Cushitic languages

  (Redirected from Cushitic)

The Cushitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. They are spoken primarily in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia), as well as the Nile Valley (Sudan and Egypt), and parts of the African Great Lakes region (Tanzania and Kenya). Speakers of Cushitic languages and the descendants of speakers of Cushitic languages are referred to as Cushitic peoples. The phylum was first designated as Cushitic in 1858.[2] Major Cushitic languages include Oromo, Somali, Beja, Sidamo and Afar.

Egypt, Sudan, Horn of Africa, East Africa
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic
  • Cushitic
ISO 639-2 / 5cus
Cushitic languages.SVG

Based on onomastic evidence, ancient people of northern Nubia such as the Medjay and the Blemmyes are assumed to have spoken Cushitic languages related to the modern Beja language.[3] Less certain are hypotheses which propose that Cushitic languages were spoken by the people of the C-Group culture in northern Nubia,[4] or the people of the Kerma culture in southern Nubia.[5] Historical linguistic analysis indicates that the languages spoken in the Savanna Pastoral Neolithic culture of the Rift Valley and surrounding areas, may have been languages of the South Cushitic branch.[6]

Major and official languagesEdit

The Cushitic languages with the greatest number of total speakers are Oromo (25 million),[7] Somali (16.2 million),[8] Beja (3.2 million),[9] Sidamo (3 million),[10] and Afar (2 million).[11] Oromo is the working language of the Oromia Region in Ethiopia.[12] Somali is one of two official languages of Somalia, and as such is the only Cushitic language accorded official language status at the country level.[13] It also serves as a language of instruction in Djibouti,[14] and as the working language of the Somali Region in Ethiopia.[12] Beja, Afar, Blin and Saho, the languages of the Cushitic branch of Afroasiatic that are spoken in Eritrea, are languages of instruction in the Eritrean elementary school curriculum.[15] The constitution of Eritrea also recognizes the equality of all natively spoken languages.[16] Additionally, Afar is a language of instruction in Djibouti,[14] as well as the working language of the Afar Region in Ethiopia.[12]


The Proto-Cushitic language dates back to the Early Holocene and was spoken in or near the southern Red Sea hills in the Horn of Africa and the branching of the language occurred before the late 7th millennium B.C.E, the Horn of Africa is also believed to be the original homeland of the Proto-Afroasiatic language.[17][18][19][20][21]

Typological characteristicsEdit


Most Cushitic languages have a simple five-vowel system with phonemic length (/a a: e e: i i: o o: u u:/); a notable exception are the Agaw languages, which do not contrast vowel length, but have one or two additional central vowels.[22][23] The consonant inventory of many Cushitic languages includes glottalic consonants, e.g. in Oromo, which has the ejectives /pʼ tʼ tʃʼ kʼ/ and the implosive /ᶑ/.[24] Less common are pharyngeal consonants /ħ ʕ/, which appear e.g. in Somali or the Saho–Afar languages.[22][24]


Nouns are inflected for case and number. All nouns are further grouped into two gender categories, masculine gender and feminine gender. In many languages, gender is overtly marked directly on the noun (e.g. in Awngi, where all female nouns carry the suffix -a).[25]

The case system of many Cushitic languages is characterized by marked nominative alignment, which is typologically quite rare. In marked nominative languages, the noun appears in unmarked "absolutive" case when cited in isolation, or when used as predicative noun and as object of a transitive verb; on the other hand, it is explicitly marked for nominative case when it functions as subject in a transitive or intransitive sentence.[26][27]

Possession is usually expressed by genitive case marking of the possessor. However, South Cushitic languages—which have no case marking for subject and object—follow the opposite strategy: here, the possesed noun is marked for construct case, e.g. Iraqw afé-r mar'i "doors" (lit. "mouths of houses"), where afee "mouth" is marked for construct case.[28]

Most nouns are by default unmarked for number, but can be explicitly marked for singular ("singulative") and plural number. E.g. in Bilin, dəmmu "cat(s)" is number-neutral, from which singular dəmmura "a single cat" and plural dəmmura "several cats" can be formed. Plural formation is very diverse, and employs ablaut (i.e. changes of root vowels or consonants), suffixes and reduplication.[29][30]


The Cushitic languages usually include the following branches:[31]

These classifications have not been without contention, and many other classifications have been proposed over the years.

