A Precis of the Nuer Grammar
The Nuer language is built upon a foundation of verbs, nouns and tone primarily, with
verbs supporting the whole. Words of a helping nature are classified as articles,
pronouns, and certain noun and verb modifiers, as for example the demonstrative adjective, numbers etc.
It is to be stressed here that the grammatical function of these word classifications does
not necessarily correspond with the functions of the same types of words in other languages.
There is a general similarity, but never a 1 to 1 ration in their characteristics.
Therefore, at the outset it is very important to understand that the learning of this
language involves a mastery of the philosophy behind the various grammatical constructions
as well as the mastery of words and word relationships. it is relatively simple to pick out a verb
in a sentence, for instance, but it is much more important to one's understanding of the whole
sentence to be able to explain just why this verb occurs in the particular form
it does. This is due to the fact that words have fuller meanings which are not necessarily contained
in their obvious meanings which only tell what the word is or does.
It is regretted that tone cannot be included in this grammer study
because it has not been adequately analyzed.
The Nuer verb shows distinctions in person, number, voice, mode and tense.
Like Indo-European languages Nuer has 3 persons: first person in singular, dual and plural number,
and second and third persons in singular and plural number. In addition there is a very important
distinction made between 1st person plural "we" including the one being spoken to, and "we"
excluding the one spoken to. We are all going now (including "you" being spoken to). We are all
going now, but you better stay here until we return.
There are 3 numbers: singular, dual and plural, Dual occurs only in the 1st
Note: Distinction is made in the verb form not only to indicate number of the subject, but
also sometimes to indicate number of the direct object.
- Ɛ dho̲o̲l mi̲ yiɛɛn yaŋ thoo luaak. It is a boy who ties-up the cow at
the door of the barn.
- Ɛ dhool mi̲ yiɛ̲n ɤɔ̲k thoo luaak. It is a boy who ties-up
the cattle at the door of the barn.
- Kɛ dho̲o̲l ti̲ yiankɛ ɤɔ̲k thoo luaak. They are boys who tie-up the cows at the door of the barn.
VOICE (The relationship of the participants to the actions.)
- Nuer verbs occur in both active and passive voice depending upon whether the action is to be
emphasized or whether the subject is:
- Active voice emphasizes the subject.
- Passive voice emphasizes the action.
- Passive voice takes precedence over the imperative mode in the giving of orders which
are not born out of emotion. For example, instead of "Sweep the floor today", the Nuer says, ""The
floor will be swept today."
- A distinction within the meaning of the verb is also made between transitive and
intransitive verbs. The grammatical distinction is made in most verbs by a change in the stem,
or a change of stem.
- The transitive carries over to a direct object which must be specific in meaning.
- The intransitive does not carry over to an object. It is used without an object, but it may
be used with a prepositional phrase to express a general object.
- Transitive: [Cä̲ ri̲ŋ cam. ] I ate (the) meat.
- Intransitive: [Cä̲ mi̲th kɛ ri̲ŋ. ] I dined on (with) meat.
- Intransitive: [Cä̲ mi̲th. ] I dined.
- There are certain verbs occuring in the active voice which carry a passive meaning with
them. They differ from the passive in meaning in that the subject has no agent acting upon it. Examples:
- [Ci̲ duɔ̲ɔ̲r thu̲u̲k. ] The thing is finished. (Active voice)
- [Caa duɔ̲ɔ̲r thu̲u̲k. ] The thing was finished. (Passive voice)
- A Stem change usually occurs if a transitive verb includes the idea of a) reference to a
direction of action, b) reference to the object to or for whom the action is done (English
indirect object), c) reference to the respect in which the action is done.
- [Cä̲ jɛ dɔany piny. ] I tramped it down.
- [Cä̲ jɛ la̲ i̲. ] I told it to you.
- [Cä̲ ji̲ tëŋ tur. ] I shook dust on you.
- [Cä̲ jɛ duɛ̲r. ] I missed it repeatedly.
- The above stems changed as follows:
- dɔŋy --- dɔany
- lar --- lahr
- tɛ̈ŋ --- tëŋ
- dui̲i̲r --- duɛ̲r
The Nuer verb shows distinction in indicative, imperative and negative modes.
Note: There are not separate verb forms for subjunctive and optative modes as in
Greek or Latin. The ideas expressed by these modes are expressed in Nuer by the use of
certain particles with the indicative verb form.
Imperative: The 1st and 3rd aspects of the verb have singular and plural imperative
forms, negative and positive. These forms express command. They are used sparingly.
cf. passive voice above.
Negatives: Each aspect of the verb has its own negative form which is identified
by negative particles. The 1st aspect negative in certain verbs has its own separate stem.
The imperatives have their own negatives which are identified by singular and plural
To English speaking people the verbs in Nuer present a problem since they are based on ACTION instead of time.
This means that one cannot think of verbs in terms of present, past and future tense, but he must re-evaluate his
concept of verbs to think of them in terms of different kinds of action which we call
"aspects" of the verb. These aspects are divided into 3 main divisions indicating the following types of action:
- 1st Aspect: it expresses action or state of being going on regardless of time.
The 1st Aspect is used constantly in past time in expressing action or state of being going on as though it were in
the present. Consequently, in speaking English a Nuer will commonly refer to actions in the past with present tense
forms. e.g. My father (though dead) is a good man. He does much work. He knows how to read, too.
- State of being: I am here, I was here.
- Customary action: I am eating, I was eating.
- Possible action as though existing regardless of time: Monkeys climb trees.
- 2nd Aspect: it expresses momentary completed action or state of action thought of as completed, e.g. I went to town. Tell them I have gone. The time involved will of necessity be past.
- 3rd Aspect: it expresses future action or anticipated change of action.
The whole framework of verbs is built upon these 3 aspects. These aspects can be modified to indicate more
specific distinctions in action.
The Habitual form of the verb with its own distinct stem occurs in all 3 aspects following the same general
pattern except that its verb may be conjugated throughout, negative and positive.
FORMATION OF VERB ASPECTS
Generally speaking there are 2 ways to express verbs. Either a) by conjugating the verb stem, or b) by using a verb
particle with the verb stem. These generalizations must be categorized, however, since each verb aspect has its own
particular means of expression within this generalization.
- 1st Aspect -- The 1st Aspect of the verb may occur in 3 forms as follows:
- Conjugated: The 1st Aspect may be conjugated with the personal pronoun endings. The stem is
variable. e.g. [miɛ̲thä̲] -- I eat.
- Full Stem: The 1st Aspect may occur in its full stem and unconjugated.
- Negative: The negative 1st Aspect occurs with its own negative particle and its own stem (in
- 2nd Aspect -- The 2nd Aspect may occur in one form as follows:
Full Stem and Particle: The 2nd Aspect has its own verb particle [ci̲], which may occur separate from
the subject noun or in an assimilated form with the personal pronouns, followed by the verb stem, e.g.
Negative: The 2nd Aspect negative occurs with its own negative particle and the positive stem.
- [Ci̲ ɤä̲n mi̲th.] (Eastern Nuer only)
- [Cä̲ mi̲th.] -- I will eat.
- 3rd Aspect-- The 3rd Aspect may occur in one form as follows:
Full Stem and Particle: The 3rd Aspect has its own verb particle [bi̲], which may occur
separate from the noun object or in an assimilated form with the personal pronoun, followed by the stem
(which is the same as the 2nd Aspect), e.g.
Negative: The 3rd Aspect negative occurs with its own negative particle and the positive stem
- [Bi̲ ɤä̲n mi̲th. ] (Eastern Nuer only)
- [Bä̲ mi̲th. ] -- I will eat.
Note: All negative particles may occur separately or in an assimilated form with the personal pronoun.
MISCELLANEOUS ON VERBS
Words which appear as adjectives in English occur as verbs in Nuer. these verbs occur in all 3 aspects active voice.
e.g. It is good, is said in Nuer, "It goods".
The impersonal expression "they said" meaning no one in particular, or "it is said" is expressed in Nuer by the
verb phrase [ɛ waa] which is followed by a noun object clause.
As you can see, the possibility of stem changes in one verb are numerous. The difficulty is that they follow no
distinct and easily grasped pattern. In certain instances vowels can be seen to follow certain set deviations, however it
does not become apparent that these deviations are standard for each verb class. Consequently there are very few
leads to deciphering the intricacies of the verb changes. Stem changes may occur as follows:
- In 1st Aspect active the 1st Aspect stem positive and negative and imperative may all differ from each other.
- The 1st Aspect conjugated form includes 2 different stem changes which are very often predictable.
- The 1st Aspect Habitual positive has a stem differing from all other aspects.
- Depending upon whether the verb is being used with reference to direction or frequency of action or with an
indirect object the stem changes in all aspects.
- The 1st Aspect Passive stem may change, but 2nd and 3rd Aspect Passive negative and positive are similar to
2nd and 3rd Aspect Active. The verbal nouns which occur in 3 cases all differ in form.
Time in Nuer is expressed by time words and there is little or no direct time value in the verb
aspects. If time is understood in a verb it is purely due to the fact that the action expressed necessitated either
finished time or future time.
