Nilo-Saharan languages: Wikis

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Nilo-Saharan
Geographic
distribution:
Central and East Africa
Genetic
classification
:
suggested association with Niger-Congo
Subdivisions:
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: ssa
Map showing the distribution of Nilo-Saharan languages

The Nilo-Saharan languages are African languages spoken mainly in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers (hence the term "Nilo-"), including historic Nubia, north of where the two tributaries of Nile meet. The languages extend through 17 nations in the northern half of Africa: from Algeria and Mali in the northwest; to Benin, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the south; and Sudan to Tanzania in the east (excluding the Horn of Africa).

The largest part of its major subfamilies are found in the modern nation of Sudan, through which the Nile River flows in all its incarnations: the White and Blue Nile, which join to form the main Nile at Khartoum. As seen in the hyphenated name (compare map at right), Nilo-Saharan is primarily a family of the African interior, including the greater Nile basin and its tributaries as well as the central Sahara desert.

Joseph Greenberg named the group and argued it was genetic in his 1963 book The Languages of Africa and earlier papers. It includes languages not included in the Niger-Congo family Greenberg introduced in the same work or in the Afroasiatic or Khoisan families.

Contents

Characteristics

Roughly 11 million people spoke Nilo-Saharan languages as of 1987, according to Merritt Ruhlen's estimate.

A characteristic feature of the family is a tripartite singulative–collective–plurative number system, which is found in every branch but Gumuz. Internally, Nilo-Saharan is quite diverse.

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Major Languages

Within the larger Nilo-Saharan language family are a number of major African languages with at least half a million speakers (SIL Ethnologue, 2005 figures):

  • Luo (3,465,000 speakers), extending from Kenya and eastern Uganda into Tanzania, and the language of the Luo, Kenya's third largest major ethnic group (after the Niger-Congo Kikuyu and Luhya). (The term "Luo", somewhat confusingly, is also used for the larger classification within the Western Nilotic subfamily that includes Kenyan Luo/Dholuo among its 15 members.)
  • Kanuri (3,340,000, all dialects), with speakers found from Niger to northeastern Nigeria, where it is a major national ethnic group.
  • Songhay (2.9 million, all dialects), with its speakers widely spread along the Niger River in Mali and Burkina Faso. The largest variety is Zarma, a major language of Niger, while Songhay is also spoken throughout the historic Songhai Empire, including its former capital Gao and the well-known city of Timbuktu. Its inclusion in the Nilo-Saharan family is controversial, however.
  • Dinka (2,000,000 +), found within Southern Sudan, the language of one of the most powerful Southern Sudanese ethnic groups.
  • Lango (977,680), spoken by one of Uganda's major ethnicities, found in Lango region in the center of the country. Along with the Acholi people (below), the Lango people were targets of severe ethnic persecution under dictator Idi Amin, a member of a fellow Nilo-Saharan ethnicity, the Kakwa.
  • Masai (883,000), spoken by the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania, one of the most well-known African ethnic groups internationally.[1]
  • Nuer (804,907), the language of the Nuer tribe, another powerful Southern Sudanese ethnicity.
  • Acholi (791,796), the other member of the Luo-Acholi subfamily within Western Nilotic, spoken in Acholiland in Uganda and in Opari District of Sudan. It is closely related to Lango.
  • Fur (501,800), notable as one of the major languages of Darfur (lit. "the home of the Fur" in Arabic).
  • Nubian (495,000, all dialects), the language of Nubia, extending today from southern Egypt into northern Sudan.

Internal relationships

Dimmendaal (2008) notes that Greenberg (1963) based his conclusion on sound evidence, and that the proposal has become more convincing in the decades since. Mikkola (1999) reviewed Greenberg's evidence and found it convincing. Koman and Gumuz, however, are very poorly known, and therefore difficult to classify, but Songhai has been extensively studied and has yet to be convincingly shown to belong. Roger Blench, on the other hand, notes morphological similarities in all branches but Gumuz, which leads him to believe that the family is likely valid but that Gumuz is a language isolate.

Most linguists who accept Nilo-Saharan accept Songhay as well, and posit that it is divergent due to massive influence from the Mande languages. Christopher Ehret attempts to show Songhay is particularly closely related to the Maban branch of Nilo-Saharan. However, both Bender and Blench note several methodological flaws in Ehret's study, and a failure to provide any evidence for his subclassification.

