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Classification and Distribution. Cushitic languages constitute one of six branches (or families) of the Afro-Asiatic phylum. Within Afroasiatic, it is probably closer to Berber, Semitic and Ancient Egyptian than to Chadic and Omotic. They are spoken mainly in the Horn of Africa: in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia but also in Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and Tanzania.

Internal Classification and Speakers. There are about thirty Cushitic languages spoken by close to 55 million people. They are divided into North, Central and East groups. East Cushitic is by far the largest both in terms of the number of languages and of speakers. Most Cushitic languages are comparatively small, with tens of thousands of speakers or less each. However, half a dozen have one million speakers or more; among them Oromo and Somali are by far the largest, followed by Sidamo, Afar, Beja, Hadiyya and Gedeo.

    The classification of Cushitic is shown below with language names in italics followed by their  geographical distribution and approximate number of speakers:

  1. A.North Cushitic (in Sudan, south-eastern Egypt and Eritrea) includes Beja (Bedawiyet) spoken by 1.5 million people.

  1. B. Central Cushitic (in Ethiopia and Eritrea) includes:

  2. Bilen in Eritrea (100,000 speakers)

  3. Awngi in the Amhara region of Ethiopia (500,000)

  4. Khamta (Xamtanga) in the same region (230,000)

  5. Kemant (Qimant) in the same region (1,700)

  1. C.East Cushitic (from Eritrea to Tanzania) is divided into Highland, Lowland, and South Cushitic plus the isolate Dahalo:

  1. 1.Highland East Cushitic (in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia):

  2. Sidamo or Sidaama (3,200,000)

  3. Hadiyya (1,400,000)

  4. Gedeo (1,050,000)

  5. Kambaata (680,000)

  6. Alaba (250,000)

  7. Burji (70,000). Also spoken in northern Kenya

  8. Libido (60,000)

  1. 2.Lowland East Cushitic (from Eritrea to Tanzania) divided into Southern and Saho-Afar subgroups:

  1. I. Southern Lowland (Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya)

  2. Somali (16,200,000) in Somalia, SE Ethiopia, NE Kenya

  3. Konso (270,000) in SW Ethiopia

  4. Gidole or Dirasha (50,000) in SW Ethiopia

  5. Daasanac (60,000) in SW Ethiopia and Kenya (around Lake Turkana)

  6. Arbore (7,500) in SW Ethiopia

  7. Baiso (5,500) in SW Ethiopia

  8. Dullay [Gawwada + Tsamai] (90,000) in SW Ethiopia

  9. Oromo (27,500,000) in Ethiopia (Oromia region), and Kenya

  10. Rendille (60,000) in Kenya

  11. Boni (Aweer) (8,000) in Kenya

  1. II. Saho-Afar (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti)

  2. Saho (250,000) in Eritrea and Ethiopia (Tigray region)

  3. Afar (1,500,000) in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti

  1. 3.Isolate: Dahalo, spoken by 400  people (in 1992) in Kenya (close to the coast)

  1. 4.South Cushitic (NE Tanzania): including Iraqw (550,000 speakers), Alagwa (30,000), and Burunge (13,000).


  1. Phonology

  2. -Cushitic languages typically have ten vowels, namely short and long i, e, a, o, u.

  1. -Most Cushitic languages include a third series of consonants alongside the voiced and voiceless series. These are glottalized consonants of the ejective or implosive type. Some languages, like Afar and Somali, have pharyngeal fricatives in their inventory but do not have ejectives or implosives. Many languages don't have a p sound. Gemination of consonants is common.

  1. -They have a tone-accent system, contrasting high and low tone. It indicates morphological rather than lexical differences.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. -Nouns have masculine or feminine grammatical gender. The latter is marked by suffix and/or tone (the masculine is not marked). There is concord marking in pronouns and verbs.

  1. -Plural is expressed in many different ways by a variety of suffixes. Besides plural, some languages differentiate collective, singulative (one among a group) and paucal (a few) in nouns. In Lowland East Cushitic exists gender polarity in some nouns i.e. they are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, or vice versa.

  1. -There are two primary cases, an unmarked absolutive and a marked nominative. This system is relatively rare among languages of the world. The nominative refers to the subject. The absolutive is the citation form, used for direct object and when the noun is the predicative in a nominal sentence. Many languages have also a genitive. Other functions are indicated by suffixes or postpositions.

  1. Verbal

  2. -A conjugated verb is composed of several elements disposed in a precise order. Most verbs consists of: stem-voice marker-person and number marker-TMA (tense-mood-aspect) marker. The voice marker may be present or not, the other elements are obligatory. For example, in Oromo 'we knew' is said 'beekne', where beek is the stem, n is the marker for the first person plural and e the marker of the past tense.

  1. -The most common form of person marking is by suffixes but a restricted group of archaic verbs (having direct correspondents in Berber and Semitic) uses prefixes. Gender is distinguished only in the 3rd singular and thus the Cushitic verb has seven exponents in a given tense (Beja distinguishes gender also in the 2nd person).

  1. Characteristically, the 1st person singular form is identical to the 3rd masculine singular, and the 2nd singular is identical to the 3rd feminine singular. The 2nd and 3rd plurals are often the plural forms of the 2nd singular and 3rd singular masculine respectively. For example, in Somali the present of keen (‘to bring’) is:

  1. black: stem; red: person marker

  2. blue: TAM marker; brown: plural marker

  1. -Tense, mood and aspect (TMA) together constitute a single category in Cushitic and, therefore, they are marked by one suffix only. The primary forms are: past (perfective), non-past (imperfective), and subjunctive (or subordinate) which are marked, most frequently, by a vowel suffix. The subjunctive is employed in dependent clauses. In addition to these three primary forms, most languages have developed a range of other TMA forms with the aid of auxiliaries and/or additional suffix elements. Negative conjugations have distinct paradigms.

  1. -Verbal derivation is manifested in a number of voice categories such as passive, autobenefactive or middle (action for oneself), reciprocal (mutual action) and causative (instigation of an action). The voice markers are generally suffixes that follow the stem of the verb and come before person and TMA markers. Combinations of two derivational suffixes (like causative + passive) may occur. Total or partial reduplication of the stem can be employed to express repetitive or habitual actions.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Cushitic languages generally have Subject-Object-Verb word order. Phrases may be head-initial or head-final.

  1. -Focus marking systems are common and often involve cleft constructions. Focus may be on the noun or on the verb. Noun focus distinguishes if the noun is the subject of the sentence or not. The focus system interacts with the case system. For example, a focalized subject is in the absolutive (instead of in the nominative) and there is no subject agreement on the verb.

  1. -Successive events may be expressed by combining one or more converbs with a final main verb. Converbs are reduced in person and/or tense marking and are sometimes marked for subordination.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Non-Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. M. L. Bender (ed). Michigan State University (1976).

  2. -'Cushitic Overview'. M. Tosco. In Journal of Ethiopian studies 33, 87–121 (2000).

  3. -'Cushitic Languages'. D. Appleyard. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 272-275. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  4. -'The Limits of Cushitic'. R. Hetzron. In Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 2, 7–126 (1980).

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    Cushitic Languages

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