Proposed classification of Cushitic and its sub-divisions
Greenberg (1963)[32] Hetzron (1980)[33] Fleming (post-1981) Orel & Stobova (1995)
  • Afro-Asiatic
    • Beja (not part of Cushitic)
    • Cushitic
      • Highland
        • Rift Valley (Highland East Cushitic)
        • Agaw
      • Lowland
        • Southern
          • Omo-Tana
          • Oromoid
          • Dullay
          • Yaaku
          • Iraqw
        • Saho-Afar
  • Afro-Asiatic
    • Omotic
    • Erythraean
      • Cushitic
      • Ongota
      • Non-Ethiopian
        • Beja
  • Afro-Asiatic
    • Cushitic
      • Omotic
      • Beja
      • Agaw
      • Sidamic
      • East Lowlands
      • Rift
Diakonoff (1996) Militarev (2000) Tosco (2000)[34] Ehret (2011)[35]
  • Afro-Asiatic
    • East–West Afrasian
      • Cushitic

(Does not include Omotic)

  • Afro-Asiatic
    • South Afrasian
      • Omotic
      • Cushitic
  • Afro-Asiatic
    • Cushitic
      • Beja
      • Agaw
      • East
        • Highland
        • Lowland
          • Southern
            • Nuclear
              • Omo-Tana
              • Oromoid
            • Transversal
              • Dullay
              • Yaaku
          • Saho-'Afar
        • Dahalo
        • Iraqw (+South Cushitic)
  • Afrasian
    • Omotic
    • Erythraic
      • Cushitic
        • North Cushitic
          • Beja
        • Agäw-East-South Cushitic
          • Agäw
          • East-South Cushitic
            • Eastern Cushitic
            • Southern Cushitic
      • North Erythraic
        • Chado-Berber
          • Chadic
          • Berber (Amazight)
        • Boreafrasian
          • Egyptian
          • Semitic

Divergent languagesEdit

Beja is the sole member of the Northern Cushitic branch and contains a number of linguistic innovations that are unique to it. It is grammatically and lexically quite distant from other Cushitic languages, even from its closest neighbors such as Afar and Somali (East-Cushitic) and Agaw (Central Cushitic).[36][37][38] Hetzron (1980) argues that Beja therefore may comprise an independent branch of the Afroasiatic family.[39] However, this suggestion has been largely ignored by the linguistic community. The characteristics of Beja that differ from those of other Cushitic languages are instead generally acknowledged as normal branch variation.[36] These unique features are also attributed to the fact that the Beja language, along with the Saho-Afar dialect cluster, are the most conservative forms of Cushitic speech.[40]

Joseph Halévy (1873) identified linguistic similarities shared between Beja and other neighboring Cushitic languages (viz. Afar, Agaw, Oromo and Somali). Leo Reinisch subsequently grouped Beja with Saho-Afar, Somali and Oromo in a Lowland Cushitic sub-phylum, representing one half of a two-fold partition of Cushitic. Moreno (1940) proposed a bipartite classification of Beja similar to that of Reinisch, but lumped Beja with both Lowland Cushitic and Central Cushitic. Around the same period, Enrico Cerulli (c. 1950) asserted that Beja constituted an independent sub-group of Cushitic. During the 1960s, Archibald N. Tucker (1960) posited an orthodox branch of Cushitic that comprised Beja, East Cushitic and Agaw, and a fringe branch of Cushitic that included other languages in the phylum. Although also similar to Reinisch's paradigm, Tucker's orthodox-fringe dichotomy was predicated on a different typological approach. Andrzej Zaborski (1976) suggested, on the basis of genetic features, that Beja constituted the only member of the North Cushitic sub-phylum.[41] Due to its linguistic innovations, Robert Hetzron (1980) argued that Beja may constitute an independent branch of the Afroasiatic family.[42] Hetzron's suggestion was arrived at independently,[43] and was criticized or rejected by other linguists (Zaborski 1984[44] & 1997; Tosco 2000;[41] Morin 2001[45]). Appleyard (2004) later also demonstrated that the innovations in Beja, which Hetzron had identified, were centered on a typological argument involving a presumed change in syntax and also consisted of only five differing Cushitic morphological features. Marcello Lamberti (1991) elucidated Cerulli's traditional classification of Beja, juxtaposing the language as the North Cushitic branch alongside three other independent Cushitic sub-phyla, Lowland Cushitic, Central Cushitic and Sidama. Didier Morin (2001) assigned Beja to Lowland Cushitic on the grounds that the language shared lexical and phonological features with the Afar and Saho idioms, and also because the languages were historically spoken in adjacent speech areas. However, among linguists specializing in the Cushitic languages, Cerulli's traditional paradigm is accepted as the standard classification for Beja.[41]

