Iraqw language

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Kángw Iraqw
Native toTanzania
RegionArusha Region
Native speakers
603,000 (2009)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3irk
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Two Iraqw speakers, recorded in Tanzania for Wikitongues.

Iraqw is a Cushitic language spoken in Tanzania in the Arusha and Manyara Regions. It is expanding in numbers as the Iraqw people absorb neighbouring ethnic groups. The language has many Datooga loanwords, especially in poetic language. The Gorowa language to the south shares numerous similarities and is sometimes considered a dialect.



Whiteley (1958) lists the following vowel phonemes for Iraqw. All of the vowels except /ə/ occur in both short and long versions:

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


Whiteley (1958) and Mous (1993) list the following consonants:

Iraqw consonant phonemes
  Labial Alveolar Palatal /
Velar/Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Central Lateral Plain Labialized
Nasal m n ŋ ⟨ng⟩ ŋʷ
Plosive/Affricate Voiceless p t k
Voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ
Laryngealized tsʼ tɬʼ ⟨tl⟩ qʼ ~ qχʼ qʷʼ ~ qχʷʼ ʔ ⟨'⟩
Fricative f s ɬ ⟨sl⟩ ʃ ⟨sh⟩ x (voiceless) ħ ⟨hh⟩ (voiced) ʕ ⟨/⟩ h
Trill r
Approximant l j ⟨y⟩ w

In the popular orthography for Iraqw used in Lutheran and Catholic materials as well as in collections of traditional Iraqw stories[3] and academic literature (e.g. Nordbustad 1988,[4] Mous 1993 [5]), the majority of the orthography follows the Swahili orthography with the addition of x and q. Other additions to the orthography are the sound ɬ is spelled ⟨sl⟩, the tɬʼ os spelled ⟨tl⟩, the ħ is spelled ⟨hh⟩, and ʕ is spelled ⟨/⟩ (Mous 1993:16).


Noun morphology[edit]


Nouns in Iraqw have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of a noun can be deduced from the type of agreement that it triggers on other elements in the sentence, but the agreement system is unusual, and obeys the following principle (Mous 1993:41):

  • Masculine nouns require the masculine form of the verb
  • Feminine nouns require the feminine form of the verb
  • Neuter nouns require the plural form of the verb

The masculine, feminine, and plural forms of the verb are identified by the form the verb takes when the subject is pronoun which is a.) a third person masculine singular ('he'), b.) a third person feminine singular ('she'), or c.) a third person plural ('they').

Masculine verb forms
Daaqay i giilín i giilín
boys(MASC) S.3 fight:3.SG.M S.3 fight:3.SG.M
'The boys are fighting' 'He is fighting'
Feminine verb forms
Hhayse i harweeriiríin i harweeriiríin
tails(FEM) S.3 make:circles:3.SG.F S.3 make:circles:3.SG.F
'The tails are making circles' 'She is making circles'
Neuter verb forms
Hhayso i harweeriiríná' i harweeriiríná'
tail(NEUTER) S.3 make:circles:3.SG.PL S.3 make:circles:3.SG.PL
'The tail is making circles' 'They are making circles'

There are several unusual things that are worth noting. One is that 'tail' is neuter in the singular and feminine in the plural; despite this, the plural verb form is used for 'tail', since it is neuter, and neuters use the plural verb form. This is why "plural" is often used as a label for this gender; plural gender is common in a number of Cushitic languages. Another is that the verbs do not agree with their subjects in number, so the masculine plural daaqay 'boys' takes the masculine form of the verb, not the plural form of the verb.


Nouns typically have separate singular and plural forms, but there are many distinct plural suffixes. Mous (1993:44) reports that there are fourteen different plural suffixes. The lexical entry for a noun must specify the particular plural suffix it takes.

The gender of a plural noun is usually different from the gender of the corresponding singular. Compare the following singular and plural nouns, with their genders:

singular singular gender plural plural gender meaning
awu m awe f bull
bila' m bil'aawe f cliff
nyaqot m nyaqootma' f colobus monkey
hhampa m hhampeeri n wing
tlanka f tlankadu n bridge
lama f lameemo n lie
slanú m slaneemo n python
xweera n xweer(a)du n night

While it is not possible to predict the gender of a noun or which plural suffix it will take, the form of the plural suffix determines the gender of the plural noun. So, for example, all plural nouns with the /-eemo/ suffix are neuter (Mous 1993:58).