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 the Hadza or Dahalo and shifted incompletely to Nilo-Saharan.

Ehret and Dimmendaal (who had originally supported the inclusion) believe the Kadu languages (also called Kadugli or Tumtum) to form a small family of their own. The Ethnologue by SIL, following Anbessa Tefera and Peter Unseth, considers the poorly attested Shabo language to be Nilo-Saharan, but otherwise unclassified due to lack of data. Ehret and Dimmendaal consider it to be a language isolate on current evidence. Proposals have sometimes been made to add Mande (usually classed as Niger-Congo) to Nilo-Saharan, largely due to its many noteworthy similarities with Songhay. However, most linguists believe that the similarities are due to Mande influence on Songhay, as noted above.

Recently, 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.

Various subclassifications have been proposed. However, each of the proposed internal groups has been rejected by other researchers: Greenberg's Komuz and Chari-Nile by Bender and Blench, Bender's core Nilo-Saharan by Dimmendaal, and Ehret's Sahelian etc. by all of them. What remains are eight (Dimmendaal) to twelve (Bender) families of no consensus arrangement.

Greenberg, modified by Bender 1989

According to Joseph Greenberg (The Languages of Africa) as initially modified by Lionel Bender, they are classified into the following branches:

 Nilo-Saharan 
 Komuz 

Koman



Gumuz




Saharan



Songhay



Fur



Maban


 Chari-Nile 

Central Sudanic



Kunama



Berta



Eastern Sudanic (including Kuliak, Nubian and Nilotic)




The Komuz and Chari-Nile groups were later abandoned by Bender.

Bender 2000

By 2000 Bender had abandoned the Chari-Nile and Komuz branches, and added Kadu, and removed Kuliak from Eastern Sudanic. He states that Shabo cannot yet be adequately classified, but may prove to be Nilo-Saharan.

 Nilo-Saharan 

Songhay



Saharan



Kuliak


 Satellite-Core 

Maban



Fur



Central Sudanic



Berta



Kunama


 Core 

Eastern Sudanic



Koman



Gumuz



Kadu





Dimendaal's exclusion (pending further evidence) of Koman, Gumuz, and Kadu would eliminate Bender's Core Nilo-Saharan. Widespread doubt about Songhai and Blench's suggestion that Kuliak is divergent due to an origin in incomplete language shift would blur the distinction between Bender's periphery and his Satellite-Core.

Ehret 2001 [1984]

In his non-peer reviewed 2001 reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan, circulated in manuscript form since 1984 and first published in 1989, 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:

 Nilo-
Saharan 
 Sudanic 

Central Sudanic


 North 
 Sudanic 
 Saharo- 
 Sahelian 
 Sahelian 

Fur


 Trans- 
 Sahel 
 Western 
 Sahelian 

Songhay



Maban




Eastern Sudanic ("Eastern Sahelian", includes Berta)





Saharan




Kunama





Koman



Blench notes that Ehret failed to consider existing scholarship, such as reconstructions of Proto-Central and Proto-Eastern Sudanic, and provided no evidence whatsoever for his classification. It has not been followed by other researchers.

External relations

Proposals for the external relationships of Nilo-Saharan typically center on Niger-Congo: Gregersen (1972) grouped the two together to form Kongo-Saharan, whereas Blench (1995) proposed that Niger-Congo may simply be a member of Nilo-Saharan (coordinate with Central Sudanic.) However, such proposals are treated with reserve by most historical linguists.

See also

References

  1. ^ Lewis, M. Paul, ed. (2009), "Maasai: A language of Kenya", Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Sixteenth ed.), Dallas, TX, http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=mas  .

Further reading

  • Lionel Bender, 2000. "Nilo-Saharan". In Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.

External relationships

  • Roger Blench. "Is Niger-Congo simply a branch of Nilo-Saharan?", in ed. Nicolai & Rottland, Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium. Nice, 24-29 August 1992. Proceedings. (Nilo-Saharan 10). Koeln: Koeppe Verlag. 1995. pp. 36-49.
  • Gregersen, Edgar (1972). "Kongo-Saharan". Journal of African Languages 11 (1): 69–89.  

External links


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