There are also a few poorly-classified languages, including Yaaku, Dahalo, Aasax, Kw'adza, Boon, the Cushitic element of Mbugu (Ma'a) and Ongota. There is a wide range of opinions as to how the languages are interrelated.[46]

The positions of the Dullay languages and of Yaaku are uncertain. They have traditionally been assigned to an East Cushitic subbranch along with Highland (Sidamic) and Lowland East Cushitic. However, Hayward thinks that East Cushitic may not be a valid node and that its constituents should be considered separately when attempting to work out the internal relationships of Cushitic.[46]

The Afroasiatic identity of Ongota has also been broadly questioned, as is its position within Afroasiatic among those who accept it, because of the "mixed" appearance of the language and a paucity of research and data. Harold C. Fleming (2006) proposes that Ongota is a separate branch of Afroasiatic.[47] Bonny Sands (2009) thinks the most convincing proposal is by Savà and Tosco (2003), namely that Ongota is an East Cushitic language with a Nilo-Saharan substratum. In other words, it would appear that the Ongota people once spoke a Nilo-Saharan language but then shifted to speaking a Cushitic language while retaining some characteristics of their earlier Nilo-Saharan language.[48][49]

Hetzron (1980)[50] and Ehret (1995) have suggested that the South Cushitic languages (Rift languages) are a part of Lowland East Cushitic, the only one of the six groups with much internal diversity.

Cushitic was formerly seen as also including the Omotic languages, then called West Cushitic. However, this view has been abandoned. Omotic is generally agreed to be an independent branch of Afroasiatic, primarily due to the work of Harold C. Fleming (1974) and Lionel Bender (1975); some linguists like Paul Newman (1980) challenge Omotic's classification within the Afroasiatic family itself.

Extinct languagesEdit

A number of extinct populations have been proposed to have spoken Afroasiatic languages of the Cushitic branch. Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst (2000) proposed that the peoples of the Kerma Culture – which inhabited the Nile Valley in present-day Sudan immediately before the arrival of the first Nubian speakers – spoke Cushitic languages.[5] She argues that the Nilo-Saharan Nobiin language today contains a number of key pastoralism related loanwords that are of proto-Highland East Cushitic origin, including the terms for sheep/goatskin, hen/cock, livestock enclosure, butter and milk. This in turn is proposed to suggest that the Kerma population spoke one or more Cushitic languages, unlike the population of the C-Group culture to their north which following Behrens (1981) she assumed to have been speakers of Berber languages.[51][5] On the other hand, more recent research by Claude Rilly (2010, 2016) and Julien Cooper (2017) instead indicates that the people of the Kerma culture (located in Upper Nubia) spoke Nilo-Saharan languages of the Eastern Sudanic branch, and that the peoples of the C-Group culture and Blemmyes to their north (in Lower Nubia) spoke Cushitic languages with some of the latter being related to the modern Beja language. Rilly also criticizes proposals (by Behrens and Bechaus-Gerst) of significant early Afro-Asiatic influence on Nobiin, and considers evidence of substratal influence on Nobiin from an earlier now extinct Eastern Sudanic language to be stronger.[52][53][54][4] The linguistic affinity of the ancient A-Group culture of northern Nubia—the predecessor of the C-Group culture—is unknown, but it is suggested that it is unlikely to have spoken a language of the Northern East Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan, and may have spoken a Cushitic language, other Afro-Asiatic language, or a language belonging to another (non-Northern East Sudanic) branch of the Nilo-Saharan family.[55]