Construct case suffixes and gender linkers[edit]

The gender of a noun is important for predicting the construct case suffix and the gender linker that it will use. When a noun is directly followed by

  • an adjective
  • a possessive noun phrase
  • a numeral
  • a relative clause
  • a verb

then a construct case suffix must appear after the noun. The construct case marker is /-ú/ or /-kú/ for masculine nouns; /-Hr/ or /-tá/ for feminine nouns; and /-á/ for neuter nouns (Mous 1993:95-96):

hhar-tá baabú-'ee'
stick-construct:fem father-1sgPoss
'the stick of my father'
waahlá-r ur
python-construct:fem big
'big python'
an-á hiim-ú urúux
1sg-S:1/2 rope-construct:masc pull:1sg
'I pull the rope'

The gender linkers are similar to the construct cases suffixes, but appear between the noun and other suffixes (such as the demonstrative, indefinite, and possessive suffixes). The following example shows masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns before the 'their' possessive suffix and the demonstrative -qá' 'that (far, but visible)' (Mous 1993:90-92)

masculine feminine neuter
gura' 'stomach' hasam 'dilemma' hhafeeto 'mats'
guru-'ín 'their stomach' hasam-ar-'ín 'their dilemma' hhafeeto-'ín
stomach:M-3plPoss dilemma-F-3plPoss mats:N-3plPoss
guru-qá' 'that stomach' hasam-ar-qá' 'that dilemma' hhafeeto-qá' 'those mats'
stomach:M-that dilemma-F-that mats:N-that

Adverbial case clitics[edit]

Iraqw has four adverbial case clitics: the directive, the ablative, the instrumental and the reason case clitics. Adverbial case clitics occur in the position immediately before the verb and are cliticised to the preceding noun with the gender linker, or they might occur in a position after the verb, in which case they are obligatorily followed by a resumptive pronoun alé.

Cases Clitic Example
Directive i tlakway-í dahas-eek bará hhar-ti alé
sack-DEM1 put-IMP.SG.O in:CON stick-F1:DIR RESPRO
'Put this sack on a stick.'[5]
Ablative wa naxés ba’ari ni-na bará sla/a-tá-wa ti’it
well bees PL-PST in:CON bush-F1-ABL appear:3SG.F
‘Then bees appeared from the bush.’[6]
Instrumental ar aná dab-ar fool-íit
1.SG-S.1/2 hands-INSTR dig-MIDDLE:1.SG
'I dig with my hands.' [5]
Reason sa a ki/ima-wók-sa gurhamut-a?
S.1/2 return-2.SG.POSS-REAS regret:2.SG:INT-INF
'Do you regret your return?' [5]


Noun phrases[edit]

The noun comes first in the noun phrase, and precedes possessors, adjectives, numerals, and relative clauses. An element called the construct case suffix appears between the noun and these modifiers, as discussed in the Morphology section above:

hhar- baabú-'ee'
stick-construct:fem father-1sgPoss
'the stick of my father'
waahlá-r ur
python-construct:fem big
'big python'


An Iraqw sentence contains a verb in final position, and an auxiliary-like element called the 'selector'. Either the subject or the object of the sentence may precede the selector (Mous 2004:110), and the selector agrees with the preceding noun. So in the first example below, iri shows agreement with /ameenirdá' 'that woman', and in the second example, uná shows agreement with gitladá' :

/ameeni-r-dá' i-ri tsuwa fa/á-r /agagiin.
woman-fem-that S.3-narrative:past for.sure food-construct:fem eat:impf:3s
'And that woman was surely eating.'
('aníng) gitla-dá' 'u-na aahhiit
I man-that obj:masc-past hate:1sg
'I hate that man.'


  1. ^ "Iraqw". Ethnologue. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Iraqw". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Berger, Paul Hrsg. (1998). Iraqw texts. Köppe. ISBN 3-927620-34-3. OCLC 722327455.
  4. ^ Gilligan, Gary; Nordbustad, Fro̵dis; Nordbustad, Frodis (June 1990). "Iraqw Grammar: An Analytical Study of the Iraqw Language". Language. 66 (2): 422. doi:10.2307/414919. ISSN 0097-8507. JSTOR 414919.
  5. ^ a b c d Mous, Maarten. (1993). A grammar of Iraqw. Buske. ISBN 3-87548-057-0. OCLC 243743981.
  6. ^ Kruijt, Anne (2018-11-06). "The use of the ablative clitic in locative phrases in Iraqw, a Cushitic language of Tanzania". Journal of African Languages and Linguistics. 39 (2): 241–265. doi:10.1515/jall-2018-0009. ISSN 0167-6164. S2CID 149938579.
  • Mous, Maarten. 1993. A grammar of Iraqw. Hamburg: Buske.
  • Mous, Maarten, Martha Qorro, Roland Kießling. 2002. Iraqw-English Dictionary. With an English and a Thesaurus Index. Cushitic Language Studies Volume 18.
  • Whiteley, W.H. 1958. A short description of item categories in Iraqw. Kampala:East African Institute of Social Research.

External links[edit]