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Spoken in  Niger,  Nigeria,  Chad,  Cameroon
Region West Africa
Total speakers 4 million
Language family Nilo-Saharan(controversial)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 kr
ISO 639-2 kau
ISO 639-3 variously:
kau – Kanuri (generic)
knc – Central Kanuri
kby – Manga Kanuri
krt – Tumari Kanuri
bms – Bilma Kanuri
kbl – Kanembu
Map of the majority usage of the five major languages of the Kanuri language group. *BMS Kanuri, Bilma *KNC Kanuri, Central *KNY Kanuri, Manga *KRT Kanuri, Tumari *KBL Kanembu

Kanuri is a dialect continuum spoken by approximately four million people in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, as well as small minorities in southern Libya and by a diaspora in Sudan. It belongs to the Western Saharan subphylum of Nilo-Saharan. Kanuri is the language associated with the Kanem and Bornu empires which 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".

Kanuri has three tones: high, low, and falling. It has an extensive system of consonant weakening (for example, sa- "they" + -buna "have eaten" > za-wuna "they have eaten".

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


Geographic distribution

Kanuri is spoken mainly in lowlands of the Lake Chad basin, with speakers in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan.

Dialects or languages

The Ethnologue divides Kanuri into the following languages, while many linguists (eg Cyffer 1998) regard them as dialects of a single language:

  • Central Kanuri
  • Manga Kanuri
  • Tumari Kanuri
  • Kanembu

SIL considers "Kanuri" a "macrolanguage" grouping the first three.

Written Kanuri

Kanuri has been written using the Ajami Arabic script, mainly in religious or court contexts, for at least four hundred years[1]. More recently, it is also sometimes written in a modified Latin 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 Committe 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.[1]

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.[2]


  • Ethnologue report for Kanuri
  • Norbert Cyffer, We Learn Kanuri (book and 2 audio cassettes), ISBN 3927620017, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1993.
  • Norbert Cyffer, English-Kanuri Dictionary, ISBN 3927620440, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1994.
  • Norbert Cyffer, A Sketch of Kanuri. Rüdiger Köppe Verlag: Köln 1998.
  • Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: kau


  1. ^ Dictionary of the Kanuri language. Norbert Cyffer, John P. Hutchison, 1990. ISBN 9067654124]
  2. ^ According to alphabet kanuri — arrété 213-99 de la République du Niger (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.

External links


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