Nilo-Saharan Languages

Chad Table of Contents

Similarities of language do not imply other congruences. Nilo-Saharan language speakers, for example, display a variety of life-styles. Nomads in the Sahara, semisedentary and sedentary peoples in the Sahel, and sedentary populations in the soudanian zone all may speak Nilo-Saharan languages.

Central Saharan Languages

The distribution and numbers of Central Saharan language speakers probably have changed dramatically since independence. The Chadian Civil War and the Chadian-Libyan conflict have disrupted life in the northern part of the country. Also, the rise to power of two heads of state from the far north, Goukouni Oueddei and Hissein Habré, may have inspired the migration of northerners to the national capital and a greater integration of the region into the life of the country.

Teda and Daza are related languages in the Central Saharan group. Teda is spoken by the Toubou people of the Tibesti Mountains and by some inhabitants of nearby oases in northeastern Niger and southwestern Libya. Daza speakers live south of the Toubou in Borkou Subprefecture and Kanem Prefecture, between the Tibesti Mountains and Lake Chad.

Despite their shared linguistic heritage, the Toubou and the Daza do not think of themselves as belonging to a common group. Moreover, each is further divided into subgroups identified with particular places. Among the Toubou, the Teda of Tibesti are the largest subgroup. Daza speakers separate themselves into more than a dozen groups. The Kreda of Bahr el Ghazal are the largest. Next in importance are the Daza of Kanem. Smaller and more scattered subgroups include the Charfarda of Ouaddaï; the Kecherda and Djagada of Kanem; the Doza, Annakaza, Kokorda, Kamadja, and Noarma of Borkou; and the Ounia, Gaeda, and Erdiha of Ennedi.

About one-third of the Teda are nomads. The remainder, along with all of the Daza, are seminomadic, moving from pasture to pasture during eight or nine months each year but returning to permanent villages during the rains. In general, the Teda herd camels and live farther north, where they move from oasis to oasis. The Daza often herd camels, but they also raise horses, sheep, and goats. Their itineraries take them farther south, where some have acquired cattle (whose limited capacity to endure the heat and harsh environment of the northern regions has altered patterns of transhumance). Some cattle owners leave their animals with herders in the south when they return north; others choose to remain in the south and entrust their other animals to relatives or herders who take them north.

Kanembu is the major language of Lac Prefecture and southern Kanem Prefecture. Although Kanuri, which derived from Kanembu, was the major language of the Borno Empire, in Chad it is limited to handfuls of speakers in urban centers. Kanuri remains a major language in southeastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria, and northern Cameroon.

In the early 1980s, the Kanembu constituted the greatest part of the population of Lac Prefecture, but some Kanembu also lived in Chari-Baguirmi Prefecture. Once the core ethnic group of the Kanem-Borno Empire, whose territories at one time included northeastern Nigeria and southern Libya, the Kanembu retain ties beyond the borders of Chad. For example, close family and commercial ties bind them with the Kanuri of northeastern Nigeria. Within Chad, many Kanembu of Lac and Kanem prefectures identify with the Alifa of Mao, the governor of the region in precolonial times.

Baele (also erroneously called Bideyat) is the language of the Bideyat of Ennedi Subprefecture and the Zaghawa of Biltine Prefecture. Despite this similarity, the Zaghawa and the Bideyat exhibit diverse life-styles. Some Zaghawa live in a centralized sultanate, with a ruling family of Dadjo origin; these Zaghawa are semisedentary and prominent in local and regional commerce. Other Zaghawa, however, living primarily in the south, are nomads. The Bideyat also are nomadic.

Ouaddaïan Languages

The origins of Ouaddaïan languages remain obscure, although their distribution implies origins farther east, an interpretation supported by oral traditions. Speakers of Ouaddaïan languages may have moved westward to avoid Arab immigration from the east. Another theory suggests that speakers of Ouaddaïan languages once were continuously distributed throughout the region but subsequently lost ground as the population accepted Arabic.

Although some authorities separate Tama, Dadjo, and Mimi, others consider them to be part of a larger Ouaddaïan group, a linguistic archipelago stretching from western Sudan to central Chad. In Chad they are found in Biltine, Ouaddaï, and Guéra prefectures.

Tama languages are spoken in Biltine and northern Ouaddaï Prefectures, and include Tama, Marari (Abou Charib), Sungor, Kibet, Mourro, and Dagel. The Tama speakers, who live in eastern Biltine Prefecture near the Sudanese border, are the largest of these groups. Although they live in the arid Sahel, crop rotation has allowed them to settle in permanent villages. The Tama live in cantons of several thousand people, each administered by a canton chief. For several centuries, central authority has been vested in sultans believed to be of Dadjo origin, who are enthroned in ceremonies at the ruins of Nir, the precolonial capital.

The Marari and Abou Charib, sedentary peoples sharing a Tama language, live south and west, respectively, of the Tama in Ouaddaï Prefecture. Although they speak a Tama language, their traditions suggest descent from the Tunjur, migrants from Sudan who once ruled the sultanate of Wadai. To the west of the Tama and northwest of the Marari and Abou Charib are the Sungor, another sedentary population. The Sungor consider themselves to be of Yemeni ancestry, a popular and prestigious Islamic pedigree among Muslims of the region. Despite speaking a Tama language, Sungor society and customs most resemble those of the Maba.

The Dadjo language has eastern and western dialects. Once the rulers of the sultanate of Wadai, the Dadjo people were separated into two groups during the fifteenth century. At that time, the Tunjur conquered Wadai, and some Dadjo people fled west. The eastern Dadjo remained in southern present-day Ouaddaï Prefecture and, following defeat by the Tunjur, founded a new sultanate with its capital at Goz Béïda. Their descendants are primarily farmers. The western Dadjo live among the Hajerai peoples of northern Guéra Prefecture. Cognizant of their common origin, the eastern and western groups permit intermarriage.