Linguistic evidence indicates that Cushitic languages were spoken in Lower Nubia, an ancient region which straddles present day Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, before the arrival of North Eastern Sudanic languages from Upper Nubia.

Julien Cooper (2017) states that in antiquity, Cushitic languages were spoken in Lower Nubia (the northernmost part of modern day Sudan).[56] He also states that Eastern Sudanic speaking populations from southern and west Nubia gradually replaced the earlier Cushitic speaking populations of this region.[57]

In Handbook of Ancient Nubia, Claude Rilly (2019) states that Cushitic languages once dominated Lower Nubia along with the Ancient Egyptian language.[58]. He mentions historical records of a powerful Cushitic speaking race which controlled Lower Nubia and some cities in Upper Egypt.[59][60] He mentions the linguistic relationship between the modern Beja language and the ancient Cushitic Blemmyan language which dominated Lower Nubia and that the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay.[61]

Additionally, historiolinguistics indicate that the makers of the Savanna Pastoral Neolithic (Stone Bowl Culture) in the Great Lakes area likely spoke South Cushitic languages.[6]

Christopher Ehret (1998) proposed on the basis of loanwords that South Cushitic languages (called "Tale" and "Bisha" by Ehret) were spoken in an area closer to Lake Victoria than are found today.[62]

Also, historically, the Southern Nilotic languages have undergone extensive contact with a "missing" branch of East Cushitic that Heine (1979) refers to as Baz.[63][64]


Christopher Ehret proposed a reconstruction of Proto-Cushitic in 1987, but did not base this on individual branch reconstructions.[65] Grover Hudson (1989) has done some preliminary work on Highland East Cushitic,[66] David Appleyard (2006) has proposed a reconstruction of Proto-Agaw[67], and Roland Kießling and Maarten Mous (2003) have jointly proposed a reconstruction of West Rift Southern Cushitic.[68] No reconstruction been published for Lowland East Cushitic, though Paul D. Black wrote his (unpublished) dissertation on the topic in 1974.[69] No comparative work has yet brought these branch reconstructions together.


Comparison of numerals in individual languages:[70]

