|Central and East Africa|
|Linguistic classification:||One of the world's primary language families|
|ISO 639-2 / 5:||ssa|
Map showing the distribution of Nilo-Saharan languages
The Nilo-Saharan languages are a proposed family of African languages spoken by some 50 million people, mainly in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers, including historic Nubia, north of where the two tributaries of the Nile meet. The languages extend through 17 nations in the northern half of Africa: from Algeria to Benin in west; from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the center; and from Egypt to Tanzania in the east.
Eight of its proposed constituent divisions (excluding Kunama, Kuliak, and Songhay) are found in the modern nation of Sudan, through which the Nile River flows. As indicated by its hyphenated name, Nilo-Saharan is a family of the African interior, including the greater Nile basin and the central Sahara desert.
Joseph Greenberg named the group and argued it was a genetic family in his 1963 book The Languages of Africa. It contains the languages not included in the Niger–Congo, Afroasiatic, or Khoisan families. It has not been demonstrated that the Nilo-Saharan languages constitute a valid genetic grouping, and linguists have generally seen the phylum as "Greenberg's wastebasket", into which he placed all the otherwise unaffiliated non-click languages of Africa. Its supporters accept that it is a challenging proposal to demonstrate, but contend that it looks more promising the more work is done.
Some of the constituent groups of Nilo-Saharan are estimated to predate the African neolithic. Thus, the unity of Eastern Sudanic is estimated to date to at least the 5th millennium BC. Nilo-Saharan genetic unity would necessarily be much older still and date to the late Upper Paleolithic.
The constituent families of Nilo-Saharan are quite diverse. One characteristic feature is a tripartite singulative–collective–plurative number system, which Blench (2010) believes is a result of a noun-classifier system in the protolanguage. The distribution of the families may reflect ancient water courses in a green Sahara, when the desert was more habitable than it is today.
Within the Nilo-Saharan languages are a number of languages with at least a million speakers. Most data from Ethnologue 16 (2009):
- Luo (Dholuo, 4.4 million). Dholuo language of the Luo, Kenya's third largest ethnicity after the Niger–Congo Kikuyu and Luhya). (The term "Luo" is also used for a wider group of languages which includes Dholuo.)
- Kanuri (4.0 million, all dialects; 4.7 million if Kanembu is included). The major ethnicity around Lake Chad.
- Songhay (3.2 million all dialects, mostly Zarma). Spread along the Niger River in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, throughout the historic Songhai Empire, including its former capital Gao and the well-known city of Timbuktu.
- Teso (1.9 million). Related to Maasai.
- Nubian (1.7 million, all dialects). The language of Nubia, extending today from southern Egypt into northern Sudan.
- Lugbara (1.7 million, 2.2 if Aringa (Low Lugbara) is included). The major Central Saharan language. Of Uganda and Congo.
- Kalenjin (1.6 million, all dialects, such as Nandi and Pokot). Kenyan Rift Valley.
- Lango (1.5 million). A Luo language, one of the major languages of Uganda.
- Dinka (1.4 million). The major ethnicity of South Sudan.
- Acholi (1.2 million). Another Luo language of Uganda.
- Maasai (1.0 million). Spoken by the Maasai people of Kenya, one of the most well-known African peoples internationally.
- Ngambay (1.0 million with Laka). Central Sudanic, the principal language of southern Chad.
- Nuer (800,000 in 1982, significantly more today). The language of the Nuer, another numerous South Sudanese people.
- Fur (500,000 in 1983, significantly more today). The eponymous language of Darfur.
- Tubu (350,000 to 400,000) One of the northernmost Nilosaharan languages, extending from Nigeria, Niger, Chad into Libya. Most Tubu speakers live in northern Chad close to the Tibesti mountains. Tubu has two main dialects: Dazaga and Tedaga.
The total for all Nilo-Saharan languages in Ethnologue 16 is 38–39 million. However, the data spans a range from ca. 1980 to 2005, with a weighted median at ca. 1990. Given population growth rates, the figure in 2010 might be half again higher.
