta '95: The Interactive Multimedia Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Microsoft. 1995.


*adapted from the Ethnologue Language Family Index, Thirteenth Edition

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