Classification Language 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
North Beja (Bedawi) ɡaːl ˈmale mheːj ˈfaɖiɡ eːj (lit: 'hand') aˈsaɡʷir (5 + 1) asaːˈrama (5 + 2) asiˈmheːj (5 + 3) aʃˈʃaɖiɡ (5 + 4) ˈtamin
South Alagwa (Wasi) wák ndʒad tam tsʼiɡaħ kooʔan laħooʔ faanqʼw dakat ɡwelen mibⁱ
South Burunge leyiŋ / leẽ t͡ʃʼada tami t͡ʃʼiɡaħa koːʔani laħaʔu faɴqʼu daɡati ɡweleli mili
South Dahalo vattúkʷe (mascu) / vattékʷe (fem) líima kʼaba saʕála dáwàtte < possible from 'hand' sita < Swahili saba nane kenda / tis(i)a kumi
South Gorowa (Gorwaa) wak tsʼar tám tsʼiyáħ kooʔán laħóoʔ fâanqʼw dakáat ɡwaléel / ɡweléel mibaanɡw
South Iraqw wák tsár tám tsíyáħ kooán laħoóʔ faaɴw dakaát ɡwaleél mibaaɴw
Central Bilin (Bilen) laxʷ / la ləŋa səxʷa sədʒa ʔankʷa wəlta ləŋəta səxʷəta səssa ʃɨka
Central, Eastern Xamtanga lə́w líŋa ʃáqʷa síza ákʷa wálta láŋta / lánta sə́wta sʼájtʃʼa sʼɨ́kʼa
Central, Southern Awngi ɨ́mpɨ́l / láɢú láŋa ʃúɢa sedza áŋkʷa wɨ́lta láŋéta sóɢéta sésta tsɨ́kka
Central, Western Kimant (Qimant) laɣa / la liŋa siɣʷa sədʒa ankʷa wəlta ləŋəta səɣʷəta səssa ʃɨka
East, Dullay Gawwada tóʔon lákke ízzaħ sálaħ xúpin tappi táʔan sétten kóllan ħúɗɗan
East, Dullay Tsamai (Ts'amakko) doːkːo laːkːi zeːħ salaħ χobin tabːen taħːan sezːen ɡolːan kuŋko
East, Highland Alaaba matú lamú sasú ʃɔːlú ʔɔntú lehú lamalá hizzeːtú hɔnsú tɔnnsú
East, Highland Burji mičča lama fadia foola umutta lia lamala hiditta wonfa tanna
East, Highland Gedeo mitte lame sase šoole onde ǰaane torbaane saddeeta sallane tomme
East, Highland Hadiyya mato lamo saso sooro onto loho lamara sadeento honso tommo
East, Highland Kambaata máto lámo sáso ʃóolo ónto lého lamála hezzéeto hónso tordúma
East, Highland Libido mato lamo saso sooro ʔonto leho lamara sadeento honso tommo
East, Highland Sidamo (Sidaama) mite lame sase ʃoole onte lee lamala sette honse tonne
East, Konso-Gidole Bussa (Harso-Bobase) tóʔo lakki, lam(m)e, lamay ezzaħ, siséħ salaħ xúpin cappi caħħan sásse /sésse kollan húddʼan
East, Konso-Gidole Dirasha (Gidole) ʃakka(ha) fem., ʃokko(ha) masculine lakki halpatta afur hen lehi tappa lakkuʃeti tsinqoota hunda
East, Konso-Gidole Konso takka lakki sessa afur ken lehi tappa sette saɡal kuɗan
East, Oromo Orma tokkō lamā sadi afurī ʃanī ja tolbā saddeetī saɡalī kuɗenī
East, Oromo West Central Oromo tokko lama sadii afur ʃani jaha tolba saddet saɡal kuɗan
East, Rendille-Boni Boni kóów, hál-ó (mascu) / hás-só (fem) lába síddéh áfar ʃan líh toddóu siyyéèd saaɡal tammán
East, Rendille-Boni Rendille kôːw / ko:kalɖay (isolated form) lámːa sɛ́jːaħ áfːar t͡ʃán líħ tɛːbá sijːɛ̂ːt saːɡáːl tomón
East, Saho-Afar Afar enèki / inìki nammàya sidòħu / sidòħoòyu ferèyi / fereèyi konòyu / konoòyu leħèyi / leħeèyi malħiini baħaàra saɡaàla tàbana
East, Saho-Afar Saho inik lam:a adoħ afar ko:n liħ malħin baħar saɡal taman
East, Somali Garre (Karre) kow lamma siddeh afar ʃan liʔ toddobe siyeed saɡaal tommon
East, Somali Somali ków labá sáddeħ áfar ʃán liħ toddobá siddèed saɡaal toban
East, Somali Tunni (Af-Tunni) ków lámma síddiʔ áfar ʃán líʔ toddóbo siyéed saɡáal tómon
East, Western Omo-Tana Arbore tokkó (masc)/ takká (fem), ˈtaˈka laamá, ˈlaːma sezzé, ˈsɛːze ʔafúr, ʔaˈfur tʃénn, t͡ʃɛn dʒih, ˈd͡ʒi tuzba, ˈtuːzba suyé, suˈjɛ saaɡalɗ, ˈsaɡal tommoɲɗ, ˈtɔmːɔn
East, Western Omo-Tana Bayso (Baiso) koo (masculine) / too (feminine) lɑ́ɑmɑ sédi ɑ́fɑr ken le todobɑ́ siddéd sɑ́ɑɡɑɑl tómon
East, Western Omo-Tana Daasanach tɪ̀ɡɪ̀ɗɪ̀ (adj.)/ tàqàt͡ʃ ̚ (crd.)/ ʔɛ̀ɾ (ord.) nàːmə̀ sɛ̀d̪ɛ̀ ʔàfʊ̀ɾ t͡ʃɛ̀n lɪ̀ʰ t̪ɪ̀ːjə̀ síɪ̀t̚ sàːl t̪òmòn
East, Western Omo-Tana El Molo t'óko / t'áka l'ááma séépe áfur kên, cên yíi tíípa, s'ápa fúe s'áákal t'ómon

