An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification. Nilo-Saharan, Eastern Sudanic, Nilotic, West Nilotic. Dinka is very close to Nuer, spoken to the east of the Dinka area, and is also related to Luo.

Overview. The Dinka are the largest ethnic group of South Sudan and, before its independence, their language was, with several million speakers, the most numerous of the approximately one-hundred native languages of all Sudan. Dinka's words are, with few exceptions, monosyllabic but with an unusual complex morphology, expressed by changes in vowel length, voice quality and tone.

Distribution and Speakers. Dinka is spoken by 3.5 million people in the central regions of South Sudan along the White Nile and its tributaries.


Status. It had no official status in Sudan, as Arabic and English are the only official languages. After the independence of South Sudan in 2011, English was adopted as the official language of the new country but all South Sudanese indigenous languages were recognized at the national level.

Varieties. There are five main dialect groups: 1) Northeastern or Padang, 2) Northwestern or Ruweng, 3) Southwestern or Rek, 4) Southcentral or Agar, 5) Southeastern or Bor.

Oldest Documents. They are two grammars written by Europeans:

  1. 1866.Die Dinka-Sprache in Central-Afrika by Johannes C. Mitterrutzner.

  1. 1870.Grammatica della lingua Denka by Giovanni Beltrame.


Syllable structure: Dinka is essentially monosyllabic. Most syllables are CVC or CV. As a rule, consonant clusters are not permitted but an initial consonant may be followed by one or two semivowels. Most polysyllabic words are compound words and loanwords. Besides, there are comparatively few native monomorphemic nouns of two syllables whose first syllable is invariably a. Native verb stems are strictly monosyllabic.

Vowels (13). Dinka has a complex vowel system based on three front, one central and three back vowels with four levels of vowel height:


Suprasegmental distinctions  – voice quality, vowel length and tone play an essential grammatical and lexical role. Vowels can be pronounced with two different voice qualities, each of them except u, being creaky or breathy (u is always non-breathy). Breathy vowels are pronounced with a lowering of the larynx which leads to a dilation of the vocal tract. Vowels can be short or long or, according to some scholars, exhibit a unique three-way distinction between short, middle and long. There are two basic tones, low and high, which may combine to form a falling tone.

Consonants (20): The consonantal system is remarkable for the contrast between dental and alveolar stops and nasals. Stops (voiceless and voiced) as well as nasals are articulated at five different places. There are no affricates and just one fricative (which some interpret as an approximant). Certain final consonants (including semivowels) are nasalized before adjectives and demonstratives as well as in genitive and relative constructions.


Script and Orthography. Dinka uses a Latin-based alphabet complemented with some signs of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It was first established at the Rejaf language conference in 1928 but modified several times since.

    It has 33 signs which represent, perfectly, each and everyone of the 33 phonemes of Dinka i.e. its 13 vowels and 20 consonants. They are shown below with their IPA equivalents between brackets:



  1. breathy vowels are marked by dieresis.

  2. long vowels are indicated by doubling.

  3. tones are not marked in the script.

  4. proper dentals [] [] [] are represented by the digraphs th, dh, nh.

  5. the palatal stop ɟ is symbolized by j.

  6. the palatal nasal ɲ is written with the digraph ny.


As most Dinka words are monosyllabic, morphology is largely based on changes in length and quality of the stem's vowel as well as on tone variation.

  1. Nominal

  2. case: objective, locative. The objective marks the direct object of a verb by lengthening the vowel of the noun or pronoun. The locative refers to a place by vowel lengthening and/or vowel change.

  1. objective: yɛn acɔl waa (the vowel of wa [‘my father’] is lengthened)

  2. I  call my father

  1. locative: nyaŋ ato wiir (war [‘river’] changes into wiir)

  2. crocodile is in the river

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender. The male sex of animals is indicated by adding the word thɔn (singular) and thon (plural) after the animal's name. The female sex by adding ŋuot (singular) and ŋut (plural). A few animals have special terms for the different sexes.

  1. number: singular and plural. Sometimes the singular is marked and the plural left unmarked; other times the opposite is true. If an object is normally plural (like 'hair') it is marked in the singular ('one single hair'). Number marking depends, mostly, on vowel length and/or change in vowel quality:

  2. pal (‘knife’) → paal (‘knives’)            lengthening of vowel

  3. ciin (‘hand’) → cin (‘hands’)               shortening of vowel

  4. baai (‘village’) → bɛɛi (‘villages’)      change of vowel

  5. meth (‘child’) → miith (‘children’)    change and lengthening of vowel

Other plurals are made by changing the noun ending or by using a different word:

  1. nya (‘girl’) → nyir (‘girls’)

  2. moc (‘man’) → ror (‘men’)

  1. possession: is indicated by suffixes attached to the noun which, more often than not, trigger a vowel and an ending change. There are 12 possessive suffixes which refer not only to the number and person of the possessor but also to the number of the thing possessed:

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative,

  2. indefinite, reflexive.

  1. Personal pronouns distinguish three persons and two numbers (singular and plural) but those for the third person are often omitted; they do not distinguish gender. They have full and shortened forms; the latter are used when they are objects of a verb in a compound tense and also after an imperative or interrogative.



  1. Demonstrative pronouns are proximal or distal

  2. (this/that), singular and plural: kene (‘this’), kaka (‘these’), kɛne (‘that’), kakui (‘those’). Dinka has also a suffixed pronoun: -e (‘this’), -ka (‘these’); the former causes a change in the noun ending e.g. tik (‘woman’), tiŋe (‘this woman’).

  1. There are two interrogative pronouns, ŋa (‘who?’) and ŋo (‘what?’), and several indefinite ones, including ŋɛk (‘somebody’), kedaŋ (‘something’), (‘other’), kedhie (‘all’).

  1. The reflexive pronouns are rot/rɔt and guop. The latter, attached to a personal pronoun, becomes person-specific (e.g. yin guop = ‘yourself’).

  1. Verbal.

  2. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.  Verbs are not inflected for person and number, they are indicated by personal pronouns.

  1. tense: indefinite, habitual, past, future. The main verb form has a long vowel or a diphthong. All tenses, except the indefinite, are formed with the prefix a- followed by a tense marker particle placed before the verb. The habitual takes ye, the past tense ci, the future bi. The indefinite has no tense marker but the vowel of the main verb is shortened (and sometimes changed); it expresses a definite statement in the present, past or future and it may have a progressive sense. As the verb itself doesn’t indicate person and number it must be accompanied by a personal pronoun.

  2. These tenses are negated also by particles: ci negates the indefinite and the future, kec the past, and cie the habitual. Ci is homophonous with the past tense marker but they are differentiated by tone.

  3. Main verb form: luui (‘to work’)

  4. Indefinite: ɣen alui    I am working

  5. Neg. Indefinite: ɣen aci lui    I am not working

  6. Habitual: ɣen aye luui    I work

  7. Neg. Habitual: ɣen acie luui    I don’t work

  8. Past: ɣen aci luui    I worked

  9. Neg. Past: ɣen akec luui    I didn’t work

  10. Future: ɣen abi luui    I shall work

  11. Neg. Future: ɣen aci bi luui    I shall not work

  1. voice: active, passive. When the agent is not mentioned, the passive form is identical to the active, being differentiated by intonation and context. When an agent is mentioned there is usually  a vowel change e.g. aman (‘to hate’), amɛn (‘to be hated’),

  1. mood: indicative, interrogative-imperative. The imperative and interrogative forms are the same, differing only in intonation. In questions and answers the subject pronoun is contracted with the tense particles and in questions the prefix a- is omitted. Prohibitions are expressed with the auxiliary verb duk placed before the indefinite or habitual form of the main verb.

  1. ca luui    Did I work? (ca = ci + ɣen)

  2. cik luui    Did they work? (cik = ci + kek)


In general word order is Subject-Verb-Object but in one dialect (Agar) the subject is postverbal. Adjectives and numerals follow their nouns. When the numeral is prefixed by ka- the noun adopts the plural; if the numeral lacks this prefix the noun is put in the singular:

  1. ɣɛn awic  ajiith karou

  2. I     want   hens   two     

  3. I want two hens.

  1. Tik    anɔy ajith tyaar

  2. woman has  hen  ten

  3. The woman has ten hens.

Postverbal (but not preverbal) subjects are marked with nominative case by way of tonal inflection, a feature also found in other Western Nilotic languages. Prepositions indicate syntactical relations: tene ('to'), kam ('between', 'among'), rin ('for', 'on behalf'), ɣet ('until'), ke ('with', 'and').

Passive sentences without an agent have the same form as in the active voice, being differentiated only by intonation and context:

  1. yen  acɔl      manh-de

  2. he is calling  son-his

  1. acɔl  Lual

  2. (he is) called Lual

When the agent is mentioned, verbs without a tense particle are accentuated and may experience a vowel change. When there is a tense particle, its vowel is lengthened.


Lexical borrowings are mainly from colloquial Arabic and English. The former has provided loanwords for household utensils, foodstuffs and common function words. The latter has contributed to the fields of administration, education, science and technology. Kinship terms are always expressed in relation to somebody and never in abstract form ('our mother', 'your father', 'my sister', etc).

Basic Vocabulary

one: tök

two: rou, reu

three: diäk

four: ŋuan

five: dhiëc

six: dhetem, detem

seven: dhorou

eight: bët

nine: dhoŋuan

ten: thiäär, tyaar

hundred: buɔt

(his/her) father: wä, wär, wur, wun, wah, awä

(his/her) mother: maar, ma, mä, man

(his/her) brother: mɛ̈nhë, wamenh

(his/her) sister: nya, nyan, nyanken

son: menh, meth, wät

daughter: nya

head: nom, nɔm , nhom

face: nyin

eye: nyin, nyïn

hand: ciin

foot: cök

heart: piou, puöu, piän,

tongue: liɛp, liɛ̈p, liep

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Dinka Grammar (Rek-Malual dialect) with texts and vocabulary. A. Nebel. Instituto Missioni Africane (1948).

  2. -'Le Dinka (Agar)'. A. N. Tucker. In Les Langues dans le Monde Ancien et Moderne: Afrique Subsaharienne, pidgins et créoles, 293-308. CNRS (1981).

  3. -'The Phonemic System of Agar Dinka'. T. Andersen. In Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 9: 1-27 (1987).

  4. -'Case inflection and nominal head marking in Dinka'. T. Andersen. In Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 23: 1-30 (2002).

  5. -Modern Developments in the Dinka Language. H. F. Idris. Göteborg Africana Informal Series 3 (2004).

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary



Address comments and questions to: