Afro-Asiatic Languages

Chad Table of Contents

Two major Afro-Asiatic language are represented in Chad. Chadic languages stretch from the western borders of Nigeria to Ouaddaï Prefecture, and Arabic-speaking populations are scattered throughout the Sahel.

Chadic Languages

Most speakers of Chadic languages, including the 20 million speakers of Hausa, the major Chadic language, live west of Chad. The peculiar east-west distribution of Chadic along the southern fringe of the Sahara from western Nigeria to eastern Chad has led some experts to suggest that ancestral Chadic languages were spoken by peoples living along the southern shores of the Paleochadian Sea. The first cluster of languages is closely associated with water--the lake, the delta, the Chari and Logone rivers, and their adjacent floodplains. Water also is important to the economies of most of the populations speaking these languages. In the second cluster, Chadic speakers are descended from refugee populations who perhaps sought shelter in the highlands when the contraction of the sea and the increased aridity of the region allowed the penetration of more aggressive herding populations.

Within Chad, the Chadic languages are distributed in two patterns. The first extends from Lake Chad south along the Chari and Logone rivers to Mayo-Kebbi Prefecture. Individual languages fall into five groups, arrayed from north to southeast.

Buduma-Kouri is spoken by two groups of lake people who intermarry despite some social differences. The Buduma, who believe that they are the original inhabitants of Lake Chad, live on its northern islands and shores. In the past, the Buduma spent much of their time fishing on lake islands. In recent times, however, their economic activities have diversified to include farming and herding. Active in commerce between Chad and Nigeria, the Buduma raise cattle whose very large and hollow horns serve as flotation devices that permit their owners to "herd" them in the lake itself. The lake has long protected the Buduma, allowing them to maintain a separate identity. Despite centuries of contact with Islamic states around the lake, for example, they maintained their own religion until the early twentieth century.

The Kouri, who speak the same language, live on the shores and islands of the southern part of Lake Chad. More devout Muslims, the Kouri believe that they are descendants of Muslim migrants from Yemen and that they are related to the Kanembu, whose medieval empire sponsored the spread of Islam in the region. Kouri economic activities resemble those of the Buduma; however, the absence of polders along this part of the lakeshore has led the Kouri to confine farming to small plots around their villages. Although they confine their herds to the islands during the dry season, they may entrust them to neighboring Kanembu for pasturing during the rains.

Kotoko is spoken along the lower Chari and Logone rivers by peoples thought to be descendants of the legendary Sao. Divided into small states with fortified cities as their capitals, the Kotoko consider themselves "owners of the land" by virtue of their long residence, and other peoples in the region recognize this claim. For example, neighboring Arabs pay tribute for the right to farm and herd. The Kotoko also have a monopoly over fishing and water transport. Rights to the waters of the Logone and Chari rivers are divided among the cities, each of which has a "chief of the waters," whose communications with the water spirits determine the opening of the fishing season. Non-Kotoko must pay for the right to fish. Outnumbered in their own lands by Bororo and Arab herders, only about 7,000 Kotoko lived in Chad in the late 1960s; three times as many lived across the Logone in Cameroon. Strife in Chad -- particularly the troubles in N'Djamena in 1979 and 1980--probably has accelerated the emigration of the Kotoko from Chad.

Massa languages, including Massa, Moussey, Marba, and Dari, are centered in southern Chari-Baguirmi and Mayo-Kebbi prefectures. The Massa proper farm, herd, and fish in floodplains of the middle Chari. Repeatedly through their history, the Massa suffered raids from their Muslim neighbors--the Kanuri of the Borno Empire, the Barma of the Bagirmi Empire, and the Fulani of Cameroon. The Massa survived these military onslaughts, in part because their villages, which crown the hills in the Chari floodplain, afforded protection for much of the year. Having survived these threats, in recent years the Massa ironically have adopted Muslim dress and have superimposed some features of Fulani political structure on their local "chiefs of the lands." The other speakers of Massa languages resemble the Massa proper. Estimated to number 120,000 in the late 1970s, the largest group among them is the Moussey, who live in and around Gounou Gaya in Mayo-Kebbi Prefecture.

