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Name Origin: Kanuri means 'person'.

Classification. Nilo-Saharan, Saharan. Other members of the Saharan branch are Tedaga, Dazaga and Zaghawa.

Overview. Kanuri is one of the three major languages of northern Nigeria (the other two are Hausa and Fula) and is also spoken in Chad and Niger. It is associated with the Karen-Bornu trading empire that ruled around Lake Chad from the 9th to 19th centuries. Kanuri served as a lingua franca of northern Nigeria but its role was reduced in favor of Hausa during colonial times. It is a tonal language with an agglutinating morphology and verb-final sentences.

Distribution. Kanuri is spoken west, north and east of Lake Chad: in northeastern Nigeria (state of Borno), eastern Niger, western Chad (states of Kanem, Lake and Chari-Baguirmi) and northern Cameroon. A substantial number of Kanuri expatriates live in Sudan.

Speakers. About 7 million people in the following countries:












  1. 1. Half a million of these are Kanembu speakers.


Status. Kanuri is one of the national languages of Nigeria and Niger. A standard Kanuri orthography was formulated in Nigeria where the language is taught in schools and at the University of Maiduguri (capital of the state of Borno), being used in the media as well.

Varieties. Kanuri has many dialects. The main ones are:

  1. 1.Yerwa (or Maiduguri) spoken in the capital of the Borno state of northeastern Nigeria and used as a lingua franca in parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Sudan.

  1. 2.Mobar, closely related to Yerwa, spoken in Nigeria and Niger.

  1. 3.Manga, spoken in eastern Niger and northeastern Nigeria.

  1. 4.Kanembu, spoken in Chad, considered by some as a different language though is mutually intelligible with other Kanuri dialects.

Oldest Documents

17th c.   A short vocabulary.

  1. 1790.The first printed record of Kanuri is a list of numerals.

  1. 1854.Grammar of the Bornu or Kanuri Language by Sigismund Koelle.

  1. 1854.African Native Literature, or proverbs, tales, fables and historical fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu language, to which are added a translation of the above and a Kanuri-English vocabulary by Sigismund Koelle.


Syllable structure: the only permissible ones are CV, CVV and CVC. Syllables consisting of a single vowel, that occur only in word initial position, are the result of borrowing from other languages. Excluding adverbs, the only final possible consonants are the sonorants: m, n, l, r.

Vowels (7): The Kanuri script recognizes six vowels but scholars think there is a seventh one (ᴧ).


Consonants (22): The most remarkable feature of the consonantal system is the occurrence of prenasalized consonants. Like many other North African languages, Kanuri lacks a p phoneme, but p occurs as an allophone of b before voiceless plosives. The rhotic (r-like sound) is a tap.


Tones: Kanuri has two basic tones, high and low, which can combine to give contour tones. The combination high-low may produce a falling tone, the combination low-high a rising tone. The combination high-low-high may result in the production of mid-tones by raising and lowering of the two last tones (high-mid-mid). Kanuri tones serve to make grammatical and lexical distinctions.

Script and Orthography. Ajami, a modified Arabic script, was used formerly to write Kanuri. Nowadays a Latin-based script is preferred. In Nigeria a standard Kanuri orthography was established in 1974. Below each letter, is shown its equivalence in the International Phonetic Alphabet.



  1. tones are not marked in the script. In academic or didactic works, high tone is marked with an acute accent, low tone with a grave accent, falling tone with a circumflex accent, and rising tone with a combination of acute and grave ones.

  2. the glottal stop is not written.

  3. the two low vowels are not differentiated in the script, they are both written a.

  4. prenasalized consonants are represented with the digraphs mb, nd and ng.

  5. the palatal and velar nasals are represented with the digraphs ny and ng, respectively.


  1. Nominal. Adjectives and adverbs do not differ from nouns phonologically, morphologically or syntactically.

  1. gender: Kanuri does not have grammatical gender.

