Bilen language

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ብሊና, ብሊን
Regioncentral Eritrea and eastern Sudan
EthnicityBilen people
Native speakers
91,000 (2006)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2byn
ISO 639-3byn
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

[3] The Bilen language (ብሊና b(ɨ)lina or ብሊን b(ɨ)lin) is spoken by the Bilen people in and around the city of Keren in Eritrea and Kassala in eastern Sudan. It is the only Agaw (Central Cushitic) language spoken in Eritrea. It is spoken by about 120,000 people.

Spelling of the name[edit]

"Blin" is the English spelling preferred by native speakers,[citation needed] but Bilin and Bilen are also commonly used. Bilin is the reference name arbitrarily used in the current initial English editions of ISO 639-3, but Blin is also listed as an equivalent name without preference. In the English list of ISO 639-2, Blin is listed in first position in both English and French lists, when Bilin is listed as an alternate name in the English list, and Bilen is the alternate name in the French list. The Ethnologue report lists Bilen as the preferred name, but also Bogo, Bogos, Bilayn, Bilin, Balen, Beleni, Belen, Bilein, Bileno, North Agaw as alternative names.


It is not clear if Bilen has tone. It may have pitch accent (Fallon 2004) as prominent syllables always have a high tone, but not all words have such a syllable.


Vowel phonemes
  Front Central Back
High i ɨ u
Mid e ə o
Low a


Note: /tʃ/ is found in loans, and the status of /ʔ/ as a phoneme is uncertain.

/r/ is typically realised as a tap when it is medial and a trill when it is in final position.

Consonant phonemes
  Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Postalveolar
or palatal
Velar Pharyn-
plain labialized
Plosive /
voiceless t (tʃ) k (ʔ)
voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ
ejective tʃʼ kʷʼ
Nasal m n ŋ ŋʷ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ x ħ h
voiced z ʕ
Rhotic r
Approximant central j w
lateral l

Fallon (2001, 2004) notes intervocalic lenition, such as /b/[β]; syncope, as in the name of the language, /bɨlín/[blín]; debuccalization with secondary articulation preserved, as in /dérekʷʼa/[dɛ́rɛʔʷa] 'mud for bricks'. Intriguingly, the ejectives have voiced allophones, which according to Fallon (2004) "provides an important empirical precedent" for one of the more criticized aspects of the glottalic theory of Indo-European. For example,

Ejective consonant Voiced allophone Gloss
/laħátʃʼɨna/ [laħádʒɨna] 'to bark'
/kʼaratʃʼna/ [kʼaradʒna] 'to cut'
/kʷʼakʷʼito/ [ɡʷaʔʷito] 'he was afraid'

Writing system[edit]

Ge'ez abugida[edit]

See also: Ge'ez alphabet#Modifications for other languages

A writing system for Bilen was first developed by missionaries who used the Ge'ez abugida and the first text was published in 1882. Although the Ge'ez script is usually used for Semitic languages, the phonemes of Bilen are very similar (7 vowels, labiovelar and ejective consonants). The script therefore requires only a slight modification (the addition of consonants for ŋ and ŋʷ) to make it suitable for Bilen. Some of the additional symbols required to write Bilen with this script are in the "Ethiopic Extended" Unicode range rather than the "Ethiopic" range.

Blin Ethiopic Characters
IPA e u i a ie ɨ/- o ʷe ʷi ʷa ʷie ʷɨ/-
IPA e u i a ie ɨ/- o ʷe ʷi ʷa ʷie ʷɨ/-

Latin alphabet[edit]

In 1985 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front decided to use the Latin script for Bilen and all other non-Semitic languages in Eritrea. This was largely a political decision: the Ge'ez script is associated with Christianity because of its liturgical use. The Latin alphabet is seen as being more neutral and secular. In 1993 the government set up a committee to standardize the Bilen language and the Latin-based orthography. "This overturned a 110-year tradition of writing Blin in Ethiopic script." (Fallon, Bilen Orthography [4])

As of 1997, the alphabetic order was:

e, u, i, a, é, o, b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z, ñ, ñw, th, ch, sh, kh, kw, hw, qw, gw.

Also khw.

Their values are similar to the IPA apart from the following:

Letter Value
é ɨ
c ʕ
x ħ
y j
ñ ŋ
ch tʃʼ
sh ʃ
kh x

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bilen at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Bilin". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Michie, James (1982). "Good Morning, Good Evening". Grand Street. 1 (4): 110. doi:10.2307/25006440. ISSN 0734-5496.
  4. ^ Paul D. Fallon (18 September 2006). "Blin Orthography: A History and an Assessment" (PDF). Retrieved 1 June 2014.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • F.R. Palmer. 1958. "The noun in Bilin," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 21:376-391.
  • Leo Reinisch. 1882. Die Bilin-Sprache in Nordost-Afrika. Vienna: Carl Gerold's Sohn.
  • A.N. Tucker & M.A. Bryan. 1966. Linguistic Analyses: The Non-Bantu Languages of North-Eastern Africa. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Paul Fallon, 2001. "Some phonological processes in Bilin". In Simpson, ed, Proceedings of the 27th annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society.
  • ——— 2004. "The best is not good enough". In Akinlabi & Adesola, eds, Proceedings: 4th World Congress of African Linguistics