The last cluster of Chadic languages in this first distribution encompasses Nachéré, Lélé, Gablai, and Guidar spoken primarily in Tandjilé Prefecture and with outlying languages that include Gabri (in Tandjilé Prefecture) and Toumak, Somrai, Ndam, Miltou, and Saraoua (in Moyen-Chari Prefecture). This cluster of languages forms a transition zone between the Massa and the Sara languages. The numbers of speakers of these languages are small, probably because their peoples have been absorbed by more numerous neighbors through intermarriage or emigration.

The second Chadic language distribution comprises two clusters. The first brings together the languages spoken by the Hajerai, the mountain peoples of Guéra Prefecture. These peoples are descended from refugees from the surrounding plains who sought shelter in the mountains when invaded by raiders from neighboring centralized states. Despite the presence of non-Chadic languages (such as Kenga, which is part of the Sara-Bongo-Baguirmi group), most Hajerai speak Chadic languages, such as Djongor, Dangaleat, Bidyo, Mogoum, Sokoro, Barain, and Saba. The Hajerai groups share important religious institutions, such as the margai cult of place spirits; at the same time, they maintain separate identities and refuse to intermarry. All have traditions of fierce independence. The Hajerai were among the earliest supporters of rebellion against the Chadian national government in the 1960s.

Moubi languages of Ouaddaï Prefecture make up the second cluster of this second distribution of Chadic languages. The Moubi are a sedentary people who live south of the Massalit. They grow millet, sorghum, sesame, beans, cotton, and peanuts. In recent years, they have also adopted cattle herding, a practice borrowed from the Missiriye Arab herders who regularly cross their lands and with whom the Moubi have long exchanged goods and services. Like the Hajerai, the Moubi have resisted the government since shortly after independence.


There are about thirty different dialects of Arabic in Chad. The Arabs divide themselves into three major "tribes": the Juhayna, the Hassuna, and the Awlad Sulayman. In this context, tribe refers to a group claiming descent from a common ancestor. The Juhayna, who began arriving from Sudan in the fourteenth century, are by far the most important. The Hassuna, who migrated to Chad from Libya, live in Kanem Prefecture. The Awlad Sulayman also hail from Libya, but they arrived in the nineteenth century, well after the others. Most of the Arabs are herders or farmers.

Among Arabic herdsmen, life-styles vary considerably. The different needs of camels, cattle, goats, and sheep result in different patterns of settlement and movement. In addition to herding, many Arabic speakers earn their livelihoods as small and middle-level merchants. In N'Djamena and in towns such as Sarh and Moundou, Arabic speakers dominated local commerce up until the 1970s; however, because of the anti-Muslim violence in the south in the late 1970s, many moved to central or nothern Chad.

Despite the diversity of dialects and the scattered distribution of Arabic-speaking populations, the language has had a major impact on Chad. In the Sahel, Arab herdsmen and their wives frequent local markets to exchange their animals, butter, and milk for agricultural products, cloth, and crafts. Itinerant Arab traders and settled merchants in the towns play major roles in local and regional economies. As a result, Chadian Arabic (or Turku) has became a lingua franca, or trade language. Arabic also has been important because it is the language of Islam and of the Quran, its holy book. Quranic education has stimulated the spread of the language and enhanced its stature among the non-Arab Muslims of Chad.

Not all Arabic speakers are of Arab descent. The assimilation of local peoples (both free and slave) into Arabic groups has affected both the dialects and the customs of Arabic speakers in Chad. Non-Arabs also have adopted the language. To cite two examples, the Yalna and the Bandala are of Hajerai and Ouaddaïan origin, respectively, and were probably originally slaves who adopted the Arabic language of their masters. Among the Runga, who were not slaves, Arabic is also widely spoken.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress