|Central and East Africa|
|Linguistic Classification:||suggested association with Niger-Congo|
|ISO 639-2 and 639-5:||ssa|
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 Mali in the west; 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.
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.
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):
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 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.
According to Joseph Greenberg (The Languages of Africa) as initially modified by Lionel Bender, they are classified into the following branches:
The Komuz and Chari-Nile groups were later abandoned by Bender.
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.
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.
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 whatsoever 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 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.