Shabo language

Spoken in Ethiopia
Region western SNNPR
Ethnicity Shabo
Native speakers 400–500  (2000)
Language family
apparent isolate, perhaps Nilo-Saharan
Language codes
ISO 639-3 sbf
Linguasphere 05-PEA-aa

Shabo (also called Mikeyir) is an endangered language spoken by about 600 hunter-gatherers in southwestern Ethiopia, in the westernmost part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region. They live in three places in the Keficho Shekicho Zone: Anderaccha, Gecha, and Kaabo. Many of its speakers are shifting to other neighboring languages, in particular Majang language and Shekkacho (Mocha); its vocabulary is heavily influenced by loanwords from both these languages, particularly Majangir, as well as Amharic. Its classification is uncertain; it may be Nilo-Saharan (Anbessa & Unseth 1989, Fleming 1991), or may be a language isolate (Ehret 1995), a position which has since come to be seen as more probable. It was first reported to be a separate language by Lionel Bender in 1977, using a wordlist gathered by the missionary Harvey Hoekstra. It is currently (as of 2004) being studied by Daniel Aberra of Addis Ababa University.



Once the many loanwords from its immediate neighbors, Majang and Shakicho, are removed, the wordlists collected show a significant number of Koman words side by side with a larger number of words with no obvious external relationships. The tentative grammar so far collected offers few obviously convincing external similarities. On this basis, Fleming (1991) has classified Shabo as Nilo-Saharan and, within Nilo-Saharan, as nearest to Koman, while Ehret (1995) has argued that neither Nilo-Saharan nor Afro-Asiatic present any convincing similarities, seeing the Koman words as early loans and saying that "once the evidence of these influences is identified and separated out, there is little else to suggest that Shabo might belong to the Nilo-Saharan family." He thus regards it as an African isolate. Anbessa & Unseth consider it Nilo-Saharan, but present little by way of argument for their position, and no detail on its position within the family. Schnoebelen (2009) in his phylogenetic analysis agrees with Ehret that Shabo is best treated as an isolate, but does not exclude the possibility of contradicting evidence gained from applying the comparative method (which still needs to be done). Blench (2010), maintains that Shabo does pattern with the Nilo-Saharan family.


The consonants are:

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosives (p) b t d (tʃ) (dʒ) k ɡ ʔ
Implosives ɓ ɗ
Ejectives tʃʼ
Fricatives f (s) sʼ (ʃ)
Approximants w l j
Nasals m n ŋ
Trills r

Consonants in parenthesis are not entirely phonemic, according to Teferra (1995):

  • [p] and [f] are in free variation
  • [s] and [ʃ], and sometimes also [c], [ɟ], and [ʒ], are in free variation, as in Majang; Teferra speculatively links this to the traditional practice of removing the lower incisors of men.
  • [h] and [k] occasionally alternate.

Implosive consonants are common in languages of the area, but ejective consonants are not found in Majang.

Consonant length is found in several words, such as walla "goat", kutti "knee"; however, it is often unstable.

Teferra tentatively postulates 9 vowels: /i/ /ɨ/ /u/ /e/ /ə/ /o/ /ɛ/ /a/ /ɔ/, possibly with further distinctions based on advanced tongue root. Five of these, /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/, have long counterparts. Occasionally final vowels are deleted, shortening medial vowels: e.g. deego or deg "crocodile".

The syllable structure is (C)V(C); all consonants except /pʼ/ and /tʼ/ can occur syllable-finally.

The language is tonal, but its tonology is unclear. Two minimal pairs are cited by Teferra 1995, including "kill" versus "meat".



Basic word order is subject–object–verb; there are postpositions rather than prepositions.


Shabo has an unusually complex pronoun system for Africa:[1]

person   singular dual plural
1.masc tiŋ antʃ yin
1.fem taŋa ann yafu
2.masc kuku tʃitʃak  ʃitalak
2.fem kuŋɡu ʃiyak ʃubak
3.masc yu utʃa utalo
3.fem uŋa oya odda

The pronouns "I" and "he" have been compared to Surmic languages; however, there are also resemblances in the pronouns with the Omotic Gunza language (Bender 1983.) The gender distinctions made are unusual for Africa.


Negation is by adding the particle be after the verb or noun negated: gumu be "(it is) not (a) stick", ʔam be-gea "he will not come" ("come not-?"). Negative forms in b are widespread in Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic languages.

There appears to be a causative suffix -ka: mawo hoop, "water boiled" > upa mawo hoop-ka "(a) man boiled water".

A particle git (infinitive? subjunctive?) marks the verb in constructions with "want": moopa git inɗeet ("sit git want") "I want to sit".

Much of the verbal morphology is uncertain; there appears to be a 3rd person singular future suffix -g- (e.g. inɗage t'a-g "he will eat") and a 2nd person plural suffix -ɗe (e.g. subuk maakɛle kak t'a-ɗe "You (pl.) ate corn", "you-pl. corn past? eat-2nd-pl.")

Ehret (1995) mentions the following tense-aspect suffixes:

  • -gg imperfective
  • -e perfective
  • -kkus present perfect
  • no affix: imperative


Plurals are optional; when used, they are formed with a word yɛɛro afterwards.

