Kanuri language

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Native toNigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon , Sudan, Libya
RegionLake Chad
EthnicityKanuri (Yerwa Kanuri etc.), Kanembu
Native speakers
15,512,000 (1998-2021)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-1kr
ISO 639-2kau
ISO 639-3kau – inclusive code
Individual codes:
knc – Central Kanuri
kby – Manga Kanuri
krt – Tumari Kanuri
bms – Bilma Kanuri
kbl – Kanembu
Linguasphere02-AAA-a (+Kanembu 02-AAA-b)
Kanuri languages map 001.png
Map of the majority usage of the five major languages of the Kanuri language group.
  • BMS Kanuri, Bilma
  • KNC Kanuri, Central
  • KBY Kanuri, Manga
  • KRT Kanuri, Tumari
  • KBL Kanembu

Kanuri (/kəˈnri/[2]) is a dialect continuum spoken by some four million people, as of 1987, in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, as well as small minorities in southern Libya and by a diaspora in Sudan.


At the turn of the 21st century, its two main dialects, Manga Kanuri and Yerwa Kanuri (also called Beriberi, which its speakers consider to be pejorative), were spoken by 9,700,000 people in Central Africa.[3] It belongs to the Western Saharan subphylum of Nilo-Saharan. Kanuri is the language associated with the Kanem and Bornu empires that dominated the Lake Chad region for a thousand years.

The basic word order of Kanuri sentences is subject–object–verb. It is typologically unusual in simultaneously having postpositions and post-nominal modifiers – for example, "Bintu's pot" would be expressed as nje Bintu-be, "pot Bintu-of".[citation needed]

Kanuri has three tones: high, low, and falling. It has an extensive system of consonantal lenition; for example, sa- "they" + -buma "have eaten" → za-wuna "they have eaten".[citation needed]

Traditionally a local lingua franca, its usage has declined in recent decades. Most first-language speakers speak Hausa or Arabic as a second language.[citation needed]

Geographic distribution[edit]

Kanuri is spoken mainly in lowlands of the Chad Basin, with speakers in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Libya.[citation needed]


Ethnologue divides Kanuri into the following languages, while many linguists (e.g. Cyffer 1998) regard them as dialects of a single language. The first three are spoken by ethnic Kanuri and thought by them as dialects of their language.

The variety attested in 17th century Qur'anic glosses is known as Old Kanembu. In the context of religious recitation and commentaries, a heavily archaizing descendant of this is still used, called Tarjumo.



Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive (p) b t d k ɡ ʔ
Affricate t͡ʃ d͡ʒ
Fricative (ɸ β) f s z ʃ (ɣ) h
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Lateral l (ɭ)
Trill r
Approximant w j
  • There may also exist prenasalized voiced stop consonant sounds /mb, nd, ŋɡ/. Although it is not known whether they are considered phonemic.
  • The sound /p/ occurs mainly as an allophone of /b/, when following another voiceless plosive. It also may be in free alteration with /f/, however; it is still represented in the standard Kanuri orthography.[4]
  • A voiceless fricative [ɸ] occurs as an allophone of /f/ when preceding back vowels /o, u/. A voiced fricative [β] occurs as an allophone of /b/, when occurring in intervocalic positions. A voiced fricative [ɣ] occurs as an allophone of /ɡ/, when occurring intervocalically between central vowels.
  • A retroflex lateral sound [ɭ] is heard when /l/ is followed by /i/.
  • [ŋ] occurs as an allophone of /n/ when preceding velar stop consonants. Often, the stop sounds are deleted or misheard, so just the nasal sound [ŋ] is mainly heard.[5]


Front Central Back
Close i (ɨ) u
Close-mid e o
Mid ə
Open-mid ʌ
Open a
  • [ɨ] is heard as an allophone of /ə/.

Written Kanuri[edit]

Kanuri has been written using the Ajami Arabic script, mainly in religious or court contexts, for at least four hundred years.[6] More recently, it is also sometimes written in a modified Latin script. The Gospel of John published in 1965 was produced in Roman and Arabic script.


A standardized romanized orthography (known as the Standard Kanuri Orthography in Nigeria) was developed by the Kanuri Research Unit and the Kanuri Language Board. Its elaboration, based on the dialect of Maiduguri, was carried out by the Orthography Committee of the Kanuri Language Board, under the Chairmanship of Abba Sadiq, Waziri of Borno. It was officially approved by the Kanuri Language Board in Maiduguri, Nigeria, in 1975.[7]

Letters used : a b c d e ǝ f g h i j k l m n ny o p r ɍ s sh t u w y z.[8]

Pronouns in Kanuri
  Singular Plural
First person wú, ú àndí
Second person nàndí, nàyí
Third person tàndí, tàyí


See also[edit]


  • Norbert Cyffer & John P. Hutchison (eds.) Dictionary of the Kanuri Language (Publications in African languages and linguistics, 13). Foris Publications 1990. ISBN 90-6765-412-4.
  • Norbert Cyffer, We Learn Kanuri (book and 2 audio cassettes), ISBN 3-927620-01-7, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1993.
  • Norbert Cyffer, English-Kanuri Dictionary, ISBN 3-927620-44-0, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1994.
  • Norbert Cyffer, A Sketch of Kanuri. Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1998.
  • Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: kau


  1. ^ Kanuri at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Central Kanuri at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Manga Kanuri at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Tumari Kanuri at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Bilma Kanuri at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Kanembu at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
  2. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. ^ "Kanuri language". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. ^ Hutchison, John P. (1981). The Kanuri Language: A Reference Grammar. .: University of Wisconsin.
  5. ^ Cyffer, Norbert (1998). A sketch of Kanuri. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  6. ^ kanuri.net Archived 2006-11-08 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Dictionary of the Kanuri language. Norbert Cyffer, John P. Hutchison, 1990. ISBN 90-6765-412-4
  8. ^ According to alphabet kanuri — arrété 213-99 de la République du Niger Archived 2009-06-27 at the Wayback Machine (Chantal Enguehard – Université de Nantes) the letter schwa used in Kanuri is encoded in Unicode with U+01DD instead of U+0259, and its uppercase is Ǝ U+018E instead of Ə U+018F.
  9. ^ "Microsoft Word - Manga dictionary Unicode.doc" (PDF). Retrieved 2021-03-08.


  • Barth, Heinrich 1854. Schreiben an Prof. Lepsius uber die Beziehung der Kanori- und Teda-Sprachen. Zeitschrift für Erdkunde, 2: 372–74, 384–87.
  • Bulakarima, S. Umara 1997. Survey of Kanuri dialects. in Advances in Kanuri Scholarship, ed. N. Cyffer and T. Geider. Pp. 67–75. Cologne: Rudiger Koppe.
  • Chonai, Hassan 1998. Gruppa teda-kanuri (centraľnosaxarskaja sem’ja jazykov) i ee genetičeskie vzaimootnošenija (ėtimologičeskij i fonologičeskij aspekt). Moskva: PhD. Dissertation (Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj gumanitarnyj universitet).
  • Hutchison, John P. 1981. The Kanuri Language. A Reference Grammar. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
  • Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm 1854. Grammar of the Bornu or Kanuri Language. London: Church Missionary Society.
  • Lange, Dierk 1972. Un vocabulaire kanuri de la fin du XVIIe siècle. Cahiers d'Études africaines, 12(46): 277–290.
  • Lukas, Johannes 1937. A Study of the Kanuri Language. Grammar and Vocabulary. London: Oxford University Press.

External links[edit]