Nilo-Saharan Languages

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Nilo-Saharan Languages


one of the four major groups of African languages. In 1963 the American scholar J. Greenberg proposed the inclusion in the Nilo-Saharan macrofamily of language families and groups that are considered independent by some scholars. The genetic unity of the Nilo-Saharan languages is hypothetical. The precise limits of the family have not been defined, since the languages have been insufficiently studied. Most of the Nilo-Saharan languages are distributed north of the equator, in the Sahara, Upper Nile basin, and east of Lake Victoria. The number of speakers is approximately 16 million (1970, estimate).

The Nilo-Saharan languages consist of six branches: Songhai, Saharan (Kanuri, Teda, Zaghawa, Berti), Maban (Maba, Mimi, Runga), Furian (Fur), Chari-Nile (Nilotic languages, Nubian, Murle, Temein, Tama, Dagu, Kreish, Madi, Mangbetu, Berta, Kunama), and Coman (Koma). The Meroitic language may also be related to the Nilo-Saharan languages.

Greenberg has pointed out a number of features shared by all or a majority of the Nilo-Saharan languages but difficult to explain as a result of recent typological affinity or borrowings between languages. Among these common features are the material correspondence of the pronominal markers of the first person singular (a) and the second person singular (i), the material correspondence of a number of other noun and verb formants, and the alternation of the apical consonants t and n in the singular with k in the plural. More than 160 lexical correspondences have been noted (for example, Songhai kuki, Teda gore, Mimt ari, and Madi kariari—all meaning “blood”). The typological features characteristic of most Nilo-Saharan languages include an inflectional structure with a tendency toward analysis and strict word order, the absence of noun classes, presence of tones (with division of stems according to tone classes), and the prevalence of internal inflection employing consonantal interchange and vowel and tonal gradation.


Tucker, A. N., and M. A. Bryan. Linguistic Analyses: The Non-Bantu Languages of North-Eastern Africa. London, 1966.
Greenberg, J. H. The Languages of Africa, 2nd ed. The Hague, 1966.
Greenberg, J. H. “Nilo-Saharan and Meroitic.” Current Trends in Linguistics, 1971, vol. 7.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Nilo-Saharan language speakers, particularly Central Sudanians and Eastern Sahelians, began to occupy the Western Rift valley and Great Lake areas (today this area is part of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) by 2000 BCE.
Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken by peoples not well known to the general public.