Nilosaharan languages

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The Nilo-Saharan language family and their language groups
Spread of the Nilo-Saharan languages

The Nilo-Saharan languages (also called Nilo-Saharan for short ) form an African language family with around 200 languages ​​and a total of around 35 million speakers. They are mainly spoken on the upper rivers of the Shari (Chari) and the Nile, including historical Nubia . Its distribution extends over 18 states in northern Africa: Algeria and Mali in the north-west; Benin , Nigeria , Sudan , South Sudan and DR Congo in the south and from Egypt to Kenya and Tanzania in the east. Most of its most important branch is found in what is now Sudan and South Sudan. As can be seen from the name, Nilo-Saharan is a language family that is particularly widespread in inland Africa, including the larger Nile basin and its tributaries, as well as in the central Saharan desert.

Nilosaharan as a unit and structure


The name goes back to the efforts of the linguist Joseph Greenberg to prove that all African languages that have escaped genetic classification up to then belong to a genetic language family . Greenberg developed the Nilosaharan language family from the eastern branch of the Sudan languages postulated by Diedrich Westermann and Carl Meinhof , the unity of which did not stand up to closer scrutiny.

The Nilo-Saharan language is understood by the specialists in this field ( Lionel Bender and Christopher Ehret ) as a secure unit, the main features of which can be reconstructed in the proto- language (see under Literature Bender 1997 and especially Ehret 2001). Because of this work and that of other researchers, the concept of the Nilo-Saharan languages ​​as a genetic unit is widely accepted in African studies . In particular, the core of Nilo-Saharan - the East Sudanese languages (including the Nilotic and Nubian languages), the Central Sudan languages , and some smaller groups - is largely undisputed as a genetic unit. Few doubt whether the languages Kunama , Berta and Fur as well as the Maba group (spoken in Chad, the Central African Republic and Sudan) belong to Nilo-Saharan language. Stronger doubts apply to the “outlier groups” Saharan , Kuliak (Rub) and Songhai , whose affiliation to Nilo- Saharan is disputed by several researchers.

This results in the following basic concept:

  1. East Sudan languages including the Nilotic and Nubian languages (undisputed)
  2. Central Sudan languages (undisputed)
  3. Kunama (occasionally attacked)
  4. Berta (occasionally attacked)
  5. Fur (occasionally attacked)
  6. Komuz languages (common in the Sudanese-Ethiopian border area)
  7. Saharan languages (doubted)
  8. Songhai languages (doubted)
  9. Kuliak / Rub languages (doubted)

In the past, the East Sudanese and Central Sudan languages ​​as well as Kunama and Berta were summarized (especially Greenberg) under the umbrella term of the Shari -Nile languages (Chari-Nil languages). However, Shari-Nile languages ​​do not represent a linguistically related subgroup of the Nilo-Saharan languages, which is why the term is only of geographical importance. The so-called Shari-Nile languages ​​form the secured core of the Nilo-Saharan languages.

The classification of the Shabo language is extremely controversial . Ethnologue , Anbessa Tefera and Peter Unseth count Shabo among the Nilo-Saharan languages. Christopher Ehret considers Shabo to be isolated. Shabo is often classified as unclassified.

Some linguists, including Roger Blench, consider the Kadu languages (also called Kadugli or Tumtum ) to be Nilo-Saharan, while other linguists follow Greenberg and qualify the Kadu languages ​​as Kordofan ( Niger-Congo ) languages . Ehret, however, considers the Kadu languages ​​to be isolated.

Occasionally it has been suggested that the Mande languages , which are usually classified under the Niger-Congo languages, be included in the Nilo-Saharan family mainly because of their notable similarities with the Songhai languages. However, this proposal is rejected by the prevailing opinion.

The Meroitic language of ancient Kush was sometimes mistaken for a presumed member of Nilosaharan; however, too little is known about this extinct language to be able to classify it credibly. The same is true of the extinct Oropom language in Uganda (if it ever existed), from which links with Kuliak or the Nilotic languages ​​have been suggested.

Macro families

Approaches for an extra-family relationship of Nilo-Saharan language are usually based on the Niger-Congo languages. Gregersen (1972) summarized both language families as the Congo-Saharan Macro Family , whereas Blench (1995) suggested that Niger-Congo could be a branch of Nilo-Saharan, which is on a par with Central Sudan. However, such theories are treated with caution by most linguists.