History of the proposal
The Saharan family was recognized by Heinrich Barth in 1853, the Nilotic languages by Karl Richard Lepsius in 1880, the various constituent branches of Central Sudanic (but not the connection between them) by Friedrich Müller in 1889, and the Maban family by Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes in 1907. The first inklings of a wider family came in 1912, when Diedrich Westermann included three of the (still independent) Central Sudanic families within Nilotic in a proposal he called Niloto-Sudanic; this expanded Nilotic was in turn linked to Nubian, Kunama, and possibly Berta, essentially Greenberg's Macro-Sudanic (Chari–Nile) proposal of 1954. In 1920 G. W. Murray fleshed out the Eastern Sudanic languages when he grouped Nilotic, Nubian, Nera, Gaam, and Kunama. Carlo Conti Rossini made similar proposals in 1926, and in 1935 Westermann added Murle. In 1940 A. N. Tucker published evidence linking five of the six branches of Central Sudanic alongside his more explicit proposal for East Sudanic. In 1950 Greenberg retained Eastern Sudanic and Central Sudanic as separate families, but accepted Westermann's conclusions of four decades earlier in 1954 when he linked them together as Macro-Sudanic (later Chari–Nile, from the Chari and Nile watersheds). Greenberg's later contribution came in 1963, when he tied Chari–Nile to Songhai, Saharan, Maban, Fur, and Koman-Gumuz and coined the current name Nilo-Saharan for the resulting family. Lionel Bender noted that Chari–Nile was a historical artifact of the discovery of the family, and did not reflect an exclusive relationship between these languages, and the group has been abandoned, with its constituents becoming primary branches of Nilo-Saharan—or, equivalently, Chari–Nile and Nilo-Saharan have merged, with the name Nilo-Saharan retained. When it was realized that the Kadu languages were not Niger–Congo, they were commonly assumed to therefore be Nilo-Saharan, but evidence for this has not been presented.
Although progress has been made since Greenberg established the plausibility of the family, Nilo-Saharan has not actually been demonstrated. Koman and Gumuz remain poorly attested, and so are difficult to work with, while arguments continue over the inclusion of Songhai. Blench (2010) believes that the distribution of Nilo-Saharan reflects the waterways of the wet Sahara 12,000 years ago, and that the protolanguage had noun classifiers, which today are reflected in a diverse range of prefixes, suffixes, and number marking.
Dimmendaal (2008) notes that Greenberg (1963) based his conclusion on sound evidence, and that the proposal as a whole has become more convincing in the decades since. Mikkola (1999) reviewed Greenberg's evidence and found it convincing. Roger Blench notes morphological similarities in all putative branches, which leads him to believe that the family is likely to be valid.
Koman and Gumuz, however, are poorly known, and have been difficult to evaluate until recently. Songhai is markedly divergent, probably due to massive influence from the Mande languages. Also problematic are the Kuliak languages, which are spoken by hunter-gatherers and appear to retain a non-Nilo-Saharan core; Blench believes they may have been similar to Hadza or Dahalo and shifted incompletely to Nilo-Saharan.
Dimmendaal (who had originally supported their inclusion) believes the Kadu languages form a small family of their own. Anbessa Tefera and Peter Unseth consider the poorly attested Shabo language to be Nilo-Saharan, though unclassified within the family due to lack of data; Dimmendaal considers it to be a language isolate on current evidence. Proposals have sometimes been made to add Mande (usually included in Niger–Congo), largely due to its many noteworthy similarities with Songhay rather than with Nilo-Saharan as a whole.
The extinct Meroitic language of ancient Kush has been accepted by linguists such as Rille, Dimmendaal, and Blench as Nilo-Saharan, though others argue for an Afroasiatic affiliation. It is poorly attested.
There is little doubt that the constituent families of Nilo-Saharan—of which only Eastern Sudanic and Central Sudanic show much internal diversity—are valid groups. However, there have been several conflicting classifications in grouping them together. Each of the proposed higher-order groups has been rejected by other researchers: Greenberg's Chari–Nile by Bender and Blench, Bender's Core Nilo-Saharan by Dimmendaal and Blench, and Ehret's Sahelian etc. by everyone. What remains are eight (Dimmendaal) to twelve (Bender) constituent families of no consensus arrangement.
