|Egypt, Sudan, Horn of Africa, East Africa|
|ISO 639-2 / 5||cus|
Distribution of the Cushitic languages in Africa
Map of the Cushitic languages
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. Major Cushitic languages include Oromo, Somali, Beja, Agaw, Afar, Saho and Sidamo.
Based on onomastic evidence, the Medjay and the Blemmyes of northern Nubia are believed to have spoken Cushitic languages related to the modern Beja language. Less certain are hypotheses which propose that Cushitic languages were spoken by the people of the C-Group culture in northern Nubia, or the people of the Kerma culture in southern Nubia. 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.
The Cushitic languages with the greatest number of total speakers are Oromo (25 million),Somali (16.2 million),Beja (3.2 million),Sidamo (3 million), and Afar (2 million). Oromo is the working language of the Oromia Region in Ethiopia. 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. It also serves as a language of instruction in Djibouti, and as the working language of the Somali Region in Ethiopia. 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. The constitution of Eritrea also recognizes the equality of all natively spoken languages. Additionally, Afar is a language of instruction in Djibouti, as well as the working language of the Afar Region in Ethiopia.
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. The consonant inventory of many Cushitic languages includes glottalic consonants, e.g. in Oromo, which has the ejectives /p' t' t?' k'/ and the implosive /?/. Less common are pharyngeal consonants /? ?/, which appear e.g. in Somali or the Saho-Afar languages.
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).
The case system of many Cushitic languages is characterized by marked nominative alignment, which is typologically quite rare and predominantly found in languages of Africa. 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.
Possession is usually expressed by genitive case marking of the possessor. South Cushitic--which has no case marking for subject and object--follows the opposite strategy: here, the possessed 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.
Most nouns are by default unmarked for number, but can be explicitly marked for singular ("singulative") and plural number. E.g. in Bilin, d?mmu "cat(s)" is number-neutral, from which singular d?mmura "a single cat" and plural d?mmura "several cats" can be formed. Plural formation is very diverse, and employs ablaut (i.e. changes of root vowels or consonants), suffixes and reduplication.
Verbs are inflected for person/number and tense/aspect. Many languages also have a special form of the verb in negative clauses.
Most languages distinguish seven person/number categories: first, second, third person, singular and plural number, with a masculine/feminine gender distinction in third person singular. The most common conjugation type employs suffixes. Some languages also have a prefix conjugation: in Beja and the Saho-Afar languages, the prefix conjugation is still a productive part of the verb paradigm, whereas in most other languages, e.g. Somali, it is restricted to only a few verbs. It is generally assumed that historically, the suffix conjugation developed from the older prefix conjugation, by combining the verb stem with a suffixed auxiliary verb. The following table gives an example for the suffix and prefix conjugations in affirmative present tense in Somali.
The Cushitic languages usually include the following branches:
These classifications have not been without contention, and many other classifications have been proposed over the years.
|Greenberg (1963)||Hetzron (1980)||Fleming (post-1981)||Orel & Stobova (1995)|
|Diakonoff (1996)||Militarev (2000)||Tosco (2000)||Ehret (2011)|
(Does not include Omotic)
Beja constitutes the only member of the Northern Cushitic subgroup. As such, Beja contains a number of linguistic innovations that are unique to it, as is also the situation with the other subgroups of Cushitic (e.g. idiosyncratic features in Agaw or Central Cushitic). Hetzron (1980) argues that Beja therefore may comprise an independent branch of the Afroasiatic family. However, this suggestion has been rejected by most other scholars. The characteristics of Beja that differ from those of other Cushitic languages are instead generally acknowledged as normal branch variation. 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.
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. Due to its linguistic innovations, Robert Hetzron (1980) argued that Beja may constitute an independent branch of the Afroasiatic family. Hetzron's suggestion was arrived at independently, and was largely ignored or rejected by almost all linguists (Zaborski 1984 & 1997; Tosco 2000; Morin 2001). 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. However, more recent linguistic research indicates that the people of the Kerma culture (who were based in southern Nubia) instead spoke Nilo-Saharan languages of the Eastern Sudanic branch, and that the peoples of the C-Group culture to their north (in northern Nubia) and other groups in northern Nubia (such as the Medjay and Belmmyes) spoke Cushitic languages with the latter being related to the modern Beja language. The linguistic affinity of the ancient A-Group culture of northern Nubia--the predecessor of the C-Group culture--is unknown, but Rilly (2019) suggests 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, another Afro-Asiatic language, or a language belonging to another (non-Northern East Sudanic) branch of the Nilo-Saharan family. 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.
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). He also states that Eastern Sudanic speaking populations from southern and west Nubia gradually replaced the earlier Cushitic speaking populations of this region.
In Handbook of Ancient Nubia, Claude Rilly (2019) states that Cushitic languages once dominated Lower Nubia along with the Ancient Egyptian language. He mentions historical records of the Blemmyes, a Cushitic speaking tribe which controlled Lower Nubia and some cities in Upper Egypt. He mentions the linguistic relationship between the modern Beja language and the ancient Blemmyan language, and that the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay.
Christopher Ehret proposed a reconstruction of Proto-Cushitic in 1987, but did not base this on individual branch reconstructions. Grover Hudson (1989) has done some preliminary work on Highland East Cushitic, David Appleyard (2006) has proposed a reconstruction of Proto-Agaw, and Roland Kießling and Maarten Mous (2003) have jointly proposed a reconstruction of West Rift Southern Cushitic. No reconstruction been published for Lowland East Cushitic, though Paul D. Black wrote his (unpublished) dissertation on the topic in 1974. No comparative work has yet brought these branch reconstructions together.
