Suvarna Garge (Editor)

Surmic languages

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Glottolog  surm1244
Geographic distribution  southwestern Ethiopia and neighboring South Sudan
Linguistic classification  Nilo-Saharan? Eastern Sudanic Kir–Abbaian Surmic

The Surmic Languages are a branch of the Eastern Sudanic language family.


  • North: Majang (also known as Majangir)
  • South
  • Southeast:
  • Kwegu (dialects: Yidinich, Mugiji)
  • Surma: Me'en, Mursi–Suri (dialects: Tirma, Chai)
  • Southwest: Didinga–Narim, Murle, Tennet; Kacipo-Balesi
  • The Surmic languages are found in southwest Ethiopia and adjoining parts of southeast South Sudan. In the past, Surmic had been known as “Didinga-Murle” and “Surma”. The former name was too narrow by referring only to two closely related languages and the latter was a label also used to refer to a specific language (Unseth 1997b), so the label “Surmic” is now used. The relationships in the chart above are based on Fleming's work (1983).

    Today, the various peoples who speak Surmic languages make their living in a variety of ways, including nomadic herders, settled farmers, slash and burn farmers. They live in a variety of terrain, from the lowlands of South Sudan and the banks of the Omo River to mountains over 2,300 meters.

    Much foundational fieldwork and analysis of Surmic languages was done by Harold C. Fleming and M. L. Bender. The most complete descriptions of Ethiopian Surmic languages are of Murle (Arensen 1982) and Tirma (Bryant 1999). All Surmic languages are presumed to be tonal, have implosive consonants, and have distinctive vowel length. Some have as many as nine vowel qualities, and more detailed study may confirm this in other Surmic languages, also. Me'en and Kwegu (also spelled Koegu) have sets of ejective consonants.

    The languages share a system of marking the number of both the possessed and the possessor in possessive pronouns (Unseth 1991). Number of nominals is typically marked on a number of morphemes, with t/k marking singular and plural (Bryan 1959). Adjectives are formed by stative relative clauses.

    Majangir (also called Majang) and Southwest Surmic languages (Fleming 1983) share a number of traits, so they are therefore presumably reconstructable in Proto-Surmic: relative clauses (which include adjectives), demonstratives, adverbs, numerals, genitives, and possessive pronouns follow their heads, noun derivations and subject marking on verbs are marked by suffixes, VSO (verb–subject–object) order predominates in indicative main clauses. Some typologically exceptional points are discussed by Arensen, et al. (1997). However, Dimmendaal’s introduction proposes a different analysis (1998).

    All Surmic languages have been documented as having case suffixes (Unseth 1989). None of them have a marked accusative, but at least Majang and Murle sometimes mark nominatives, part of a broader areal pattern (König 2006).

    The original geographic home of the Surmic peoples is thought to be in Southwestern Ethiopia, somewhere near Maji, with the various groups dispersing from there: for example, the Majangir having moved north, the Murle having migrated clockwise around Lake Turkana (Arensen 1983:56-61, Tornay 1981), and the Mursi having moved into and out of the Omo River valley. Ethnolinguistic identities within the Surmic group have not been rigid, with ample evidence of people’s identities shifting from one ethnolinguistic group to another, (Tornay 1981, Turton 1979, Unseth and Abbink 1998).

    Abbink has published a pioneering work comparing the vocabulary and systems of kinship among Surmic languages, particularly from the South West node of Surmic (Abbink 2006).

    The starting point for linguistic and anthropological research into Surmic studies is the book edited by Dimmendaal (1998), especially the bibliography article (Abbink and Unseth 1998).


    Surmic languages Wikipedia

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