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About this Grammar


Primarily, this book is for students who want to know Beja. In addition, it contains useful information for linguists who want to know about Beja.


Therefore, the language data are plentiful, but language related terms like vowel, noun, gender etc. are sparse and limited to the basic concepts. The non-linguist may safely ignore them - trusting that these linguistic terms will gradually become self-evident as more and more data are encountered in the course of the study. Language related terms are defined and exemplified in the phonology and the morphology sections in the beginning of the book; but except for the section on pronunciation, all linguistic explanations can be skipped. For further studies, we recommend the Beja dictionary and the Beja text collection to be published by Koeppe in 'A Learner's Grammar of Beja (East Sudan)'.


Linguists will note that the theoretical orientation is functional. Van Valin's Role and Reference Grammar serves as the underlying theory. Consequently, no deep structures and no verb phrases are recognized; but the different types of verbs and auxiliaries, the different states of affairs, and the layered structures of NPs and clauses are considered important. Throughout the book an effort is made to also provide illustrations of the information structure of Beja sentences.


The progression is learner-oriented: The book proceeds from small, unstructured items to more and more complex structures:


The initial section on Language Basics offers simple, holistic items for immediate, unanalyzed basic communication - including contact noises, conversation fillers, greetings, addresses and automatic responses.


The next section, on Nouns and Phrases, deals with nominal words and noun phrases - starts with NPs which consist of only one item (noun, name, pronoun), and progresses to richer NPs with adjectives, genitives, or numbers. At the end of this section, there are short nominal clauses which allow the speaker to define or describe things, but which do not include any verbs yet.


The third section is on Verbs and Clauses. It starts with clauses which consist of only one verb, and progresses to clauses which also have objects, adverbs, auxiliaries or subordinate clauses - i.e. complex sentences.


In every section there are grammatical notes, tables, examples, paradigms, and conversations. The language learner can afford to ignore the notes and tables. But the numerous examples, paradigms and conversations should be studied seriously. They have been selected in such a way that - as far as possible - they always represent complete and natural pieces of language. This is true for every section of the book, even at the early stages when there isn't much substance yet to communicate about. Functional communication goes beyond predicating and informing.


The conversations always include more than what has been introduced in the preceding sections. In this way the book does not appeal to the analytical understanding alone. It also challenges the intuitive, naive use of the language in its communicative complexity. An analytical approach is possible, because all conversations and texts are accompanied by interlinear translations with morpheme-by-morpheme glosses.


The paradigms and examples are arranged with the Beja words first and the English glosses last. This arrangement should encourage an approach which focuses on the direct use of Beja rather than detours via glosses.


The annex consists of verb lists.



Abbreviations are listed below. Those in brackets are used only in the interlinear texts, usually in combinations such as ArtSgF, 'Article Singular Feminine' or NegImpfPl3Pf 'Negative Imperfect Plural Third Person Prefix'.


The minus sign '-' indicates morpheme boundaries such as y'-i 'come-Fut' (come, Future marker). The plus sign '+' separates the grammatical category from the meaning of a word, such as oodoor 'Adv+when' (Adverb of the meaning 'when'). The dot sign '.' separates words in the translation which equal one single Beja word, such as jabanaat 'coffee.pot'. Further note that, apart from the glossing, singular has only been noted in rare cases, where it might lead to confusion. Thus ambigue terms such as 'you' are usually only marked, if they are plural and/or either specifically masculine or feminine.


first person


first or third person


second person


third person


adds lexical meaning


separates parts (morphemes) of a word












connector, conjunction


each other




far demonstrative






consonants h and hamzah


identity verb, copula


imperfect / present tense / aspect






literal translation




near demonstrative




noun phrase






past / habitual tense / aspect


perfect / past tense / aspect


permissive tense / aspect










person, tense, aspect, and mood marker merged into one




relative (as in relative clauses or relative verbs)


repetitive (action)




somebody (transitive verb)




something (transitive verb)


subordinate verb




tempus, aspect and mood markers merged into one








with each other


relative which, who


zero morpheme


alternative translation


derived from

, (comma separation)

alternative translation

. (dot separation)

separates words in a translation, which equal one single Beja morpheme

A Note to the Language Learner


If the language learner has no particular interest in linguistic aspects of Beja, he or she is advised to start with the Section Sounds and skip the next sections so as to continue with Section Basic Communication. The linguistic information contained in the Section Morphophonology and Morphology can be consulted later, as questions may arise about the Arabic loan words, dialect differences, sound changes or the shape of Beja words.

  1. A language assistant should be consulted. Where no language assistant is available, the audio data must be used more intensively, but they are no substitute for a mother tongue speaker of the language. The assistant's ear is needed to control and correct the learner's pronunciation - especially during the early stages of the language acquisition.

  2. In any case the phonology section on pronunciation must be studied first, so that the data can be read adequately. The other linguistic notes can be skipped, because the data are self-explanatory.

  3. With the language assistant, all dialect differences should be checked out, and the systematic differences should be noted.

  4. When reading the book, the focus should always be on the Beja data, i.e. the left hand side of the page. An attempt should be made to always understand the Beja data directly - even before glancing at the glosses.

  5. All conversations should be practiced in dialogue form. All exercises should be adapted to the actual context, so that they refer to things and events which are more relevant and intuitively more natural than the items supplied in the book.

  6. The paradigms should be modified and extended creatively, e.g. by substituting different paradigms (present instead of past), by substituting different dialogue roles ('I' instead of 'you'), or by substituting different contexts (e.g., 'here' instead of 'there'). Verb paradigms are presented rather late. But some of the verbs marked as 'frequent' should be selected to be memorized at an early stage.

  7. There are Beja radio programs, Beja internet sites, and - more important - Beja music cassettes available to enrich the language learning program.

References / further reading


It is recommended to consult the existing grammars, especially those of Almkvist (the most meticulous) and Hudson (the most concise). The transcriptions in the grammar sketches by Hudson and Morin are based on the same phonological principles as the present grammar.

Almkvist, Herman N. 1881

Die Bischari-Sprache in Nord-Ost Afrika (vol. 1). Upsala: Königliche Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften

Almkvist, Herman N. 1885

Bischari-deutsches und deutsch-bischarisches Wörterbuch (vol. 2). Upsala: Königliche Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften

Hudson, Richard A. 1976

'Beja'. In M. L. Bender (ed.) The Non-Semitic Languages of Ethiopia, 97-132. Carbondale

Morin, Didier 1995

Des paroles douces comme la soie. Paris: Peeters

Reinisch, Leo 1893

Die Bedauyesprache in Nordostafrika. Wien: Hölder

Reinisch, Leo 1895

Wörterbuch der Bedauyesprache. Wien: Hölder

Roper, E. (M.) 1928

Tu Bedawiɛ: An Elementary Handbook for the Use of Sudan Government Officials. Hertford: Stephen Austin

Van Valin, Robert D. and Randy J. La Polla 1997

Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Voigt, Rainer (M.) 1987

'Einige Überlegungen zum 'Aspektsystem' des Bedauye'. In: H. Jungraithmayr and W. W. Müller (eds.), Proceedings of the 4th International Hamito-Semitic Congress (Marburg, 20 - 22 September, 1983). Amsterdam: Benjamins

Wedekind, Klaus 2007

'An Update on Beja'. In: Rainer Voigt (ed.), Akten des 7. internationalen Semitohamitistenkongresses Berlin 2004, pp. 165-183. Aachen: Shaker

Zaborski, Andrzej 1999

'Selected Beja Bibliography', Provisional version presented at the first Conference on the Beja Language, August 1999, Cairo




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