Mimi is the least frequently spoken Ouaddaïan language. Mimi speakers who live in the plains use Arabic to communicate with their neighbors; Mimi speakers who live in the mountains generally speak Zaghawa with other highland dwellers.

Mabang Languages

Mabang languages are concentrated in the highlands of Ouaddaï Prefecture, but they are also spoken in Biltine and Salamat prefectures. Maba is the major language of the group. Maba speakers are semisedentary farmers who combine millet cultivation during the rainy season with herding during the drier parts of the year. For the last several decades, many Maba laborers have migrated to Sudan. The core ethnic group of the sultanate of Wadai, the Maba played a central role in that state even after conquest by rulers from the east in the seventeenth century. Wadai sultans frequently took Maba women as first wives, and the first dignitary of the court usually was also Maba.

Massalit, another major Mabang language, is spoken by people who live east of the Maba along the Sudan border. Complemented by a far larger Massalit population in Sudan, the Chadian Massalit are farmers who rely on passing animal herds to fertilize their fields.

Massalat speakers are found farther west and are divided into two groups, one in eastern Batha near Ouaddaï Prefecture, and the other in northern Guéra Prefecture. Once part of the larger Massalit community, the Massalat have diverged from the main group. The two languages are sufficiently different that linguists classify Massalat in a separate subgroup. In addition, the Massalat physically and culturally resemble the Dadjo more closely than they do their relatives to the east.

Runga is spoken over a large part of Salamat Prefecture and in a small part of Central African Republic. Many Runga speakers are farmers who grow millet, sorghum, peanuts, and cotton. In the nineteenth century, the Runga were ruled by sultans from a capital in the Salamat region. Herders of Wadai, the Runga also founded Dar al Kuti, the most important precolonial state in northern Central African Republic. Extensive slave raiding by the Sudanese warlord Rabih Fadlallah in the 1890s decimated the Runga in Chad; as late as the 1960s, they numbered only about 12,000.

Other Mabang languages spoken by much smaller populations include Marfa, Karanga, and Kashméré, found in the highlands north of Abéché; Koniéré, spoken in a small region just east of Abéché; and Bakhat, a language of restricted distribution, found west of Abéché.

Sara-Bongo-Baguirmi Languages

Classified in the Chari-Nile subfamily of the Nilo-Saharan languages, Sara-Bongo-Baguirmi languages are scattered from Lake Chad to the White Nile in southwestern Sudan. Unlike Central Saharan languages, when mapped out they form a patchwork quilt rather than a solid band.

Kouka, Bilala, and Medogo, languages spoken around Lake Fitri in southwestern Batha Prefecture, are the northernmost members of this subgroup. These languages are mutually comprehensible, and the peoples who use them are thought to be descendants of the core ethnic groups of the precolonial sultanate of Yao (a state founded by the Bulala, who ruled a vast region extending as far west as Kanem in the fifteenth century). The Kouka, Bilala, and Medogo populations intermarry and share institutions for the mediation of disputes. The groups farm and raise animals, which they sometimes entrust to neighboring Arabs. Their similarities are so striking that they are sometimes classed together as the Lisi.

Barma is spoken in Chari-Baguirmi Prefecture by the Baguirmi, the core population of another precolonial state. Today the Baguirmi are concentrated in and around Massenya, a city southeast of N'Djamena named for their precolonial capital. The Baguirmi identify themselves as either river Barmi or land Barmi. The land Barmi farm millet, sorghum, beans, sesame, peanuts, and cotton. The river Barmi fish along carefully demarcated stretches of the Chari and Bahr Ergig rivers. Arabic loanwords are numerous in Barma, a product of the Baguirmi's adoption of Islam and their interaction with neighboring Arab pastoralists over a long period of time. Long-standing economic ties with the West have also prompted the incorporation of a Kanuri commercial vocabulary.

Kenga, found among the Hajerai in Guéra Prefecture, is closely related to Barma. Although its speakers are said to have played a prominent role in the foundation of the Bagirmi Empire, today they resemble their highland neighbors more closely than their more distant linguistic relatives.

Sara languages of southern Chad constitute the quilt's largest patch, stretching from Logone Occidental Prefecture to eastern Moyen-Chari Prefecture. Linguists divide Sara languages into five subgroups. Sara languages seem to have drifted into southern Chad from the northeast. Eventually, Sara speakers left behind the northern languages of the group as they made their way to the richer hunting grounds and agricultural land south of the Chari River. This must have occurred very long ago, however, because the Sara languages and those of the northern members of the group are mutually unintelligible. Moreover, Sara oral traditions record only short-range migrations of Sara speakers in the south, suggesting that movement from the north happened earlier.


Boua languages are distributed along the middle Chari River in Moyen-Chari Prefecture and in central Guéra Prefecture. Like the Sara, they are divided into five subgroups: Boua proper, Neillim, Tounia, Koke, and Fanian or Mana. Only a few thousand people speak Boua languages, but it is believed that their ancestors preceded Sara-speaking settlers in the Chari Valley. Several centuries ago, all the Boua subgroups may have lived farther north in Guéra Prefecture. Under pressure from slave raiders along the Islamic frontier, some Boua speakers probably migrated southward. Although speakers of Boua proper submitted to neighboring slave raiders from the Bagirmi Empire, they in turn raided their Neillim neighbors to the southeast. Similarly, the Neillim attacked the Tounia to their southeast. The Tounia sought refuge among the Kaba (a Sara subgroup) on the site of the present-day city of Sarh.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress