Nuer Field Project

Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer Translation of Genesis in Nuer Others

Lesson 1

The following conversation is that which is used constantly among the Nuers. It is the framework of their greetings, the main idea of which centers around whether or not the immediate person and his family are "at peace". That is, whether or not the gods have left them alone so that there is no trouble in the family. Be prepared to speak to anyone in the following manner.
The 1st Aspect of the verb will also be explained.

1st person: Maali̲? Jï̲̩n a thï̲̩n?
Are-you-at peace? You are present?
2nd person answers: Ɣɔ̲ɔ̲n, maal̲̈a Ɣä̲n a thï̲̩n.
Yes, I-am-at-peace. I am present.
2nd person continues: jï̲̩n a thï̲̩n, maalï̲?
And you, are present, you-are-at peace?
1st person answers: Ɣɔ̲ɔ̲n, ɤä̲n a thï̲̩n, maalä̲.
Yes, I am present, I-am-at-peace.
2nd person closes: Ɣɔ̲ɔ̲, gɔaaɛ ɛlɔ̲ŋ.
Yes, it-is-good very.


[  ̲]

  1. The underscored vowel in Nuer script identifies it as a breathy vowel. The same idea as in what constitutes a whisper only not as pronounced. Also every "u" and word-final "i" is a breathy vowel. In Nuer writing this fact is assumed and the normal sign of a breathy vowel, the underscore, is omitted. It is included in this grammar to help the student remember.
  2. Two identical vowels written together mean that the vowel sound is a longer sound than with a single vowel. A dot under a vowel indicates a short vowel. All 2-letter words are short vowels and are not marked.
  3. Pay close attention to the informant's mouth as he makes the various sounds. Is his mouth open -- to what extent? Is his tongue to the front or back of his mouth? Don't be bashful, Nuers don't mind your watching them.


  1. Give special attention to the "ɔa" sound, making sure your tongue is far back in your mouth. Do not round your lips as in a "w"
  2. Don't expect these sounds to be like English. They aren't.


  1. The majority of Nuer verbs can be conjugated, as for example [maalï̲] and [mallä̲]. There are 2 verbs which cannot be conjugated and one of them is [a]. Regardless of its subject, mood or aspect it has only this one form. [a] indicates temporary existence. Its exact translation (i.e. is, was etc.) depends on the time of the sentence.
  2. Nuer has what are termed adjectival verbs, as for example the word [gɔaaɛ] -- it-is-good. This is a conjugated verb like [mal]. (cf. appendix.)
  3. There are no auxiliary verbs in Nuer like in English "am walking, is going" etc. These auxiliary ideas are included in the verb form itself. e.g. [ja̲lä̲] -- I walk or I am walking.
  4. Nuer verbs are unlike English verbs in that they do not indicate time primarily. They are, instead, based on kinds of action or a state of being. It is detrimental to one's mental adaptation to this language to think of these verbs in terms of present, past and future tense. Instead, discipline your mind to think of the Nuer verb as occurring in 3 aspects of action or state of being.
    THE FIRST ASPECT indicates action or state of being going on regardless of time. e.g. [Ta̲a̲ wanɛmɛ mëëpan] -- I was here yesterday. [Ta̲a̲] is the 1st aspect of the verb, but note the translation is not present time here.
    THE FIRST ASPECT also expresses an assumed action as though existing regardless of time. e.g. [Caamä̲ ri̲ŋ] -- I eat meat. This sentence also means "I am eating meat", but the context indicates the desired meaning depending upon the time expressed. Any word of time or phrase indicating time may be spoken with these verbs providing that the time does not create a necessary change of action as a future time word might do. e.g. [Gɔaaɛ tä̲ä̲mɛ kä̲ i̲ru̲u̲n bɛ jiä̲ä̲k.] -- It is good now but tomorrow it will be bad. Note: the 1st aspect form of the verb [gɔaaɛ] indicates a realized state or condition but due to a change in that condition the 3rd aspect follows, viz. [bɛ jiä̲ä̲k]. The 1st Aspect of the verb is the only aspect in which the verb itself is ever conjugated. (The Habitual form of the verb is an exception to this.)
  5. The singular personal pronoun ending for the 1st Aspect are as follows:
    1st person [ä̲] Maalä̲ Gɔaaä̲
      I-am-at-peace I-am-good
    2nd person [i̲] Maali̲ Gɔaai̲
      You-are-at-peace You-are-good
    3rd person [ɛ] Maalɛ Gɔaaɛ
      He, she, it-is-at peace He, she, it-is-good
  6. The personal pronoun ending of a conjugated verb is sufficient as subject of the sentence, but the noun or pronoun subject may be used as well. When the full subject is used with the conjugated form of the verb it always appears preceeding the verb. e.g. [Ɣä̲n maalä̲.]
  7. Note the similarity between the vowels of the personal pronouns [ɤä̲n] and [jï̲̩n] etc., and their corresponding verb endings: [Ɣä̲n maalä̲] [Jï̲n maali̲] [Jɛn maalɛ]
  8. The singular personal pronouns are:

    I -- ɤä̲n
    you -- jï̲̩
    she -- jɛn
Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others