Nuer Field Project

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

Lesson 36

This lesson enters into the realm of the Passive voice. Up to this point everything has been written in the Active voice where the action is done by the subject. Now the subject will receive the action or be acted upon.

This conversation is between the housewife and her houseboy at the beginning of a day.

Wife: Walɛ, ɛ jɛn jiɛc la̲t kä̲ ɤä̲n göörä̲ ɤöö baa ti̲ti̲ la̲t walɛ.
Today, it is Monday and I want that these will be done today.
  Kɛɛ nhiam baa duɛ̲l yiɛ̩c kɛɛliw a mä̲ni̲ bä̲ŋ bä̲.
at first the house will be swept completely and also the verandah too.
  I̲yɔɔ baa bie̲e̲yni̲ lak, kä̲ bɛɛ miɛ̲th ca̲ŋ da̲a̲r rial i̲kä̲.
Later the clothes will be washed, and the mid-day food will be prepared.
Boy: Ɣɔ̲ɔ̲, ɛ jɛn. Ɛ jï̲n i̲ baa duɛ̲l yi̩ɛc kɛɛliw, kä̲ baa bä̲ŋ yi̩ɛc bä̲,
Oh, it is so. You said that the house will be swept completely, and the verandanh will be swept also,
  kä̲ bie̲e̲yni̲ baa kɛ lak, kä̲ miɛ̲th ca̲ŋ da̲a̲r baa jɛ rial i̲kä̲.
and the colthes will be washed, and the mid-day food will be prepared.
  Kɛ kɛn da̲ŋ ŋuaan, /ci̲ ɛ jɛn.
They are (those) four. Is it not so?
Wife: Kä̲ duɔ̲ɔ̲r kɛl a thï̲n. Cä̲ tha̲a̲n bie̲e̲yni̲ ka̲m raar mïndan.
And there is one thing. I took out some of the clothes a little while ago
  i̲ /caa kɛ bi̲ lak walɛ. Pä̲l tɔtɔ. Baa kɛ lak cä̲ŋ kɛl.
(thinking) that they will not be washed today. Leave those, they will be washed one day.
Boy: Ɛ jɛn, bä̲ kɛ pä̲l.
Okay, I will leave them.
Wife: Tä̲ä̲̲mɛ cɛ wä̲ lɔɔcdu̲ kɛɛliw?
Now has it gone into your heart completely?
Boy: Ɣɔ̲ɔ̲n cɛ wä̲ lɔɔcdä̲.
Yes, it has gone into my heart.


  1. Give attention to the tone patterns which accompany the passive voice verb particles [caa] and [baa]. Practice saying the above sentences with your informant.


  1. The Passive voice in Nuer is used when the action is to be stressed. It is also used for privacy in speech. The Active voice tends to emphasize the subject instead.

The Occurrence of the Passive:

  1. In Imperative positions: The 3rd Aspect passive voice is used instead of the imperative when giving commands of a normal nature and not under an emotional strain. For example, when telling someone you want him to do something, and it is obvious that he is the one to do it, then the passive is always used. For example, in house-keeping directions like "sweep the floor", "wash the clothes", etc. and in outside work like "build the house", "cut the grass" etc. If there is a doubt as to who will do this work, then the 3rd Aspect active voice is used as well.
  2. In situations where the verb thought is to be stressed. The stress is on the verb "kill" not the subject "man" since his being killed is where the import lies. If the stress lay on someone having killed him, then the active would be used. Note: The English idea expressed in this passive sentence. "It is done by women" when explaining that a certain thing is specifically a woman's job, is put into the active voice in Nuer because the emphasis is meant to be on the women, and not on the doing of the job. So the 1st aspect active voice is used in the Distinctive word order.

The Formation of the Passive: The Passive occurs in all 3 Aspects negative and positive with transitive verbs. It is unconjugated, having one form for all persons in each Aspect.

  1. 1st Aspect Passive: This form is exactly the same as the 3rd person plural of the 1st Aspect active except for tone. -kɛ is suffixed to the 1st Aspect stem to form the 1st Aspect Passive.
    e.g. La̲tkɛ jɛ ɛ dho̲o̲l ɛmɔ. -- It is/was done by that boy.
  2. 2nd Aspect Passive: The 2nd Aspect Passive is formed by the 2nd Aspect passive verb particle [caa] and the verb stem. The stem is the same as 2nd-3rd Aspect active.
    e.g. Caa jɛ la̲t ɛ dho̲o̲l ɛmɔ. -- It was done by that boy.
  3. 3rd Aspect Passive: The 3rd Aspect Passive is formed by the 3rd Aspect passive verb particle [baa] and the verb stem. It differs from "I come" [ba̲a̲] by being a non-breathy vowel.
    e.g. Baa jɛ la̲t ɛ dho̲o̲l ɛmɔ. -- It will be done by that boy.

The Subject of the Passive: The subject of the passive is always in the objective case. It is most obvious in pronouns. Apparently this is due to the thought that the subject is receiving the action and thus is the object of the action.

The Word Order of the Passive:

  1. 1st Aspect Passive:
    Ɣä̲n duackɛ ɤä̲ ɛ gua̲a̲r. -- I am beaten by my father.
    Subj. (spoken or understood) in the nominative + passive voice verb + the one or thing receiving the action in the objective case + the agent preposition [ɛ] + the agent in the nom. case.
  2. 2nd and 3rd Aspect Passive:
    The word order for each of these is on the following pattern:
    e.g. -- Your house was built by him.
    Subj. (spoken or understood) in the nominative, and passive verb particle plus the one or thing receiving the action in the objective case, and the verb stem, and agent preposition [ɛ], and the agent in the nominative case.
    Note: It is not always necessary to include the word receiving the action. But the tone will change.
    e.g. Duɛ̲lu̲ caa la̲t. -- Your house was built.

-- Passive Word Order --

  Subj. Vb. Part. Subj. Receiver Verb Sub. Rec. Agent
1st Asp. Nɛmɛ     la̲tkɛ ɛ wu̲t
2nd Asp. Nɛmɛ caa la̲t   ɛ wu̲t
3rd Asp. Nɛmɛ baa la̲t   ɛ wu̲t
Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others