Nubi language

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Nubi Arabic
Native toUganda, Kenya
Native speakers
44,300 (2009-2014)[1]
Early form
Language codes
ISO 639-3kcn
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The Nubi language (also called Ki-Nubi) is a Sudanese Arabic-based creole language spoken in Uganda around Bombo, and in Kenya around Kibera, by the Ugandan Nubians, many of whom are descendants of Emin Pasha's Sudanese soldiers who were settled there by the British colonial administration. It was spoken by about 15,000 people in Uganda in 1991 (according to the census), and an estimated 10,000 in Kenya; another source estimates about 50,000 speakers as of 2001. 90% of the lexicon derives from Arabic,[2] but the grammar has been simplified,[3] as has the sound system. Nairobi has the greatest concentration of Nubi speakers.[4] Nubi has the prefixing, suffixing and compounding processes also present in Arabic.[5]

Many Nubi speakers are Kakwa who came from the Nubian region, first into Equatoria, and from there southwards into Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They rose to prominence under Ugandan President Idi Amin, who was Kakwa.[6][7]

Jonathan Owens argues that Nubi constitutes a major counterexample to Derek Bickerton's theories of creole language formation, showing "no more than a chance resemblance to Bickerton's universal creole features" despite fulfilling perfectly the historical conditions expected to lead to such features.[citation needed]




There are five vowels in Nubi. Vowels are not distinguished by length except in at least two exceptions from Kenyan Nubi (which are not present in Ugandan dialects) where "bara" means "outside" and is an adverb while "baara" means "the outside" and is a noun, and also where "saara" meaning "bewitch" is compared to "sara" meaning "herd, cattle". Despite this, there is a tendency for vowels in stressed syllables to be registered as long vowels.[2]

Front Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

Each of the vowels has multiple allophones and the exact sound of the vowel depends on the surrounding consonants.[2]


Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Retroflex Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Plosives Voiceless p t k (q) (ʔ)
Voiced b d ɡ
Nasals m (ɱ) n ɲ (ŋ)
Fricatives Voiceless f (θ) s ʃ (x) (ħ) h
Voiced v (ð) z
Affricate Voiceless
Trill/Flap r (ɽ)
Lateral l
Approximant j w

Speakers may use Standard Arabic phonemes for words for which the Arabic pronunciation has been learned. The a retroflex version of the /r/ sound may also occur and some dialects use /l/ in its place. Geminates are very unusual in Nubi. These less common phonemes are shown in brackets.[4] [2]

Ineke Wellens gives the following orthography for Nubi where it differs from the IPA symbols: /ʃ/ = sh; /tʃ/ = ch; // = j; /ɲ/ = ny; /w/ = w or u; /j/ = y or i; /θ/ = th; /ð/ = dh; /x/ = kh; /ħ/ = ḥ.[2]

Syllable Structure[edit]

Syllables typically have a CV, VC, V or CVC structure with VC only occurring in initial syllables. Final and initial CC occur only in a few specific examples such as "skul" which means "school" or "sems" which means "sun".[4]

Stress can change the meaning of words for example "saba" means "seven" or "morning" depending on whether the stress is on the first or second syllables respectively. Vowels are often omitted in unstressed, final syllables and sometime even the stressed final "u" in the passive form may be deleted after "m", "n", "l", "f" or "b". This can caused syllables to be realigned even across words.[4]


Nouns are inflected by number only (taking a singular or plural form) although for most nouns this does not represent a morphological change. Jonathan Owens gives 5 broad inflectional categories of nouns:[4]

  1. Nouns which undergo a stress shift when the plural is formed.
  2. Nouns which undergo apophony.
  3. Nouns which take a suffix and undergo a stress shift in the plural form.
  4. Nouns which form the plural by suppletion
  5. Bantu loan-words which take different prefixes in the singular and plural forms

The table below shows examples of each type of pluralisation. The apostrophe has been placed before the stressed syllable:[4]

Type of


Singular Form Plural Form English Translation
1 yo'wele yowe'le boy(s)
2 ke'bir ku'bar big [thing(s)]
3 'tajir taji'rin rich person(s)
3 'seder sede'ra tree(s)
4 'marya nus'wan woman / women1
5 muze waze old man / old men

1"Nuswan" may be supplemented by a suffix as if it were type 3, thus, "nuswana" could also mean "women".[4]

Adjectives follow the noun and some adjectives have singular and plural forms which must agree with the noun. Adjectives may also take the prefixes "al", "ali", "ab" or "abu" which mark them as habitual. When a noun is a possessor follow the possessed noun and is mark with the particle "ta" which is placed between the two nouns. The particle can be omitted in what are called inalienable possessed nouns where it is clear that the latter possesses the former.[4]

See also[edit]


  • Bernd Heine (1982) The Nubi Language of Kibera – an Arabic Creole. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
  • Boretzky, N. (1988). "Zur grammatischen Struktur des Nubi". Beiträge zum 4. Essener Kolloquium über Sprachkontakt, Sprachwandel, Sprachwechsel, Sprachtod, edited by N. Boretzky et al., 45–88. Bochum: Brockmeyer.
  • Luffin, X., Un créole arabe : le kinubi de Mombasa, Kenya, Munich, Lincom Europa, 2005 (470 p.)
  • Luffin, X., Kinubi Texts, Munich, Lincom Europa, 2004 (173 p.)
  • Luffin, X., Les verbes d’état, d’existence et de possession en kinubi, Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 43, 2004 : 43–66
  • Musa-Wellens, I. (1994) A descriptive sketch of the verbal system of the Nubi language, spoken in Bombo, Uganda. MA thesis, Nijmegen.
  • Nhial, J. "Kinubi and Juba Arabic. A comparative study". In Directions in Sudanese Linguistics and Folklore, S. H. Hurriez and H. Bell, eds. Khartoum: Institute of African and Asian Studies, pp. 81–94.
  • Owens, J. Aspects of Nubi Syntax. PhD thesis, University of London.
  • Owens, J. (1985). "The origins of East African Nubi". Anthropological Linguistics. 27: 229–271.
  • Owens, J. (1991). "Nubi, genetic linguistics, and language classification". Anthropological Linguistics. 33: 1–30.
  • Owens, J. (1997) "Arabic-based pidgins and creoles". Contact languages: A wider perspective, edited by S.G. Thomason, 125–172. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Wellens, Dr. I.H.W. (2001) An Arabic creole in Africa: the Nubi language of Uganda[permanent dead link] (Doctoral dissertation, Nijmegen).


  1. ^ "Nubi". Ethnologue. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Ineke Wellens. The Nubi Language of Uganda: An Arabic Creole in Africa. BRILL, 2005 ISBN 90-04-14518-4
  3. ^ Clive Holes (2004). Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties. Georgetown U P. p. 421. ISBN 9781589010222. Retrieved 23 March 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Owens, Jonathan (2006). "Creole Arabic". Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics: 518–27.
  5. ^ Umberto Ansaldo; Stephen Matthews; Lisa Lim (2007). Deconstructing Creole. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 290. ISBN 9789027229854. Retrieved 20 January 2010.
  6. ^ Mutibwa, Phares Mukasa (1 January 1992). Uganda Since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes. Africa World Press. ISBN 9780865433571.
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 February 2017. Retrieved 10 February 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)