Nuer Field Project

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

The Sounds of the Nuer Language

Nuer at the present analytical stage has 16 written vowels and 20 consonants. It also has a great variety of diphthongs. This array of sounds is distinctive in that these sounds do not follow the English pattern. Although many of the sounds are similar to English sounds they are produced in a different position in the mouth. To one first hearing the Nuer language it sounds far removed from English, and it is. There is no overlapping of parallel sounds. In general the consonants are spoken farther front in the mouth than the similar English consonants. And the vowels are never gilded and are only vaguely similar to English. There are 27 spoken vowels but only 16 are written.

It goes without saying that the mastery of these sounds is a major project which requires concentration and perseverance. One needs to drill and drill some more, constantly listening to the Nuers speak to determine just how the sounds are made.


  Bilabial Inter dental Alveolar Alveo palatal Velar Pharyngal
voiced b dh d   g  
voiceless p th t   k  
unreleased   (th') (t')   (k')  
Affricate       j    
Fricative       c ɤ (h)
Nasal m nh n ny ŋ  
Lateral     l      
Trilled     r      
Semivowels w     y    

Note: Symbols in parentheses are not written, but the student should be aware of their presence in the language and listen for them. [dh] and [th] may also occur as fricatives.

Formation of consonants:

Bilabial -- closed lips
Interdental -- tongue tip between teeth
Alveolar -- tongue tip at ridge just back of upper teeth
Alveopaltal -- tongue tip against back of lower teeth and curved front of tongue at roof of mouth just back of alveolar ridge
Velar -- back of tongue at back of mouth roof
Pharyngal -- Open throat for free passage of air


                                                                                                  i i̩                                            u
                                                                                                       (ï) (ï̩)
                                                                                                 ëe (e̲)
                                                                                                    ɛ    (ɛ̲)                ä                ɔɔ̲
                                                                                                           ɛ̈ ɛ̲̈
                                                                                                                            a    a̲

Note: Symbols in parentheses are not written in the Nuer New Testament. However, some of them are used in these lessons.


  1. Each vowel can be spoken in 3 lengths: short, medium, and long.
  2. Some vowels are produced with a "breathy" quality, much like a voiced whisper. These sounds are represented in writing by underscoring the vowel symbol. Since a breathy vowel and a non-breathy vowel share the same symbol, and since both are made with the mouth in the same basic position, we tend to think of them as alternate forms of each other. However, a proper appreciation of their value and function within the language requires that we think of them as completely separate vowels. Thus, for instance, there is not a breathy form of [a] written as [a̲], but there is a breathy vowel [a̲] and a non-breathy vowel [a]. Since they are fully separate, breathy vowels may also occur in any of the 3 vowel lengths.
  3. Since there is no non-breathy vowel [ä] and [u] to be confused with the breathy vowels [ä̲] and [u̲] respectively, these two breathy vowels are written without the underscore. Thus [ä] and [u] represent breathy vowels. (see note below). Likewise, since word final [i̲] is generally a breathy vowel, this word final breathy vowel is written without the underscore, i.e. [i].
    *Note: Diphthongs may be composed of either breathy or non-breathy vowels, but these two types of vowels are not combined in the same diphthong. Therefore when [u] is the first vowel of a non-breathy diphthong, it is non-breathy.
    Breathy diphthongs are written with only the second vowel underscored, though both are pronounced breathy.
    When a breathy vowel is reduplicated to represent length, both are underscored.


Tone is grammatical but it is not represented generally in written form. However, because many statements are distinguished as affirmative or negative only by tone, negative words (particles) usually having a hi tone, are immediately preceded by a slash [/]:


  1. i resembles the English "beat".
  2. ï resembles the English "bit".
  3. e resembles the English "ate".
  4. ë similar to [e] but with a "hard" quality.
  5. ɛ resembles the English "bet".
  6. ɛ̈ resembles the English "bat".
  7. a resembles the English "ah" of the doctor's office, of "father".
  8. ä resembles the English "but".
  9. ɔ resembles the English "bought".
  10. o resembles the English "boat".
  11. ö resembles the English "put".
  12. u resembles the English "boot".

Please note that none of these sounds equal the English sound exactly. These illustrations are given simply as a point of departure.

Explanation of the Orthography

In this grammar all breathy sounds are acknowledged by the underscored symbol. The underscore is not written, however, in the dictionary in the breathy vowels [a], [u] and word-final [i] as these symbols are not use for non- breathy sounds.


The diphthongs --ai--, --ɛi--, --ei--, --oi--, --ui--, --ɔi-- are written with a -y in place of -i when they occur in word- final position. A short vowel is written with a dot underneath it.

Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others