  1. number: singular and plural. With very few exceptions, plurals are marked by adding the suffix - to the singular. This suffix, which is always high tone, renders all other preceding tones of the word as low tones. The spelling wa does not reflects the actual pronunciation; in fact the w is not pronounced and when the word ends in a consonant it is pronounced long:

  1. njîm (‘hut’) → njìmwá [njìmmá]

  2. bàbúr (‘motorcycle’) → bàbùrwá [bàbùrrá]

  3. féró (‘girl’) → fèròwá [fèròá]

  1. pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite.

  2. Personal pronouns are genderless. As the finite verbs carry their own subject pronouns as affixes, and may carry also object pronouns, the independent personal pronouns are frequently omitted. They all end in a high vowel and high tone:


1s    wú

2s    nyí

3s    shí


1p    àndí

2p    nàndí

3p    sàndí

  1. They may be marked by postpositions, by the determiner dǝ́, or by the emphatic particle . These markers are attached to the pronouns as suffixes.

  1. Possessive pronouns can be suffixed to a noun or be independent. The independent forms are used when the head noun is omitted or for emphasis; they are derived from the suffixed forms by prefixation of kàá:
















  1. kàkkê

  2. kàánǝ̀m

  3. kàánzǝ̀

  4. kàándè

  5. kàándò

  6. kàánzà

  1. Like the personal pronouns, the possessive pronouns (either suffixed or independent) may be suffixed with postpositions, the determiner particle or the emphatic particle.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish a referent that is near from one that is far, and if it is one or many: ádǝ̀ (‘this’), ányì (‘these’), túdù (‘that’), túnyì (‘those’). They can function as true pronouns by replacing the noun or as adjectives by qualifying it. In the latter case, they (like all Kanuri determiners) follow the qualified noun.

  1. There are several basic interrogative pronouns from which a few more are derived by adding postpositions (i.e. why = for what): ndú (‘who?’), àbí (‘what?’), ndásò (‘which?’), sàbí (‘when?’), ndâ(n) (‘where?’), fútùbîn (‘how?’). Indefinite pronouns derive from the interrogative ones by suffixing -só or by adding yàyé: ndúsó (‘everyone’), ndú yàyé (‘whoever’), àbísó (‘everything’), àbí yàyé (‘whatever’), etc. Negative pronouns are made by suffixing -má to the interrogatives: ndúmá (‘no one’), àbímá (‘nothing’), etc.

  1. compounds: nominal compounds are frequent and productive, they generally include two nouns but there are also combinations of a noun with a verbal root. Verbal compounds are also frequent.

  1. Verbal. Finite verbs are agglutinative adding affixes to the root to indicate person-number and tense-aspect-mood (TAM). Most TAM markers are suffixes placed after the person and number marker but some consist of both, prefixes and suffixes. If the verb is negated, the negative marker is placed after these inflectional morphemes. Derivational morphemes may form part of the verbal complex; they usually precede the root. The object (first or second persons) can be incorporated into the verb complex in the form of prefixed personal pronouns.

  2.     There are two kinds of verbs in Kanuri. Class I verbs are historically the older, their number is fixed at less than 150. Newer verbs are included in Class II; they are identified by having an additional morpheme (n) which is in fact a verbal root meaning 'think', 'say'. In principle, any lexical item can be converted into a Class II verb through this mechanism.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense-aspect-mood (TAM): imperfect, perfect, past, future, verb emphasis completive, noun emphasis completive, imperative-subjunctive.

  2. The imperfect is used for incomplete actions in the past, present and future as well as for progressive actions. The perfect for neutral actions completed in the past. The past may be employed as a narrative tense or when a constituent of the verbal phrase is questioned, negated, emphasized or marked by postpositions or adverbs. The future is used less frequently than other tense-aspects, the imperfect being preferred to express forthcoming actions; the future is, usually, reserved for formal situations and proverbs. The verb emphasis completive (or predicative) underscores the achievement of a recent or difficult action. The noun emphasis completive (or relative past) puts the subject or the object in focus. The imperative and subjunctive in Kanuri cannot be separated, the imperative-subjunctive expresses wishes, commands or blessings.

