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Nilo-Saharan languages

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The Nilo-Saharan languages are a group of African languages spoken mainly in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers, including Nubia. Roughly 11 million people spoke Nilo-Saharan languages as of 1987, according to Merritt Ruhlen's estimate. The family is internally extremely diverse - far more so than Indo-European, or even Niger-Congo - and is rather controversial; few historical linguists have attempted work on the family as a whole, and several have denied its validity. Particularly controversial is the inclusion of Songhay.

According to Joseph Greenberg (The Languages of Africa) as initially modified by Lionel Bender (and adopted by the Ethnologue), they are classified into the following branches:

  1. Komuz languages
  2. Saharan languages (including Kanuri language)
  3. Songhay languages
  4. Fur languages (including Fur language)
  5. Maban languages
  6. (Chari-Nile languages - later rejected, placing the 4 branches below on an equal footing with those above)
    1. Central Sudanic languages
    2. Kunama language
    3. Berta language
    4. Eastern Sudanic languages (including Nubian languages and Nilotic languages)

The Ethnologue, following Anbessa Tefera and Peter Unseth , consider the Shabo language to be Nilo-Saharan, but otherwise unclassified. It is sometimes considered a language isolate, following Christopher Ehret.

Some linguists, including Roger Blench , consider the Kadu languages (also called Kadugli languages or Tumtum) to be Nilo-Saharan, while others follow Greenberg in classing them as Kordofanian languages, or Ehret in considering them a small isolated family. Proposals have sometimes been made to add Mande (usually classed as Niger-Congo) to Nilo-Saharan, largely due to its many noteworthy similarities with Songhay.

The extinct Meroitic language of ancient Kush has sometimes been suggested as a probable member of Nilo-Saharan; however, too little is known of the language to classify it with any confidence. The same may reasonably be said of the rather more recently extinct Oropom language in Uganda (if it ever existed), for whom connections with Kuliak or Nilotic have been suggested.

Proposals for the external relationships of Nilo-Saharan typically center on Niger-Congo: Gregersen (1972) grouped the two together to form Kongo-Saharan , whereas Blench (1995) actually proposed that Niger-Congo may simply be a member of Nilo-Saharan (coordinate with Central Sudanic .) However, such theories are treated with reserve by most historical linguists.



Bender 1997

Lionel Bender classifies them as follows, slightly modifying his 1989 classification:

  1. Songay languages
  2. Saharan languages
  3. Kuliak languages
  4. Satellite-Core:
    1. Maban languages
    2. Fur languages
    3. Berta language
    4. Kunama language
    5. Core Nilo-Saharan languages
      1. Eastern Sudanic languages
      2. Central Sudanic languages
      3. Komuz languages
      4. Kadu language

Ehret 2001

In his reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan, Christopher Ehret classifies them in a more detailed fashion, as follows:


  • Lionel Bender , 1997. The Nilo-Saharan Languages: A Comparative Essay. München.
  • Christopher Ehret, 2001. A Historical-Comparative Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan. Köln.
  • Joseph Greenberg, 1963. The Languages of Africa (International Journal of American Linguistics 29.1). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

External relationships

  • Roger Blench . "Is Niger-Congo simply a branch of Nilo-Saharan?", in ed. Nicolai & Rottland, Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium. Nice, 24-29 August 1992. Proceedings. (Nilo-Saharan 10). Koeln: Koeppe Verlag. 1995. pp.36-49.
  • Edgar Gregersen . "Kongo-Saharan". Journal of African Languages, 11, 1:69-89. 1972.

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04