2. The Nilo-Saharan Language Family
(The Maa Language and its Historical Connections)

2.1 Language Families of the African Continent

     Linguists and anthropologists agree that, prior to the colonial era, the African continent was peopled by speakers from four major language families.  This was argued most clearly by linguist Joseph Greenberg in the late 1950's, as he examined data collected by numerous scholars and explorers from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (Greenberg 1963).  Just as there is no known linguistic connection between Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European, so there are no known linguistic connections between these four families.

  •   Afro-Asiatic  is found across the northern part of the continent (and also extends into the Middle East).
  • Niger-Congo  spreads from the western part of the continent (where the "parent" language called Proto-Niger-Congo was likely centered), across the central and to the southern parts of the continent.
  • Khoisan  is localized in the south, though it previously extended much farther east across the continent (and even now one or two languages are found as far north as Tanzania).
  •   Nilo-Saharan extends along the southern reaches of the Nile River, along the Great Rift Valley, as far south as modern Tanzania, and westward into Congo (formerly Zaire).
  • In addition, the  Austronesian language Malagasy is spoken on the island of Madagasgar.

  •     The approximate modern locations of the four original language families, across the continent of Africa, are indicated by color in Figure 1.  Since the colonial era, European languages like French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, English, and Afrikaans are also found on the African continent.

    2.2 The Maa Language within the Nilo-Saharan Family

        Within Nilo-Sarahan is found the Nilotic sub-family. (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.)  It is within the Nilotic family that we ultimately locate the Maa language.

       Linguist Rainer Vossen distinguishes three sub-branches within the Nilotic family. These have been designated "Southern," "Western," and "Eastern." (The labels refer to linguistic groupings, and not primarily to geographical distribution.)  Some Western Nilotic languages include Shilluk, Acholi, Dinka, Dholuo and Lango. Some Southern Nilotic languages include Datoga, Pakot, Endo, Saboat, and Nandi. (The term "Kalenjin" is commonly applied to some of these languages, though this term is more political or geographical, than linguistic.) Vossen, Heine, Dimendaal, and others have suggested that Eastern Nilotic contains the languages in Figure 2, in the indicated groupings.

            As seen in Figure 2, the Maa language has internal sub-divisions. At this level, the sub-divisions are referred to as dialects, because while Maa speakers themselves are aware of, and react to, the differences as marking speakers from different houses (very large clan groupings) or areas, the speech varieties are mutually intelligible. North Maa is said to include the speech varieties of the IlSampur and IlCamus houses. South Maa is said to include the varieties spoken by the IlArusa, IlMoitanik, Isiria, IlWuasinkishu, IlPurko, IlKeekonyokie, IlDamat, IlOitai, Isikirari, IlOodokilani, IlDalalekutuk, IlDamat, IlKaputiei, IlMatapato, IlKisonko, and perhaps others (Vossen 1988). Linguistically, some of these are extremely close, though even within these subdivisions the lexicon of speakers from one village to another may vary slightly.

       There are other subdialects of South Maa that do not necessarily correspond to Maa ethnic distinctions, as is the case of Mukojodo Maa.  In this description we cannot explore differences between the dialects in much detail, other than to note that there are differences, ranging from pronunciation, to lexical items, to various syntactic rules. In conjunction with the Maasai Cultural Center, a dictionary project is underway which will include lexical information about dialect variation.

        In the remainder of this description we look at some major facets of the Maa language, which make it "be" Maa, as opposed to, say, Swahili, Luo or English. Numerous scholars have studied the Maa language, but the classic linguistic foundation remains the work of Archibald N. Tucker and John Tompo Ole Mpaayei, A Maasai Grammar with Vocabulary, published in 1955 by Longmans, Green and Company of London.

    Back to top
    Back to The Maasai Language

    This page written by Doris L. Payne