Gumuz was not recognized as distinct from neighboring Koman; it was separated out (forming "Komuz") by Bender (1989).
By 2000 Bender had abandoned the Chari–Nile and Komuz branches, added Kadu, and removed Kuliak from Eastern Sudanic. He stated that Shabo could not yet be adequately classified, but might prove to be Nilo-Saharan.
With a better understanding of Nilo-Saharan classifiers, and the affixes or number marking they have developed into in various branches, Blench believes that all of the families postulated as Nilo-Saharan belong together. He proposes the following tentative internal classification, with Shabo closest to Koman and Gumuz, and Songhai closest to Saharan, a relationship which had not previously been suggested:
Ehret 1984 (1989, 2001)
In his non-peer reviewed 2001 reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan, circulated in manuscript form since 1984 and first published in 1989, historian Christopher Ehret classifies the families in a radically different fashion, moving Koman to the periphery, Songhay deep into the family next to Maban, and Berta into East Sudanic:
Blench notes that Ehret failed to consider existing scholarship, such as reconstructions of Proto-Central and Proto-Eastern Sudanic, and provided no evidence for his classification. It has not been accepted by linguists.
Proposals for the external relationships of Nilo-Saharan typically center on Niger–Congo: Gregersen (1972) grouped the two together as Kongo–Saharan. However, Blench (2011) proposed that the similarities between Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan (specifically Atlantic–Congo and Central Sudanic) are due to contact, with the noun-class system of Niger–Congo developed from, or elaborated on the model of, the noun classifiers of Central Sudanic.
- Lyle Campbell & Mauricio J. Mixco, A Glossary of Historical Linguistics (2007, University of Utah Press)
- P.H. Matthews, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics (2007, 2nd edition, Oxford)
- Gerrit J. Dimmendaal, "Nilo-Saharan Languages," International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (1992, Oxford), volume 3, pp. 100-104
- M. Lionel Bender, "Nilo-Saharan," African Languages, An Introduction (2000, Cambridge), pp. 43-73.
- Blench & Ahland (2010)
- John Desmond Clark, From Hunters to Farmers: The Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa, University of California Press, 1984, p. 31
- Drake NA, Blench RM, Armitage SJ, Bristow CS, White KH. 2011. "Ancient watercourses and biogeography of the Sahara explain the peopling of the desert." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2011 Jan 11, 108(2):458–62.
- Lewis, M. Paul, ed. (2009). "Maasai: A language of Kenya". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Sixteenth ed.). Dallas, TX. Unknown parameter
- Diedrich Westermann, 1912. The Shilluk people, their language and folklore
- Blench (2000), review, Afrika und Übersee, vol. 83
- Lionel Bender, 1996. The Nilo-Saharan languages: a comparative essay. Munich: Lincom Europa.
- Lionel Bender, 2000. "Nilo-Saharan". In Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
- Roger Blench and Colleen Ahland, 2010. "The Classification of Gumuz and Koman Languages", presented at the Language Isolates in Africa workshop, Lyons, December 4
- Gerrit Dimmendaal, 2008. "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", Language and Linguistics Compass 2/5:842.
- 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.
- Pertti Mikkola, 1999. "Nilo-Saharan revisited: some observations concerning the best etymologies". Nordic Journal of African Studies, 8(2):108–138.
- Roger Blench, 2011. "Can Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic help us understand the evolution of Niger-Congo noun classes?", CALL 41, Leiden
- Gregersen, Edgar (1972). "Kongo-Saharan". Journal of African Languages 11 (1): 69–89.
- Nilo-Saharan Trees in the MultiTree Project at the LINGUIST List
- Roger Blench: Nilo-Saharan
- Nilo-Saharan list (Blench 2012)
- Nilo-Saharan Newsletter
- Map of Nilo-Saharan