Vocabulary Kanuri

The vocabulary contains 1591 meaning-word pairs ("entries") corresponding to core LWT meanings from the recipient language Kanuri. The corresponding text chapter was published in the book Loanwords in the World's Languages. The language page Kanuri contains a list of all loanwords arranged by donor languoid.

Word form LWT code Meaning Core list Borrowed status Source words

Field descriptions


In the absence of published systematic comparative work on the Saharan language family, sources and data from other Saharan languages as well as historical sources were considered. We also consulted Bender (1996) and Ehret (2001) for highly tentative and mostly rather speculative reconstructions of and within Proto-Nilosaharan.

In terms of our rather tentative guesses on the age of loans, we use the following chronological approximations:

Proto-Saharan period: 8,000 – 3,000 BCE

Proto-West Saharan period: 3,000 BCE

Ancient Areal Roots = Proto-Saharan period, possibly shared settlements with Proto-Chadic speakers

For the Kanuri language, we use the following guesses to relevant periods:

Pre-modern Islamic period 1000 - 1900

Pre-modern non-Islamic period before 1900

Pre-modern Hausa contact period 1300 - 1900

Modern (colonial & postcolonial) period 1900 - date

With regard to chronology, we suggest four major contact periods:

1. Ancient areal contacts between (Pre-)Kanuri/Saharan languages and Afroasiatic (Chadic/Berber/Semitic) languages, possibly also other Nilosaharan and Niger-Congo languages, which precede the advent of Islam/Arabic in the Western and Central Sudan, roughly speaking before 1300.

2. The early Islamic period roughly from about 1300 to 1500 with strong impact of early Arabo-Islamic culture across the Sahel zone south of the Sahara desert either directly or via intermediary languages.

3. The medieval contact period between 1500 and about 1880 in which Hausa becomes a strong source of interference, and possible other indigenous Chadic languages in Borno.

4. The modern colonial and postcolonial period beginning with the advent of colonialism (British in Nigeria, some German in former German Cameroon, and French in modern Niger and Chad) and lasting until the present day. Besides the (ex-)colonial languages English and French, Hausa as the most important lingua franca in the area continues to have an impact on Kanuri, and so does Arabic, whether via Hausa or not, in terms of reference to the “modern world”.


The identification of loanwords in Kanuri is usually possible with a high degree of confidence for most of the semantic fields of the LWT list.

1. Very little evidence for borrowing
This category indicates highly doubtful cases and is applied mainly to so-called “areal roots” which we consider to be of such old age in the languages concerned that they can be reconstructed in more than one language phylum, either due to early borrowing (with unclear direction in terms of donor and recipient languages; this happens often between Hausa and Kanuri), or due to universal onomatopoetic properties of the word form itself. An example of the latter is fúfù ‘to blow’, for which many similar equivalents in form and meaning can be found across various language families and phyla without, however, being able to identify any direction of borrowing, if at all (it could be accidental due to its onomatopoetic features). This judgement would also apply to lexical similarities in terms of form and meaning across rather large geographic distance. We have identified 5 ancient “areal” loans that relate Kanuri words to Afroasiatic in general and that we assume to represent the oldest layer of contact, possibly due to shared settlement areas north of Lake Chad. Chadic substrata are assumed to be responsible for further loans in Kanuri. Chronologically, these might already be related to the westward migration into Borno of the Kanuri, which began in the 11th century. One has to consider family-internal borrowing from another Saharan language, where there is no comparative information available on the word in the other Saharan languages.

2. Perhaps borrowed
This applies to words which, on the one hand, would appear to be reconstructable to Proto-Nilosaharan (PNS) yet lack regularity in terms of sound changes. This judgement also applies to words which strongly resemble words in probable contact languages, even though their onomatopoetic features could point into the direction of rather universal distribution (cf. “very little evidence for borrowing” above).

3. Probably borrowed
This category applies to some probable Arabic loans which, however, don’t violate assumed phonotactic rules of Kanuri and, therefore, could be considered common heritage from Proto-Nilosaharan but were we have judged them to be Nilosaharan-internal loans instead. This judgement is also applied to words which again don’t necessarily violate phonological patterns of Kanuri but which are also present in some contact languages where they appear to match the phonotactics of the languages even better. We have further applied this judgement to words which are present in likely contact languages but where we are not sure about the direction of the borrowing.

4. Clearly borrowed
This meets our highest degree of confidence with regard to words which we think we know or can very plausibly assume to be borrowed into Kanuri from a donor language even though the ultimate donor or an intermediate language cannot be identified. Even this rather strong judgment remains quite tentative in the light of the rather poor quality and quantity of available data and the almost complete absence of systematic comparative historical linguistic work in the wider area in which Kanuri is spoken. The identified loan word is nearly identical in form and meaning to the Kanuri. Depending on the closeness of the match, the intuitions of our consultant, and whether information was available on the form of the word in Kanuri’s sister languages, we ranked a word either as 3 or 4.


Data were taken from various published sources. When insufficient and for cross-checking, the lexical data were complemented by direct elicitation from one of the contributors to the LWT project, Dr. Elhaji Ari Awagana, a native speaker of the Manga variety in Niger.

Bender, M. Lionel. 1996. The Nilo-Saharan Languages – A comparative essay. München: LINCOM.
Cyffer, Norbert. 1994. English - Kanuri Dictionary. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
Cyffer, Norbert & Hutchison, John P. 1991. Dictionary of the Kanuri language. Dordrecht: Foris.
Ehret, Christopher. 2001. A Historical-Comparative Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan. [SUGIA - Beihefte, 12]. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
Koelle, Sigismund W. 1854. Grammar of the Bornu or Kanuri language. London: CMS House.
Lukas, Johannes. 1937. A study of the Kanuri language, grammar and vocabulary. London; New York: Published for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures by the Oxford University Press.

Since the first serious written data on Kanuri can be dated back only to the 1850s, no date is given.