  3. The person and number markers for the 1st and 2nd persons follow the root but the markers for the 3rd person precede it. The  past as well as the future are marked by a combination of a prefix and a suffix while the other TAMs are marked by suffixes only. The juxtaposition of morphemes leads frequently to phonological assimilation which, sometimes, difficult their recognition. As an example, we show the conjugation of ('to eat'), a verb of Class I:


  1. v.e.c.: verb emphasis completive; n.e.c.: noun emphasis completive; imp-subj.: imperative-subjunctive.

  2. black: root; blue: person-number marker; red: TAM marker.

  1. *The past and the future are homophonous in the 1st and 2nd persons of Class I verbs.

  2. *The imperative-subjunctive has a 1st person dual form (búiyè).

  3. *The imperfect, future, past and imperative-subjunctive have negative conjugations.

  1. derivative conjugations: applied, passive-reflexive, causative, intensive.

  2. The applied derivation extends the meaning and/or the syntactical capabilities of the basic form of the verb by expressing direction, location, reference to a person or thing, effort, or by making an intransitive verb transitive, or by adding a causative connotation. The causative frequently overlaps in meaning with the applied derivation. The intensive, expressing a repeated or prolonged action, is formed by reduplication of the initial syllable of the verb.

  1. non-finite forms: verbal nouns, past participle.

  2. Most verbs have two verbal nouns but some have one or three. The past participle is unique to Class II verbs; it is formed by adding the suffix -kata to the root and is used mainly as an adjective in a noun phrase.

  1. serial verbs: a sequence of actions may be expressed by combining one or more verbs in the conjunctive form with a fully inflected finite verb. The conjunctive is inflected for person and number but not for TAM which is determined by the last finite verb. The subject of the different verbs of the serial construction may be different though, often, it is the same.


Word order is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), but OSV is also common. Nothing may follow the finite verb form. When the object precedes the subject, the latter is marked with a particle to make its status clear. All nominal modifiers follow the head noun which is quite exceptional among SOV languages. The order of the modifiers is adjective, numeral and demonstrative. Genitives and relative clauses follow also the head noun. The language employs a variety of postpositions which assimilate to the preceding word and are incorporated into it. They are also used as subordinators and complementizers.

  1. fǝ̂r kúrà ìndí ányì

  2. horse big two these     

  3. These two big horses

  1. fátò Músà-bè

  2. house Musa-of

  3. Musa's house

There is no copula and nominal sentences are frequent:

  1. Álì kàsúwù-lan

  2. Ali    market-in     

  3. Ali is in the market.

  1. fǝ̂r-nzǝ́ kúrà

  2. horse-his big

  3. His horse is big.


Kanuri has borrowed words from Arabic, first, and later from Hausa and English. Kanuri, like many African languages, has a special class of words with particular sound characteristics, called ideophones, associated with vivid sensory or mental experiences.

Basic Vocabulary

one: tìló/fál

two: ìndí

three: yàkkǝ́

four: dégǝ́

five: úwù

six: àràkkǝ́

seven: túlùr

eight: wùskú

nine: lǝ̀gár

ten: mèwú

hundred: mìyâ

father: bâ

mother: yâ

elder brother/sister: yèiyá

younger brother/sister: kǝ̀rámì

son: tádà

daughter: férò

head: kǝ̀lâ

eye: shîm

foot/leg: shî

heart: kàrǝ́gè

tongue: tǝ́làm

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Linguistic Properties of the Saharan Languages'. N. Cyffer. In Areal and genetic factors in language classification and description: Africa south of the Sahara, 30-59. P. Zima (ed). Lincom Europa (2000).

  2. -A Study of the Kanuri Language. J. Lukas. Oxford University Press (1937).

  3. -The Kanuri Language: A Reference Grammar. J. P. Hutchison. University of Wisconsin-Madison (1981).

  4. -Advances in Kanuri Scholarship. N. Cyffer & Th. Geider (eds). Rüdiger Köppe (1997).

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