NOTE: If a foreigner is to use the aspects of the Nuer verb freely he must orient himself to the
there of meaning encircling them and he must refuse to associate these aspects with the tenses of English. He must get the feel of it
so that his thoughts will travel in the paths of Nuer thought patterns.
TYPES OF NOUNS
- Concrete: such words as [yaŋ -- cow], [duɛ̲l -- house], [yiɛ̲r -- river]
Nouns with gender: There is no grammatical
divide indicating gender in Nuer, but when a classification
between sexes is needed the problem is solved in 2 ways:
- By special words:
- [dho̲o̲l] -- boy; [ciɛ̲k] -- woman, wife
- [nyal] -- girl; [cɔw] -- Husband
- [wu̲t] -- man
- For animals in cases where there are no special words to indicate sex the words "male" of "female" are spoken
followed by the noun in the genitive case.
- [ɛ tu̲u̲t manpalɛ̈ɛ̈k. ] -- A male chicken i.e. rooster
- [ɛ ŋuɔ̲ɔ̲t nyaaŋ. ] -- A female of crocodile
To explain the offspring of anything while still undeveloped the word "offspring" is used with the name of the parent.
In animals it always refers to a female offspring. For the male the word "son" is used, or a separate word.
- [ɛ dɔw jiaath. ] A seedling
- [ɛ dɔw yaaŋ. ] A heifer
Nouns expressing family relations: These words are compounded from the names of the 2 principles of every
family, viz. the mother and the father. Except for the 2 names of the relatives who stand out separately due to their
unique roles in the culture (namely the mother's brothers and the father's sisters) all words such as brother, sister,
grandmother, grandfather, cousin, mother-in-law, father-in-law, aunt, uncle, etc. are composed from the words [man]
mother, and [gua̲n] father.
- [maar] -- my mother; [dä̲maar] -- my brother; [nyimaar] -- my sister
- [gua̲a̲r] -- my father; [gua̲a̲rdɔ̲ŋ] -- my grandfather; [gua̲a̲rle̲n] -- my uncle
It is to be noted that no words of family relationship can be spoken impersonally. That is, it is impossible to say,
"This is the/a mother, this is the/a father". All family relation words must be qualified either by the possessive
adjective suffixes (his mother, for example) or by another noun (the mother of the child).
Technical words: Nuer is rich in technical words for laymen in certain scientific realms. These include
anatomy, botany and animal-bird life as well as fish. However, these technical words are confined largely to names only
and not to a technical analysis within the science itself.
Nuer also has a vivid and wide-range descriptive vocabulary for character studies.
- Birds are often named for the sound they make.
- e.g. Whistling teal -- [lui lui]
- Golden Crested Crane -- [riaak]
- Double words: Some nouns have been composed from words explaining the nature of the object or from
some outstanding habit of the object.
- [kakjuä̲lbo̲r] -- silvertailed mongoose Lit. field-tail-white
- [rialbɛɛk] -- saddle-billed stork Lit. many of a certain color
- [rie̲ynhial] -- airplane Lit. canoe-of-sky
Words of ownership: Nuer has a system whereby it can attribute ownership of responsibility to a person
either of a material or moral nature. This person is then known as, for example, "the father of the canoe", i.e. he
owns it and has the "say" over it. Morally, a person, male or female, may be known as "a father of arguing or
quarreling", i.e. he or she is subject to an argumentative spirit.
- [gua̲n ria̲a̲y] -- owner of the canoe
- [gua̲n gak] -- an argumentative person
- Abstract: such words as [nhök -- love], [ruac -- talk], [dual -- fear] are abstract and may stand alone in Nuer. However, many
abstract nouns are expressed by a phrase describing the condition of the heart, notably, as indicating the attitude
of the spirit.
- happiness -- [tɛ̈th lɔaac] Lit. falling of heart
- inner fortitude -- [buɔ̲m lɔaac] Lit. strength of heart
- thought -- [ca̲r we̲c] Lit. thought of head
- desire, lust, zeal -- [di̲t lɔaac] Lit. bigness of heart
- mercy -- [kɔa̲c lɔaac] Lit. softness of heart
- Names of people (in particular, females) are composed by a prefix plus a noun. The feminine prefix is nya-
stemming from [nyal] meaning daughter or girl.
e.g. Nyalia̲a̲ -- the daughter of death
The male prefix is gat- meaning son or child, but more often than not this prefix is dropped.
e.g. Gatkuɔth -- child of god
- Strange as it may seem, male names are inflected in the genitive case, but female names do not appear to
be inflected. In the rendering of someone's full name, i.e. his own name and his father's, the father's name is
always in the genitive case.
e.g. ga̲a̲c Ruɛ̈ɛ̈ -- Ga̲a̲c of Ruɛy
- Nouns occur in 4 cases with the nominative and objective cases sharing the same form. Each case has a singular
and plural form. The outstanding problem involved with nouns is the absence of a normal number of noun classes
into which corresponding words can be categorized. It is difficult to anticipate what the various case forms will
be due to the extravagance in noun classes. It appears that the majority of nouns each form a class in themselves.
