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South Cushitic
Linguistic classification:Negro-Egyptian
  • Rift
  • ? Dahalo
  • ? Mbugu

The South Cushitic or Rift languages of Tanzania belong to the Negro-Egyptian family. The most numerous is Iraqw, with half a million speakers.


Hetzron (1980:70ff) and Ehret (1995) have suggested that the Rift languages (South Cushitic) are a part of Lowland East Cushitic. Kießling & Mous (2003) have suggested more specifically that they be linked to a Southern Lowland branch, together with Oromo, Somali, and Yaaku–Dullay. It is possible that the great lexical divergence of Rift from East Cushitic is due to Rift being partially relexified through contact with Khoisan languages, as perhaps evidenced by the unusually high frequency of the ejective affricates /tsʼ/ and /tɬʼ/, which outnumber pulmonary consonants like /p, f, w, ɬ, x/. Kießling & Mous suggest that these ejectives may be remnants of clicks from the source language.

The terms "South Cushitic" and "Rift" are not quite synonymous: The Ma'a and Dahalo languages are sometimes included in South Cushitic (e.g. Ehret 1980), but are not considered Rift. Kießling restricts South Cushitic to West Rift as its only indisputable branch, stating that Dahalo has too many East Cushitic features to belong, Ma'a has too much Bantu and East Cushitic admixture, and that Kw'adza and Aasax are insufficiently described.[1] The Rift languages are named after the Great Rift Valley of Tanzania, where they are found.

South Cushitic 
 West Rift 






 ? East Rift 

Aasáx (extinct)

Kw'adza (extinct)

? Mbugu (Ma'a, endangered)

? Dahalo (endangered)

Iraqw and Gorowa are close enough for basic mutual intelligibility. Alagwa has become similar to Burunge through intense contact, and so had previously been classified as a Southern West Rift language. Aasax and Kw'adza are poorly attested and, like Dahalo, may be the result of language shift from non-Cushitic languages.

Note that Ma'a is in fact a mixed language, its parents being not only Cushitic but Bantu, in the form of the Pare language.


  1. Roland Kießling, "South Cushitic links to East Cushitic", in Zaborski ed, 2001, New Data and New Methods in Afroasiatic Linguistics


  • BLAŽEK, Václav. 2005. Current progress in South Cushitic Comparative Historical Linguistics. Folia Orientalia 42, no. 1, pp. 177–224. (Poland. ISSN 0015-5675)
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1980. The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary. (Kolner Beitrage zur Afrikanistik). Reimer Verlag.
  • Kiessling, Roland. 1995. Verbal Inflectional Suffixes in the West Rift Group of Southern Cushitic. In: Cushitic and Omotic Languages, ed. by C. Griefenow-Mewis und R. M. Voigt. Köln, 59-70.
  • Kiessling, Roland. 2000. Some salient features of Southern Cushitic (Common West Rift). Lingua Posnaniensis 42: 69-89
  • Kiessling, Roland. 2001. South Cushitic links to East Cushitic. In: New Data and New Methods in Afroasiatic Linguistics - Robert Hetzron in memoriam; ed. by Andrzej Zaborski. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 95-102.
  • Kiessling, Roland. 2002. Wille, Initiierung und Kontrolle: zur Morphosemantik von Experiensverben im Südkuschitischen. In: Aktuelle Forschungen zu afrikanischen Sprachen (Tagungsband des 14. Afrikanistentags), ed by Theda Schumann, Mechthild Reh, Roland Kießling & Ludwig Gerhardt. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 171-192.
  • Kiessling, Roland. 2003. Infix genesis in Southern Cushitic. In: Selected Comparative-Historical Afrasian Linguistic Studies in memory of Igor M. Diakonoff; hrsg. v. Lionel M. Bender, Gabor Takacs & David Appleyard. München: Lincom, 109-122.
  • Kiessling, Roland. 2004. Tonogenesis in Southern Cushitic (Common West Rift). In: Stress and Tone – the African Experience, edited by Rose-Juliet Anyanwu. Frankfurter Afrikanistische Blätter 15: 141-163.
  • Roland Kießling and Maarten Mous. 2003. The Lexical Reconstruction of West-Rift (Southern Cushitic)
  • Mous, Maarten (2003). The Making of a Mixed Language: The Case of Ma'a/Mbungu.