Sample basic vocabulary of Cushitic languages from Vossen & Dimmendaal (2020:318) (with PSC denoting Proto-Southern Cushitic):
Comparison of numerals in individual Cushitic languages:
|North||Beja (Bedawi)||?a:l||'male||mhe:j||'fa?i?||e:j (lit: 'hand')||a'sair (5 + 1)||asa:'rama (5 + 2)||asi'mhe:j (5 + 3)||a?'?a?i? (5 + 4)||'tamin|
|South||Burunge||leyi? / le?||t'ada||tami||t'i?a?a||ko:?ani||la?a?u||fa?q'u||da?ati||?weleli||mili|
|South||Dahalo||vattúk?e (mascu) / vatték?e (fem)||líima||k'aba||sa?ála||dáwàtte < possible from 'hand'||sita < Swahili||saba < Swahili||nane||kenda / tis(i)a||kumi|
|South||Gorowa (Gorwaa)||wak||ts'ar||tám||ts'iyá?||koo?án||la?óo?||fâanq'w||dakáat||?waléel / ?weléel||mibaan?w|
|Central||Bilin (Bilen)||lax? / la||la||s?x?a||s?d?a||?ank?a||w?lta||lta||s?xta||s?ssa||ka|
|Central, Eastern||Xamtanga||lw||lí?a||?áq?a||síza||ák?a||wálta||lá?ta / lánta||swta||s'ájt?'a||s'k'a|
|Central, Southern||Awngi||mpl / lá?ú||lá?a||?ú?a||sedza||á?k?a||wlta||lá?éta||só?éta||sésta||tskka|
|Central, Western||Kimant (Qimant)||la?a / la||li?a||sia||s?d?a||ank?a||w?lta||lta||s?ta||s?ssa||ka|
|East, Dullay||Tsamai (Ts'amakko)||do:k:o||la:k:i||ze:?||sala?||?obin||tab:en||ta?:an||sez:en||?ol:an||ku?ko|
|East, Highland||Sidamo (Sidaama)||mite||lame||sase||?oole||onte||lee||lamala||sette||honse||tonne|
|East, Konso-Gidole||Bussa (Harso-Bobase)||tó?o||lakki, lam(m)e, lamay||ezza?, sisé?||sala?||xúpin||cappi||caan||sásse /sésse||kollan||húdd'an|
|East, Konso-Gidole||Dirasha (Gidole)||?akka(ha) fem., ?okko(ha) masculine||lakki||halpatta||afur||hen||lehi||tappa||lakku?eti||tsinqoota||hunda|
|East, Oromo||West Central Oromo||tokko||lama||sadii||afur||?ani||jaha||tolba||saddet||sa?al||ku?an|
|East, Rendille-Boni||Boni||kóów, hál-ó (mascu) / hás-só (fem)||lába||síddéh||áfar||?an||líh||toddóu||siyyéèd||saa?al||tammán|
|East, Rendille-Boni||Rendille||kô:w / ko:kal?ay (isolated form)||lám:a||sj:a?||áf:ar||tán||lí?||t?:bá||sij::t||sa:?á:l||tomón|
|East, Saho-Afar||Afar||enèki / inìki||nammàya||sidò?u / sidò?oòyu||ferèyi / fereèyi||konòyu / konoòyu||le?èyi / le?eèyi||mal?iini||ba?aàra||sa?aàla||tàbana|
|East, Somali||Garre (Karre)||kow||lamma||siddeh||afar||?an||li?||toddobe||siyeed||sa?aal||tommon|
|East, Somali||Tunni (Af-Tunni)||ków||lámma||síddi?||áfar||?án||lí?||toddóbo||siyéed||sa?áal||tómon|
|East, Western Omo-Tana||Arbore||tokkó (masc)/ takká (fem), 'ta'ka||laamá, 'la:ma||sezzé, 's?:ze||?afúr, ?a'fur||t?énn, tn||d?ih, 'di||tuzba, 'tu:zba||suyé, su'j?||saa?al?, 'sa?al||tommo, 't?m:?n|
|East, Western Omo-Tana||Bayso (Baiso)||koo (masculine) / too (feminine)||lm?||sédi||f?r||ken||le||todob||siddéd||sl||tómon|
|East, Western Omo-Tana||Daasanach||t (adj.)/ tàqàt ? (crd.)/ ? (ord.)||nà:m||sd||?àf||t?n||l||t:j||sít?||sà:l||t?òmòn|
|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|
Members of the Federation may by law determine their respective working languages.[...] Member States of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia are the Following: 1) The State of Tigray 2) The State of Afar 3) The State of Amhara 4) The State of Oromia 5) The State of Somalia 6) The State of Benshangul/Gumuz 7) The State of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples 8) The State of the Gambela Peoples 9) The State of the Harari People
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Article 5. Official Languages[...] The official language of the Federal Republic of Somalia is Somali (Maay and Maxaa-tiri), and Arabic is the second language.
ARTICLE 7 LANGUAGES. 1. The official languages of the Somali Republic shall be Somali (Maay and Maxaatiri) and Arabic.
Somali (official, according to the 2012 Transitional Federal Charter), Arabic (official, according to the 2012 Transitional Federal Charter), Italian, English
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the following other languages have been introduced in the elementary school curriculum[...] 'Afar, Beja, Bilin, and Saho (languages of the Cushitic branch of Afroasiatic)CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
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