- The 4 cases are:
- Nominative which assumes the subject and appositive positions.
- Genitive which assumes the possessive position.
- Locative which assumes the position of place where.
- Objective which assumes the object position.
- The formation of these cases is as follows:
Taking the nominative form as the standard, one can recognize the genitive of some nouns by the suffix
-kä̲ or -ä̲, the locative by a medial long vowel or the same form as the genitive, and the plural
nominative, genitive and locative by the suffix -ni. However, this is not the pattern for the majority of nouns,
and even if it were, regardless of the suffixes which are straightforward, it is almost impossible to predict
what the medial vowel changes will be since the majority of words undergo different vowel changes
in each case. Note, however, that the genitive and locative plural stem vowels are consistently the same
as the nominative plural stem vowel with only a few exceptions.
- The few possibilities of case identification are as follows:
- In genitive singular by the suffix -kä̲ or ä̲.
- In nominative, genitive and locative plural by the suffix -ni.
- In nominative plural by a complete word change.
- In all cases by a possible change of medial vowel to any of 3 lengths.
- In all cases by a possible change of the stem vowel.
- In all cases by a possible change of medial vowel and final consonant.
- In all cases by a possible change of tone.
- In all cases by a possible combination of any of the above.
In a system of 18 written vowels, 3 lengths of the vowel, 3 tones, and 36 or more
diphthongs the vowel modifications
are legior. Some poignant examples are these:
- The nominative and objective cases occur in the same form.
- Nouns in the Locative case constitute the majority of so-called prepositions and take their modifying nouns in the
genitive case. e.g. He is in the house, is said in Nuer, He is at the inside (loc.) of the house (gen.). [Jɛn a rɛy duëë.]
- Nouns modify other nouns creating a possessive. e.g. The house of-the-woman, [duɛ̲l cëk]. The modifying noun is in the
- True adjectives as such are limited to numbers, the demonstrative, the interrogative and the indefinite.
- [wu̲t kɛl] -- one man
- [wu̲t ŋa?] whose man
- [wu̲t ɛmɛ] -- this man
- [wu̲t ɔ] each man
- The possessive adjective is expressed by suffixes attached to the noun.
- [duɛ̲lä̲] -- my house
- [duɛ̲lu̲] -- your house
- The adjectival idea is expressed by verbs in relative clause.
- [Ɛ wu̲t mi gɔaa.] He is a good man. Lit. a man who goods.
- Nouns are modified by nouns in the same type of construction.
- [Ɛ jue̲y mi lia̲a̲.] It is a deathly disease.
- [Ɛ ciɛ̲k mi wu̲t.] A manly woman.
TO SHOW COMPARISON
- The adjectival verb plays its part as a comparison by occurring in the 1st Aspect in the word order which distinguishes
and emphaizes the subject, along with a prepositional phrase which functions as the comparative.
e.g. [Di̲t ni̲ nɛmɛ kä̲ nɛmɛ. ] This is bigger than this. Lit. Bigs this from this.
- The superlative degree is understood when the thing being
compared is compared against everything else.
e.g. [Di̲t ni̲ nɛmɛ kä̲ kɛndiaal.] This is bigger than everything.
- The superlative degree is also eovered by a verb meaning "to excel."
- Nuer has personal, possessive, demonstrative, relative, interrogative, intensive and reflexive pronouns.
- The personal pronoun occurs in both subjective and objective form.
|first person singular
|first person plural inclusive
|first person plural exclusive
|second person singular
|second person plural
|third person singular
|third person plural
- The possessive pronoun is expressed by attaching the possessive adjective suffixes to the noun [du̲ŋ] -- singular;
[nyin] -- plural which indicate possession.
- [Yaŋ ɛmɛ ɛ du̲ŋdä̲. ] This cow is a possession of mine.
- [Yɔ̲k ti̲ ti̲ kɛ nyinkä̲. ] These cows are possessions of mine.
- The demonstrative pronoun is differentiated into 3 groupings expressing "this", "that", and "that over there." It
occurs in both singular and plural number, and in subjective and objective cases.
