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The West Nilotic languages of South Sudan and Ethiopia


Language Nuer (ISO639-3:nus), Reel (ISO639-3:atu), Shilluk (ISO639-3:shk)
Depositor Tatiana Reid
Affiliation Surrey Morphology Group, University of Surrey; The University of Edinburgh
Location Kenya, South Sudan
Deposit ID 0242
Grant ID AH/G0134701/1, AH/L011824/1, Minor Grant 2010
Funding Body AHRC, British Institute in Eastern Africa, ELDP
Collection Status Collection online


Summary of the deposit

The Nuer part of the deposit presents data recorded between 2015-2019 with speakers of Lou Nuer – a dialect that belongs to the Eastern Nuer dialect chain. It is spoken around the Akobo town in South Sudan.

The collection investigates phonetics, phonology and morphology of Nuer verbs. This is achieved through systematic elicitation of inflectional and derivational paradigms, and through elicitation of target words in various prosodic contests designed to assist with the study of tone and vowel length.

The data was collected by linguist Tatiana Reid for her PhD project conducted at Surrey Morphology Group, University of Surrey. Because at the time of the data collection South Sudan was deemed unfit for travel, the data was collected with members of Nuer diaspora abroad. Majority of the data was collected in Kenya with members of the Lou Nuer community in Greater Nairobi. Some data was collected in London with a Lou Nuer speaker.


Group represented

All Nuer dialects can be separated into two varieties – Eastern and Western. Western Nuer variety is spoken around the city of Bentiu and is often referred to as Bentiu Nuer. Bentiu is also a collective name for the seven sections that speak the Western Nuer variety: Bul, Lek, Jegai, Adok, Nyong, Ador and Jikany. Eastern Nuer is the variety spoken in the rest of the Nuer territory in South Sudan and across the border in Ethiopia. We can distinguish the Gawaar dialect spoken by the Gawaar section, the Lou dialect spoken by the Lou section and the Nasir dialect spoken by the Jikany of South Sudan. The Ethiopian Jikany are said to speak an Eastern variety close to the Nasir dialect and there are further differences between the speakers that belong to the Gajök and Gajak subsections of the Ethiopian Jikany. The speakers of Gawaar, classed as Eastern Nuer, self-report dialect differences with both the Western and the Eastern Nuer and refer to their dialect as the Central variety. The Nasir speakers say that they originate from the Western Jikany (the speakers of the Western Nuer variety) who are also known as Jikany Cieng (lit. homeland Jikany). The Nuer note that the settlements of the Nasir Nuer are relatively recent. There is an opinion to the effect that the Nasir dialect is more similar to the Western variety than to the other Eastern dialects because of its common origin with the Western Nuer sections. The Nasir dialect has been used as a reference in the course of Bible translation, and it forms the basis of the Nuer orthography. This collection was recorded with speakers of the Lou dialect of Nuer (also known as Akobo Nuer, after the name of the main town inhabited by the speakers). Lou Nuer belongs to the Eastern Nuer variety. Lou is the name that the people use to refer to themselves and this is how they are known by other Nuer sections. The spelling of the word ‘Lou’ is the orthographic convention that the Nuer use themselves. The word ‘Lou’ is pronounced as [lɑu].


Language information

This deposit is a collection of three West Nilotic languages: Nuer, Reel and Shilluk. Currently only the Nuer data has been uploaded to the archive, data for the other two languages will be uploaded in due course.

Nuer is a West Nilotic language of the Dinka-Nuer subgroup. It is spoken in South Sudan and Ethiopia by over 900,000 speakers. Due to the political unrest in South Sudan, Nuer diaspora can be found outside of the native territories, most notably in other East African countries, in the U.S.A. and in Australia. Nuer has a number of dialects that can be conventionally separated into two mutually intelligible varieties – Eastern Nuer and Western Nuer. Western Nuer is spoken around the town of Bentiu in South Sudan and Eastern Nuer is spoken elsewhere. There are various differences between the two varieties, including those pertaining to the phonology, morphophonology and the lexicon.