See alsoEdit


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  • Ethnologue on the Cushitic branch
  • Ambrose, Stanley H. (1984). "The Introduction of Pastoral Adaptations to the Highlands of East Africa". In Clark, J. Desmond; Brandt, Steevn A. (eds.). From Hunters to Farmers: The Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa. University of California Press. pp. 212–239. ISBN 0520045742. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  • Appleyard, David (2012). "Cushitic". In Edzard, Lutz (ed.). Semitic and Afroasiatic: Challenges and Opportunities. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 199–295. ISBN 9783447066952.
  • Bender, Marvin Lionel. 1975. Omotic: a new Afroasiatic language family. Southern Illinois University Museum series, number 3.
  • Bechhaus-Gerst, Marianne (2000). "Linguistic evidence for the prehistory of livestock in Sudan". In Blench, Roger; MacDonald, Kevin (eds.). The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography. Routledge. pp. 449–461. ISBN 978-1135434168. Retrieved 22 February 2020.
  • Cooper, Julien (2017). "Toponymic Strata in Ancient Nubia Until the Common Era". Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies. 4: 197–212.
  • Bender, M. Lionel. 1986. A possible Cushomotic isomorph. Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 6:149–155.
  • Fleming, Harold C. 1974. Omotic as an Afroasiatic family. In: Proceedings of the 5th annual conference on African linguistics (ed. by William Leben), p 81-94. African Studies Center & Department of Linguistics, UCLA.
  • Roland Kießling & Maarten Mous. 2003. The Lexical Reconstruction of West-Rift Southern Cushitic. Cushitic Language Studies Volume 21
  • Lamberti, Marcello. 1991. Cushitic and its classification. Anthropos 86(4/6):552-561.
  • Mous, Maarten (2012). "Cushitic". In Frayzingier, Zygmunt; Shay, Erin (eds.). The Afroasiatic Languages. Cambridge University Press. pp. 342–422.
  • Newman, Paul. 1980. The Classification of Chadic within Afroasiatic. Universitaire Pers.
  • Rilly, Claude (2008). "Enemy brothers. Kinship and relationship between Meroites and Nubians (Noba)". In Godlewski, Włodzimierz; Łajtar, Adam (eds.). Between the Cataracts. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference for Nubian Studies Warsaw University 27 August-2 September 2006. Part 1. Main Papers. Warszawa: PAM Supplement Series. pp. 211–225. doi:10.31338/uw.9788323533269.pp.211-226. ISBN 9788323533269.
  • Rilly, Claude (2011). "Recent Research on Meroitic, the Ancient Language of Sudan" (PDF). ITYOPIS – Northeast African Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities (NEAJ). 1: 10–24.
  • Rilly, Claude (2016). "The Wadi Howar Diaspora and its role in the spread of East Sudanic languages from the fourth to the first millenia BCE". Faits de Langues. 47: 151–163. doi:10.1163/19589514-047-01-900000010.
  • Rilly, Claude (2019). "Languages of Ancient Nubia". In Dietrich Raue (ed.). Handbook of Ancient Nubia. Berlin: Walter de Gryuter. pp. 129–151.
  • Zaborski, Andrzej. 1986. Can Omotic be reclassified as West Cushitic? In Gideon Goldenberg, ed., Ethiopian Studies: Proceedings of the 6th International Conference, pp. 525–530. Rotterdam: Balkema.
  • Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary (1995) Christopher Ehret

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