Classification according to Bender (2000)

Classification according to Ehret (2001)

s. Ehret (2001), p. 88 f.

Classification according to ethnologue

This classification is partly out of date in view of the more recent representations by Bender (1997) and (2000) and Ehret (2001):

Major languages

  1. Luo or Dholuo (3.5 to 4 million speakers), which is spoken in Kenya, eastern Uganda and as far as Tanzania; it is the language of the Luo , Kenya's third largest people (after the Bantu peoples Kikuyu and Luhya ); the term Luo is ambiguous, as it also designates a language branch of the Nilotic languages ​​of the East Sudan group ( Luo languages ).
  2. Kanuri (3.3 to 6 million speakers) is the language of the Kanuri who settle from Niger to northeastern Nigeria.
  3. Dinka (1.4 to 2 million speakers), spoken in South Sudan, the language of one of the most powerful South Sudanese peoples ( Dinka )
  4. Lango (almost 1 million speakers), spoken by one of the more important peoples of Uganda (in the Lango province in the center of the country)
  5. Nuer (805,000 speakers), the language of the Nuer in South Sudan
  6. Acholi (792,000 speakers), a Luo language spoken by the Acholi who settle in northern Uganda and southern Sudan; Acholi is closely related to Lango.
  7. Songhai languages (740,000 speakers), the language area of ​​which extends widely along the Niger River in Mali and Burkina Faso ; the most respected dialect is that from the mythical Timbuktu , the capital of the historical Songhai Empire.
  8. Fur (502,000 speakers), regarded as one of the more important languages ​​of Darfur (Arabic homeland of the Fur )
  9. Nubian language (495,000 speakers), common in southern Egypt and northern Sudan


  • Anbessa Teferra u. Peter Unseth: Toward the classification of Shabo (Mikeyir) . In: M. Lionel Bender (Ed.): Topics in Nilo-Saharan linguistics . Buske, Hamburg 1989, pp. 405-418.
  • M. Lionel Bender : The Nilo-Saharan languages. A comparative essay . 2nd edition. LINCOM Europa, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-89586-045-X , ( LINCOM handbooks in linguistics 06).
  • M. Lionel Bender: Nilo-Saharan. In: Bernd Heine , Derek Nurse (Ed.): African Languages. An introduction . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 2000, ISBN 0-521-66178-1 , pp. 43-73.
  • Roger Blench: Is Niger-Congo simply a branch of Nilo-Saharan? . In: R. Nicolai and F. Rottland (eds.): Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium . Köppe, Cologne 1995, pp. 36-49.
  • Christopher Ehret : A historical-comparative reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan . Köppe, Cologne 2001, ISBN 3-89645-098-0 , ( Language and history in Africa SUGIA supplement 12).
  • Joseph H. Greenberg : The Languages ​​of Africa . Indiana University, Bloomington IN 1963, ( Publication of the Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics 25, ISSN  0537-3190 ), ( International Journal of American linguistics 29, 1963, No. 1, P. 2).
  • Joseph H. Greenberg: Nilo-Saharan and Meroitic . In: Thomas A. Sebeok (Ed.): Current Trends in Linguistics . Volume 7: Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa . Mouton, Den Haag et al. 1971, pp. 421-442.
  • Herrmann Jungraithmayr, Wilhelm JG Möhlig: Lexicon of African Studies. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 1983, ISBN 3-496-00146-1 .
  • Ernst Kausen: The language families of the world. Part 2: Africa - Indo-Pacific - Australia - America. Buske, Hamburg 2014, ISBN 978-3-87548-656-8 , pp. 157–245.
  • Oswin Köhler: History and problems of the structure of the languages ​​of Africa . In: Hermann Baumann (ed.): The peoples of Africa and their traditional cultures . Part 1: General Part and Southern Africa . Steiner, Wiesbaden 1975, ISBN 3-515-01968-5 , pp. 141-374.
  • Thilo C. Schadeberg: The Nilosaharan languages . In: Bernd Heine et al. (Ed.): The languages ​​of Africa . Buske, Hamburg 1981, ISBN 3-87118-433-0 , pp. 263-328.

See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Ethnologue, Languages ​​of the World, Nilo-Saharan