- The relative pronoun is expressed in 6 different ways which explain degree of distance or past of present time
or an indefinite state. They have no case, only singular and plural number.
- The interrogative pronouns are separated into 2 classes grammatically. The interrogatives "who" and "what" follow
a noun pattern and occur in nominative, objective and genitive cases, singular and plural. ([ŋa -- who] does not have
a genitive form.) The interrogative "which" has only a singular and plural form and occurs only adjectivally.
- The intensive pronoun is formed by suffixing to the noun [puɔ̲ny -- body] the
possessive pronoun suffixes. Although it may stand alone, it commonly occurs in accompaniment with the noun it intensifies.
- Pronouns must agree with their noun antecedents in person and number.
There are 3 prepositions in Nuer.
- [kɛ] meaning "with" takes a noun or personal pronoun in the objective case as its object. It is almost always lo
tone. [kɛ] occurs with intransitive verbs.
- [kä] meaning "to" (direction), "from", "than" also takes a noun or personal pronoun in the objective case as its
object. It is normally hi tone. One of its special
occurrences is with the verb [jak] --"cause".
- [ɛ] meaning "by", i.e. agent, occurs with the passive voice to indicate the agent of the action. However it may
occur with the active voice as well, in the same capacity. [ɛ] takes a noun or personal pronoun in the nominative
case as its object.
- There are pure adverbs of time which have only one form and directly precede the verb.
- [Bä̲ lɔ̲ɔ̲ bɛ̲n kɔɔru̲. ] I will come afterwards behind you.
- Verbs may act as adverbs modifying other verbs. The sign of the construction is the particle [a].
- [Cɛ lä̲t a gɔaa. ] He worked well.
- [Cɛ jɛ la̲t a ŋä̲cɛ. ] He did it knowingly.
- Seasonal words, calendar words and words of day and night occur as nouns and not as adverbs. They are
controlled by a neatly devised system complete with irregularities.
- There are adverbs of intensification, initiated by the vowel [ɛ], which
modify adjectival verbs and other verbs. Many verbs have their own distinctive adverbs.
- Bu̲mɛ ɛtɛt. It is very hard or difficult.
- Cɛ thia̲a̲ŋ ɛliŋ. It is very full.
- Kɔcɛ ɛthe̲y. It is very cold or soft.
- What would be adverbs of place, in Nuer are nouns in the locative case.
- Certain very common adverbs (e.g. quickly, again, just, etc.) occur as particles in close connection with the
verb. Like other verb particles they are assimilated with the personal pronouns. They also affect the imperative
construction of the verb.
There are a number of words in Nuer called particles. They are employed with different parts of speech assigning
to the word or clause a specific value over and above the basic meaning of the word. These particles gives the
language atmosphere and without them one's speech is stilted, unexpressive and in some cases incorrect.
- Verb particles accompany verbs to indicate negative and positive aspect, tenor of the verb, active and
passive voice and permission. c.f. verbs
- [ɛn-kɛn] and [ni̲] are two very common particles which are used with various parts of speech to specify, emphasize
- [Cɛ ji̲ cɔl, ɛn wu̲t ɛmɔ. ] He called you, that man.
- [Göör̈ä̲ n̲ï ji̲. ] I want you (not someone else).
- The "and" which connects nouns and pronouns is not one simple word. One noun or pronoun is mentioned followed
by its corresponding plural personal pronoun with [-ɛ] suffixed. And then the second noun or pronoun is mentioned
(always in the objective case).
- [ɤä̲n kɔnɛ ji̲] -- I and you.
- [duɛ̲l kɛnɛ luak] -- house and barn.
- If 1st person is included it is always mentioned first.
- There are 3 words orders for the subject of a verb in each of the 3 aspects and variations of those aspects
which indicate the following:
- An informal meaning when the subject is not desiring any attention.
- A distinctive meaning when the subject desires to be unmistaken and distinct.
- An emphatic meaning when the subject desires to be emphasized in contrast to someone or something else.
An important factor in sentence composition is the redundancy of subject and object. This is not
true of every sentence, but in sentences introducing a conversation or a new thought, or when desiring clarity of speech.
- Usually in subject situations the noun subject is spoken, unless it be a personal pronoun, and then the
conjugated form of the verb, giving the translation for example, "the man he did so and so."
- Or the pronoun will by spoken, especially in 2nd person, then the noun equivalent of the pronoun and then
the verb, giving the translation for example, "you, that man, come here."
- In object situations, the direct object will be referred to as "it" or "they", then an apposition is tacked on to
the end of the sentence or clause introduced by the appositional particle [ɛn-kɛn], explaining the object. For
example, "Give it to me, that thing."