[Information is coming soon]


[Information is coming soon]

The West Nilotic languages have rich segmental and suprasegmental phonemic inventories that include some typologically unusual contrasts. They are categorized by large vowel inventories (10-15 monophthongs), moderate to large tone inventories (3-9 tonemes), voice quality contrast in vowels/ATR contrast (ATR refers to the position of the tongue root during the production of vowels) and the three-way vowel length contrast whereby monophthongs and diphthongs can be either short, long or overlong.

West Nilotic languages are predominantly monosyllabic, as the Nuer examples in (1) below show. Non-the-less, they have a rich morphology. It is expressed by means of stem alternations that include changes in vowel quality (a), voice quality of the vowel (b), changes in ATR (ATR contrast is present in Shilluk but not in Nuer and Reel), changes in vowel length (c), changes in tone (d) and changes in stem-final consonant (e). In short, anything except for the stem-initial consonant can change as a function of morphology.

  1. (1)
    1. gèer                             gɛ̀ɛr
      drive(TR).APPL.NF       drive(TR).MUL.AM.NF
    2. gèer                                gè̤e̤r
      drive(TR).APPL.NF        drive(TR).APPL.AP.NF
    3. gé̤r                                             gé̤e̤r                                     gé̤e̤e̤r
      drive(TR).MUL.AP.BARE         drive(TR).APPL.BARE        drive(TR).AP.BARE
    4. gè̤e̤r                                      gé̤e̤r
      drive(TR).APPL.AP.NF        drive(TR).APPL.AP.NF NEG
    5. cṳ́ɔ̤l                                cṳ́ɔ̤t
      compensation.SG       compensation.PL


Special characteristics

The languages in this collection present special interest as far as the phonetics, phonology and morphology are concerned. The collection provides recordings of elicited paradigms for different parts of speech. The target words are elicited in phrases that are designed to assist in disambiguation of tone and vowel length.


Deposit contents

The data consists of audio recordings along with other supporting material such as texts and Praat text grids.


Deposit history

Nuer data was collected by Tatiana Reid for her PhD thesis titled ‘The phonology and morphology of the Nuer verb’ (Surrey Morphology Group, University of Surrey). The exploratory sessions begun in 2015 in London where Tatiana worked with native speakers of Nuer that spoke Lou and Bentiu dialects. Another data collection site was Kenya where Tatiana spent nine months between 2016-2017 collecting data with the Nuer diaspora. The majority of the speakers on the project spoke the Lou dialect of Nuer. Following Tatiana’s departure from Kenya the work with the Nuer speakers continued over internet until 2019. Data collection was done with the assistance of the community members. Tatiana’s main Nuer consultant – Rebecca Nyawany Makwach – a native speaker of Lou Nuer, continued recording herself and other speakers, as well as taking part in regular online elicitation sessions with Tatiana.

Reel data was collected by Tatiana Reid for her Masters dissertation titled ‘Aspects of phonetics, phonology and morphophonology of Thok Reel’ (The University of Edinburgh). The data was collected in South Sudan over the period of five non-consecutive months. In 2009 Tatiana spent two months in Juba and in 2010 she spent three further months in Rumbek collecting data with native speakers of Reel.

Shilluk data was collected by Tatiana Reid for her undergraduate Hons. dissertation titled ‘Suprasegmentals in Shilluk nominal morphophonology’ (The University of Edinburgh). All data was collected over the period of three months in 2008 in the U.K. with Otto Gwado Ayoker – a native speaker of Shilluk who was visiting in Edinburgh for an academic term.


Other information

None of the data in this collection may be used as evidence in court.


Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Tatiana Reid as the principal investigator and researcher. Users should also acknowledge AHRC, BIEA and ELDP as the funders. Individual speakers whose data and/or images are used should be acknowledged by name. Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors is available in the metadata.

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Reid, Tatiana. 2020. The West Nilotic languages of South Sudan and Ethiopia. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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