The Nilotic
 Language Family
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The Nilotic language family is a member of the larger Nilo-Saharan phylum. The Nilo-Saharan phylum is one of at least four major language phyla found on the African continent.  The relationship between Nilo-Saharan and Nilotic might be roughly comparable to the relationship between Indo-European and West Germanic (the latter being comprised of English, Frisian, Flemish, Dutch and Afrikaans).

Presently, there are two competing theories about the internal structure of the Nilo-Saharan language family (Ehret 2001, Bender 1997), but both place the Nilotic family within the Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan.

       Democratic Republic of Congo

The Nilotic family contains some 29 to 53 languages.  Determining the precise number of Nilotic languages depends on complex issues that involve degree of mutual linguistic comprehension between speakers of different language varieties, and ethnic self-identity.  Generally, linguists say that if two language varieties are not mutually intelligible between their respective speakers, then the varieties should be called distinct "languages" (rather than "dialects of a single language").  However, intelligibility is a matter of degree. For example, someone may understand another language variety at about 75%. Does that make the two varieties dialects, or separate languages?  If comprehension is at 70%, does that make them separate languages?

Within Nilotic, there are three sub-branches, according to linguist Rainer Vossen (1983). These have been designated "Western," "Eastern," and "Southern." The labels refer to linguistic groupings, and not primarily to geographical distribution, though there is a rough geographical reality to the terms.



Long before there were written records, Nilotic peoples apparently migrated from the Nile River area as far south as the region of modern Tanzania.   Some Nilotic groups had intensive contact with Cushitic (Afro-Asiatic) peoples, and with Niger-Congo peoples. This has resulted in mutual cultural and linguistic impact across Nilotic, Cushitic, and Niger-Congo language families.

Modernly, Nilotic languages are spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. 


The Eastern Nilotic branch of the family extends from Sudan down into Tanzania.  Eastern Nilotic groups appear to have had extensive interaction with Southern Nilotic groups. As a result, they share many cultural and linguistic patterns in common.  For example, in most languages of both Eastern and Southern Nilotic groups, sentences begin with the verb. Also, "Subject" and "Object" are usually distinguished by tonal patterns on nouns, and verb words are complex.  Eastern Nilotic languages include Bari, Teso-Turkana and other closely related languages [or dialects], Otuxo, Maa, and now-extinct Ongamo. 

Southern Nilotic languages are spoken in Kenya and Tanzania.  Some Southern Nilotic languages include Datoga, Pakot, Endo, Saboat, and Nandi. (The term "Kalenjin" is commonly applied to some of these languages.)  Southern Nilotic groups appear to have had considerable contact with some Cushitic (Afro-Asiatic) language groups.


Most Western Nilotic languages are spoken in Sudan, but they also extend into Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya.  Some Western Nilotic languages include Shilluk, Acholi, Dinka, Dholuo, Nuer and Lango. Western Nilotic languages usually have very short words, and sentences tend to have Subject-Verb-Object order.



Nilotic groups have experienced significant and sustained contact with outside influences over the past century. These outside influences include colonialism and the drawing of international boundaries across their traditional areas (e.g., the Maasai straddle the Tanzania-Kenya border; Luo are found in Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan), mission activities, western-oriented educational systems, establishment of international cities such as Nairobi in their traditional areas, tourists, national government policies, etc.  Also, a number of small ethnic groups have been, and continue to be, absorbed into larger Nilotic language groups.

For decades, a number of Nilotic languages and cultures have experienced significant disruption due to war, famine, and movements to refugee camps in search of food, medical attention, and safety.  This has been especially true for groups in the Sudan, northern DRC, and Uganda; many speakers of Western Nilotic languages are now found in Europe and the United States, as well as in refugee camps throughout East Africa.


All these event have significant implications for cultural and linguistic survival into the Twenty-first century.

At present, the number of speakers per Nilotic language ranges from about 3.5 million for Dholuo (found in western Kenya and Uganda), to 50 or fewer for some highly endangered languages.  Most Nilotic languages are somewhere in between these two extremes, with a few hundred thousand speakers.

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This page last updated June 2002, by Doris L. Payne