There is a suffix -ka which sometimes mark the direct object, e.g. upa kaan-ik ye "a man saw a dog" ("man dog saw"), but also has many other uses. A similar suffix is found in many Eastern Sudanic languages, but there is it specifically accusative.

Case markings mentioned by Ehret (1995) include:


Shabo uses postpositions after nouns, e.g.: upa mana pond ɗɛpik moi "a man sat on a rock" (lit. "man rock on ? sat").


The number system, as given by Tefera and Unseth, is as follows, with Majang equivalents to show how much is borrowed:

  1. iŋki (Majang om-oŋ)
  2. bap (pɛɛy)
  3. jiita (jiit)
  4. aŋan (aŋan)
  5. tuul (tuul)
  6. tulu(ŋ/m) (tuul a om)
  7. tulikakiŋki (possibly error for 6?) (tuul a pɛɛy)
  8. tunajiita (tuul a jiit)
  9. tulaaŋan (tuul a aŋan)
  10. bapif (bap if = "two hands") (aarn = 'two hands')
  11. mabafifiŋki (aarn a om)

and 20 is iŋk upa kor ("one person complete") cf. Majang rumer iɗit 'one person complete'.

Sample sentences

mawo hoop: water boiled
upa mawo hoop-ka: A man boiled water (lit. "man water boiled-caus.")
gumu be: it is not a stick (lit. "stick not".)
ma gumu: it is a stick (lit. "stick ?")
dɛrbakan kaal nu ɗe-be: Derbakan does not have a dog (lit. "Derbakan dog poss.? ?:not")
dɛrbakan kaal nu yaaŋk: Derbakan has a dog (lit. "Derbakan dog poss.? positive?")
ʔam be-gea: he will not come (lit. "come not-?")
inɗigi am-k: he will come (lit. "? come ?")
tin-ta be-ge: he will not eat (lit. "? eat not ?")
inɗage t'a-g: he will eat (lit. "? eat ?")
paar bap: two snakes (lit. "snake two")
upa kaan-ik ye: a man saw a dog (lit. "man dog-obj. saw")
kaan upa-k ye: a dog saw a man (lit. "dog man-obj. saw")
koto upa dɛpik ye: a woman saw a man (lit. "woman man tense? saw")
gom c'uwa t'a: fire burned wood (lit. "fire wood ate")
cu ɗɛpik ibalabiyan-an ɗe (word divisions uncertain): you (pl.) came (lit. "you(pl.) ?:? come-2pl.")
subuk maakɛle kak t'a-ɗe: you (pl.) ate corn (lit. "you(pl.) corn aux? eat-2pl.")
wo ka git inɗeet: I want to drink (lit. "drink ? infin.? want")
moopa git inɗeet: I want to sit (lit. "sit ? infin.? want")
abiyaŋge: they came
upa kakaak jaal kaki ye ʔam: I saw the man who came yesterday (lit. "man came yesterday ? saw ?")
upa mana pond ɗɛpik moi: a man sat on a rock (lit. "man rock on aux.? sat")

See also


  1. ^ Schnoebelen (2009)
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1995. "Do Krongo and Shabo belong in Nilo-Saharan?". Robert Nicolaï et Franz Rottland, eds., Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium. Nice, 24-29 août 1992. Proceedings, pp. 169–193. Köln, Köppe Verlag. Sep. 2, 1989 (Nilo-Saharan 7), Hamburg: Helmut Buske. pp. 389–402. ISBN 3-927620-72-6.
  • Fleming, Harold C. 1991. "Shabo: presentation of data and preliminary classification", in: M. Lionel Bender (ed.), 1991, Proceedings of the Fourth Nilo-Saharan Conference Bayreuth, Aug. 30.
  • Schnoebelen, Tyler. 2009. "(Un)classifying Shabo: phylogenetic methods and results". Peter K. Austin, Oliver Bond, Monik Charette, David Nathan & Peter Sells, eds., Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 2. London: SOAS. [1]
  • Tefera Anbessa and Peter Unseth. 1989. "Toward the classification of Shabo (Mikeyir)." In M. Lionel Bender (ed.), Topics in Nilo-Saharan linguistics, 405-18. Nilo-Saharan, 3. Hamburg: Helmut Buske. ISBN 3-87118-927-8 (NISA 3). (This was the primary source for this article.)
  • Tefera Anbessa. 1991. "A Sketch of Shabo Grammar". in: M. Lionel Bender (ed.), 1991, Proceedings of the Fourth Nilo-Saharan Conference Bayreuth, Aug. 30.
  • Teferra Anbessa. 1995. "Brief phonology of Shabo (Mekeyir)". Robert Nicolaï et Franz Rottland, eds., Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium. Nice, 24-29 août 1992. Proceedings, pp. 169–193. Köln: Köppe Verlag. Sep. 2, 1989 (Nilo-Saharan 7), Hamburg: Helmut Buske. pp. 29–38. (Used in this article.)
  • Unseth, Peter. 1984. Shabo (Mekeyir). A first discussion of classification and vocabulary. [Unpublished manuscript]

External links

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