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|Central and East Africa|
|Linguistic classification:||One of the world's primary language families|
|ISO 639-2 and 639-5:||ssa|
Map showing the distribution of Nilo-Saharan languages
The Nilo-Saharan languages are a proposed family of African languages spoken by some 50 million people, 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 to Benin in west; from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the center; and from Egypt to Tanzania in the east.
Eight of its proposed constituent divisions (excluding Kunama, Kuliak, and Songhay) are found in the modern nation of Sudan, through which the Nile River flows. As indicated by its hyphenated name, Nilo-Saharan is a family of the African interior, including the greater Nile basin and the central Sahara desert.
Joseph Greenberg named the group and argued it was a genetic family in his 1963 book The Languages of Africa. It contains the languages not included in the Niger–Congo, Afroasiatic, or Khoisan families. It has not been demonstrated that the Nilo-Saharan languages constitute a valid genetic grouping, and it has been seen as Greenberg's 'wastebasket' phylum, into which he placed all the otherwise unaffiliated non-click languages of Africa. Its supporters accept that it is a challenging proposal to demonstrate, but it looks more promising the more work is done.
The constituent families of Nilo-Saharan are otherwise extremely diverse. One characteristic feature is a tripartite singulative–collective–plurative number system, which Blench (2010) believes is a result of a noun-classifier system in the protolanguage. The distribution of the families may reflect ancient water courses in a green Sahara, when the desert was more habitable than it is today.
Within the Nilo-Saharan languages are a number of languages with at least a million speakers. From Ethnologue 16 (2009):
The total for all Nilo-Saharan languages in Ethnologue 16 is 38–39 million. However, the data spans a range from ca. 1980 to 2005, with a weighted median at ca. 1990. Given population growth rates, the figure in 2010 might be half again higher.
The Saharan family was recognized by Heinrich Barth in 1853, the Nilotic languages by Karl Richard Lepsius in 1880, the various constituent branches of Central Saharan (but not the connection between them) by Friedrich Müller in 1889, and the Maban family by Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes in 1907. The first inklings of a wider family came in 1912, when Diedrich Westermann included three of the (still independent) Central Sudanic families within Nilotic in a proposal he called Niloto-Sudanic; this expanded Nilotic was in turn linked to Nubian, Kunama, and possibly Berta, essentially Greenberg's Macro-Sudanic (Chari–Nile) proposal of 1954. In 1920 G. W. Murray fleshed out the Eastern Sudanic languages when he grouped Nilotic, Nubian, Nera, Gaam, and Kunama. Carlo Conti Rossini made similar proposals in 1926, and in 1935 Westermann added Murle. In 1940 A. N. Tucker published evidence linking five of the six branches of Central Sudanic alongside his more explicit proposal for East Sudanic. In 1950 Greenberg retained Eastern Sudanic and Central Sudanic as separate families, but accepted Westermann's conclusions of four decades earlier in 1954 when he linked them together as Macro-Sudanic (later Chari–Nile, from the Chari and Nile watersheds). Greenberg's later contribution came in 1963, when he tied Chari–Nile to Songhai, Saharan, Maban, Fur, and Koman-Gumuz and coined the current name Nilo-Saharan for the resulting family. It was later realized that Chari–Nile was a historical artifact of the discovery of the family, and did not reflect an exclusive relationship between these languages, and the group has been abandoned, with its constituents becoming primary branches of Nilo-Saharan—or, equivalently, Chari–Nile and Nilo-Saharan have merged, with the name Nilo-Saharan retained. When it was realized that the Kadu languages were not Niger–Congo, the were commonly assumed to therefore be Nilo-Saharan, but evidence for this has not been presented.
Although progress has been made since Greenberg established the plausibility of the family, Nilo-Saharan has not actually been demonstrated. Koman and Gumuz remain poorly attested, and so are difficult to work with, while arguments continue over the inclusion of Songhai. Blench (2010) believes that the distribution of Nilo-Saharan reflects the waterways of the wet Sahara 12,000 years ago, and that the protolanguage had noun classifiers, which today are reflected in a diverse range of prefixes, suffixes, and number marking.
Dimmendaal (2008) notes that Greenberg (1963) based his conclusion on sound evidence, and that the proposal as a whole 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 demonstrate, and 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 putative branches but Gumuz, which leads him to believe that Gumuz is a language isolate but that the family is otherwise likely to be valid.
Most linguists who accept Nilo-Saharan accept Songhay as a member, 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 serious methodological flaws in Ehret's study, as well as a failure to provide any evidence for his classification.
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 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) form a small family of their own. Ethnologue, 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.
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. It is poorly attested.
There is little doubt that the constituent families of Nilo-Saharan—of which only Eastern Sudanic and Central Sudanic show much internal diversity—are valid groups. However, there have been several conflicting classifications grouping these together. Each of the proposed higher-order groups has been rejected by other researchers: Greenberg's Chari–Nile by Bender and Blench, Bender's core Nilo-Saharan by Dimmendaal and Blench, and Ehret's Sahelian etc. by everyone. What remains are eight (Dimmendaal) to twelve (Bender) constituent families of no consensus arrangement.
Gumuz was not recognized as distinct from neighboring Koman; it was separated out (forming "Komuz") by Bender (1989).
By 2000 Bender had abandoned the Chari–Nile and Komuz branches, added Kadu, and removed Kuliak from Eastern Sudanic. He stated that Shabo could not yet be adequately classified, but might prove to be Nilo-Saharan.
With a better understanding of Nilo-Saharan classifiers, and the affixes or number marking they have developed into in various branches, Blench believes that all of the families postulated as Nilo-Saharan actually do belong together. He proposes the following tentative internal classification, with Shabo closest to Koman and Gumuz, and Songhai closest to Saharan, a relationship which had not previously been suggested:
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:
Blench notes that Ehret failed to consider existing scholarship, such as reconstructions of Proto-Central and Proto-Eastern Sudanic, and provided no evidence for his classification. It has not been followed by other researchers.
Proposals for the external relationships of Nilo-Saharan typically center on Niger–Congo: Gregersen (1972) grouped the two together as Kongo–Saharan. However, Blench (2011) proposed that the similarities between Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan (specifically Atlantic–Congo and Central Sudanic) are due to contact, with the noun-class system of Niger–Congo developed from, or elaborated on the model of, the noun classifiers of Central Sudanic.