Shabo language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Spoken in: Ethiopia 
Region: western SNNPR
Total speakers: 400–500 (2000)
Language family: Uncertain, possibly Nilo-Saharan
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: ssa
ISO/FDIS 639-3: sbf 

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, Gecch'a, and Kaabo. Many of its speakers are shifting to other neighboring languages, in particular Majang and Shakicho (Mocha); its vocabulary is heavily influenced by loanwords from both these languages, particularly Majang, 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). 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.


The consonants are:

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosives (p) b t d (c) (ɟ) k g ʔ
Implosives ɓ ɗ ɠ
Fricatives f (s) sʼ (ʃ) h
Approximants w l j
Nasals m n ɲ 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.

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: eg 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.


English Ehret Tefera & Unseth Hoekstra
I tiŋ (m.), ''taŋa (f.) tiŋ tiŋ(ka)
you (sg.) kuku (m.), kungu (f.) kuku ŋaŋ(ka)
he yi (m.) ŋa ŋa(ufə)
we yiŋ (m.), ann (f.) yiŋ yiiŋa
you (pl.) sitalak (m.), siyakk (f.), suba (both) ʃu(bək)
they kuka

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- (eg inɗage t'a-g "he will eat") and a 2nd person plural suffix -ɗe (eg 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 imperfect
  • -e perfect
  • -kkus present perfect
  • no affix: imperative


The plural system is unclear. Three plural forms given by one person were:

  • "house" ɗoku > "houses" ɗokuk
  • "dog" kaal/kaan > "dogs" kaalu/kaanu
  • "leg" bicca > "legs" biccaka

However, another speaker did not form separate plurals at all, or added them by uniformly adding the word yɛɛro afterwards.

There is a suffix -k which seems to sometimes mark the direct object, eg upa kaan-ik ye "a man saw a dog" ("man dog saw"). A similar suffix is found in many Eastern Sudanic languages.

Case markings mentioned by Ehret (1995) include:

  • -ti ablative
  • -uk, -ik instrumental
  • -ke, -e genitive
  • -kak, -gak accusative


Shabo uses postpositions after nouns, eg: 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:

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

and 20 is iŋk upa kor ("one person complete").


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