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At the turn of the 21st century, its two main dialects, Manga Kanuri and Yerwa Kanuri (also called Beriberi, which its speakers consider to be pejorative), were spoken by 9,700,000 people in Central Africa. It belongs to the Western Saharan subphylum of Nilo-Saharan. Kanuri is the language associated with the Kanem and Bornu empires which dominated the Lake Chad region for a thousand years.
The basic word order of Kanuri sentences is subject-object-verb. It is typologically unusual in simultaneously having postpositions and post-nominal modifiers - for example, "Bintu's pot" would be expressed as nje Bintu-be, "pot Bintu-of".
Kanuri has three tones: high, low, and falling. It has an extensive system of consonantal lenition; for example, sa- "they" + -buma "have eaten" -> za-wuna "they have eaten".
Traditionally a local lingua franca, its usage has declined in recent decades. Most first-language speakers speak Hausa or Arabic as a second language.
Ethnologue divides Kanuri into the following languages, while many linguists (e.g. Cyffer 1998) regard them as dialects of a single language. The first three are spoken by ethnic Kanuri and thought by them as dialects of their language.
The variety attested in 17th century Qur'anic glosses is known as Old Kanembu. In the context of religious recitation and commentaries, a heavily archaizing descendant of this is still used, called Tarjumo.
There may also exist prenasalized voiced stop consonant sounds /mb, nd, /. Although it is not known whether they are considered phonemic.
The sound /p/ occurs mainly as an allophone of /b/, when following another voiceless plosive. It also may be in free alteration with /f/, however; it is still represented in the standard Kanuri orthography.
A voiceless fricative [?] occurs as an allophone of /f/ when preceding back vowels /o, u/. A voiced fricative [?] occurs as an allophone of /b/, when occurring in intervocalic positions. A voiced fricative [?] occurs as an allophone of /?/, when occurring intervocalically between central vowels.
A retroflex lateral sound [?] is heard when /l/ is followed by /i/.
[?] occurs as an allophone of /n/ when preceding velar stop consonants. Often, the stop sounds are deleted or misheard, so just the nasal sound [?] is mainly heard.
Kanuri has been written using the AjamiArabic script, mainly in religious or court contexts, for at least four hundred years. More recently, it is also sometimes written in a modified Latin script. The Gospel of John published in 1965 was produced in Roman and Arabic script.
A standardized romanized orthography (known as the Standard Kanuri Orthography in Nigeria) was developed by the Kanuri Research Unit and the Kanuri Language Board. Its elaboration, based on the dialect of Maiduguri, was carried out by the Orthography Committee of the Kanuri Language Board, under the Chairmanship of Abba Sadiq, Waziri of Borno. It was officially approved by the Kanuri Language Board in Maiduguri, Nigeria, in 1975.
Letters used :
a b c d e ? f g h i j k l m n ny o p r
? s sh t u w y z.