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Spoken natively inKenya
RegionCoast Province
Native speakers400  (1992)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3dal

Dahalo is an endangered South Cushitic language spoken by at most 400 Dahalo people on the coast of Kenya, near the mouth of the Tana River.


The Dahalo, former elephant hunters, are dispersed among Swahili and other Bantu peoples, with no villages of their own, and are bilingual in those languages. It may be that children are no longer learning the language.[2]

Dahalo has a highly diverse sound system using all four airstream mechanisms found in human language: clicks, ejectives, and implosives, as well as the universal pulmonic sounds.

In addition, Dahalo makes a number of uncommon distinctions. It contrasts laminal and apical stops, as in Basque and languages of Australia and California; epiglottal and glottal stops and fricatives, as in the Mideast, the Caucasus, and the American Pacific Northwest; and is perhaps the only language in the world to contrast alveolar lateral and palatal lateral fricatives and affricates.

It is suspected that the Dahalo may have once spoken a Sandawe- or Hadza-like language, and that they retained clicks in some words when they shifted to Cushitic, because many of the words with clicks are basic vocabulary. If so, the clicks represent a substratum.

Dahalo is also called Sanye, a name shared with neighboring Waata, also spoken by former hunter-gatherers.

The classification of Dahalo is obscure. Traditionally included in South Cushitic, Tosco (1991) argues instead that it is East Cushitic, and Kießling (2001) agrees that it has too many Eastern features to be South Cushitic.[3]



Dahalo has 62 consonants:[4]

Labial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Epiglottal Glottal
laminal apical labial plain labial
Nasal m n ɲ
click (1)
voiceless ᵑ̊ʇˀ ᵑ̊ʇˀʷ
voiced ᵑʇ (ᵑʇʷ)
Plosive plain voiceless p k ʡ ʔ
voiced b ɡ ɡʷ
voiceless ᵐp ⁿt̪ ⁿt̠ ᵑk ᵑkʷ
voiced ᵐb ⁿd̪ ⁿd̠ ⁿd̠ʷ ᵑɡ ᵑɡʷ
Ejective t̪ʼ t̠ʼ kʷʼ
Implosive voiced ɓ ɗ
Affricate plain voiceless ts
voiced dz dzʷ
voiceless ⁿts ᶮtʃ
voiced ⁿdz ᶮdʒ
Ejective central tʃʼ
lateral tɬʼ cʼ (2)
Fricative central f s   (z) ʃ ʜ h
lateral ɬ ɬʷ (2)
Approximant central (j)
lateral l
Trill r
1 The dental clicks are officially written [ǀ]. For legibility, the alternative letter [ʇ] is used here.
2 If the palatals do not display properly, they can also be written [cʎ̥˔] and [ʎ̥˔].

The laminal coronals are denti-alveolar, while the apicals are alveolar tending toward post-alveolar.

The prenasalized voiceless stops have been analysed as syllabic nasals plus stops by some researchers. However, one would expect this additional syllable to give Dahalo words additional tonic possibilities, as Dahalo pitch accent is syllable-dependent (see below), and Ladefoged reports that this does not seem to be the case.

When geminate, the epiglottals are a voiceless stop and fricative. (Thus /ʡ/ is not pharyngeal as sometimes reported, since pharyngeal stops are not believed to be possible.) In utterance-initial position they may be a partially voiced (negative voice onset time) stop and fricative. However, as singletons between vowels, /ʡ/ is a flap or even an approximant with weak voicing, while /ʜ/ is a fully voiced approximant. Other obstruents are similarly affected intervocalically, though not to the same degree.

/b d̪ d̠/ are often fricative [β ð̪ ð̠] between vowels. (The retraction diacritic in ‹d̠› serves merely to emphasize that it is further back than /d̪/. Initially, they and /ɡ/ are often voiceless, whereas /p t̪ t̠ k/ are fortis (perhaps aspirated). Tosco reports a voiced lateral /dɮ/. /w̜/ has little rounding. /j/ is only attested in a single root, /jáːjo/ 'mother'.

There is a lot of variability in the voicing of clicks, so this distinction may be being lost. The nasal clicks are nasalized prior to the click release and are voiced throughout; the voiceless clicks usually have about 30ms of voice onset time, but sometimes less. There is no voiceless nasal airflow, but following vowels may have a slightly nasalized onset. Thus these clicks are similar to glottalized nasal clicks in other languages. Voiceless clicks are much more common than voiced clicks.


Dahalo has a symmetric 5-vowel system of pairs of short and long vowels, totaling 10 vowels:

Front Back
High i / iː u / uː
Mid e / eː o / oː
Low a / aː


Dahalo words are commonly 2–4 syllables long. Syllables are exclusively of the CV pattern, except that consonants may be geminate between vowels. As with many other Afro-Asiatic languages, gemination is grammatically productive. Voiced consonants partially devoice, and prenasalized stops denasalize when geminated as part of a grammitical function. However, lexical prenasalised geminate stops also occur.

(It is likely that the glottals and clicks do not occur as geminates, although only a few words with intervocalic clicks are known, such as /ʜáŋ̊|ana/.)

Dahalo has pitch accent, normally with zero to one high-pitched syllables (rarely more) per root word. If there is a high pitch, it is most frequently on the first syllable; in the case of disyllabic words, this is the only possibility: e.g. /ʡani/ head, /pʼúʡʡu/ pierce.


  1. Tosco 1991
  2. Raymond G. Gordon, Jr, ed. 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 15th edition. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  3. Roland Kießling, "South Cushitic links to East Cushitic", in Zaborski ed, 2001, New Data and New Methods in Afroasiatic Linguistics
  4. Maddieson, Ian; Spajić, Siniša; Sands, Bonny; & Ladefoged, Peter. (1993). Phonetic structures of Dahalo. In I. Maddieson (Ed.), UCLA working papers in phonetics: Fieldwork studies of targeted languages (No. 84, pp. 25-65). Los Angeles: The UCLA Phonetics Laboratory Group.


  • Maddieson, Ian; Spajić, Siniša; Sands, Bonny; & Ladefoged, Peter. (1993). Phonetic structures of Dahalo. In I. Maddieson (Ed.), UCLA working papers in phonetics: Fieldwork studies of targeted languages (No. 84, pp. 25-65). Los Angeles: The UCLA Phonetics Laboratory Group.
  • Tosco, Mauro (1991). A Grammatical Sketch of Dahalo (including texts and a glossary). Kuschitische Sprachstudien. 8. Hamburg, Germany: Helmut Buske Verlag.

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