Iraqw language

Iraqw is a Cushitic language spoken in Tanzania in the Arusha and Manyara Regions. It is expanding in numbers as the Iraqw people absorb neighbouring ethnic groups. The language has many Datooga loanwords, especially in poetic language. The Gorowa language to the south shares numerous similarities and is sometimes considered a dialect.

Kángw Iraqw
Native toTanzania
RegionArusha Region
Native speakers
603,000 (2009)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3irk



Whiteley (1958) lists the following vowel phonemes for Iraqw. All of the vowels except /ə/ occur in both short and long versions:

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e əo
Open a


Whiteley (1958) and Mous (1993) list the following consonants:

Iraqw consonant phonemes
  Labial Alveolar Palatal /
Velar/Uvular Labialized
Pharyngeal Glottal
Central Lateral
Nasal m n       ŋ ng ŋʷ      
Plosive/Affricate pb td    ch  kɡ ɡʷ      
Laryngealized    tsʼ  tɬʼ tl     qʼ ~ qχʼ  qʷʼ ~ qχʷʼ  ʕ /  ʔ ' 
Fricative f  s  ɬ sl  ʃ sh  x    ħ hh  h 
Trill    r                  
Approximant       l j y    w   

In the popular orthography for Iraqw used in Lutheran and Catholic materials, the sound ɬ is spelled sl and ʕ is spelled / (Mous 1993:16).


Noun morphology


Nouns in Iraqw have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of a noun can be deduced from the type of agreement that it triggers on other elements in the sentence, but the agreement system is unusual, and obeys the following principle (Mous 1993:41):

  • Masculine nouns require the masculine form of the verb
  • Feminine nouns require the feminine form of the verb
  • Neuter nouns require the plural form of the verb

The masculine, feminine, and plural forms of the verb are identified by the form the verb takes when the subject is pronoun which is a.) a third person masculine singular ('he'), b.) a third person feminine singular ('she'), or c.) a third person plural ('they').

Masculine verb forms
'The boys are fighting''He is fighting'
Feminine verb forms
'The tails are making circles''She is making circles'
Neuter verb forms
'The tail is making circles''They are making circles'

There are several unusual things that are worth noting. One is that 'tail' is neuter in the singular and feminine in the plural; despite this, the plural verb form is used for 'tail', since it is neuter, and neuters use the plural verb form. Another is that the verbs do not agree with their subjects in number, so the masculine plural daaqay 'boys' takes the masculine form of the verb, not the plural form of the verb.


Nouns typically have separate singular and plural forms, but there are many distinct plural suffixes. Mous (1993:44) reports that there are fourteen different plural suffixes. The lexical entry for a noun must specify the particular plural suffix it takes.

The gender of a plural noun is usually different from the gender of the corresponding singular. Compare the following singular and plural nouns, with their genders:

singularsingular genderpluralplural gendermeaning
nyaqotmnyaqootma'fcolobus monkey

While it is not possible to predict the gender of a noun or which plural suffix it will take, the form of the plural suffix determines the gender of the plural noun. So, for example, all plural nouns with the /-eemo/ suffix are neuter (Mous 1993:58).

Construct case suffixes and gender linkers

The gender of a noun is important for predicting the construct case suffix and the gender linker that it will use. When a noun is directly followed by

  • an adjective
  • a possessive noun phrase
  • a numeral
  • a relative clause
  • a verb

then a construct case suffix must appear after the noun. The construct case marker is /-ú/ or /-kú/ for masculine nouns; /-Hr/ or /-tá/ for feminine nouns; and /-á/ for neuter nouns (Mous 1993:95-96):

'the stick of my father'
'big python'
'I pull the rope'

The gender linkers are similar to the construct cases suffixes, but appear between the noun and other suffixes (such as the demonstrative, indefinite, and possessive suffixes). The following example shows masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns before the 'their' possessive suffix and the demonstrative -qá' 'that (far, but visible)' (Mous 1993:90-92)

gura' 'stomach'hasam 'dilemma'hhafeeto 'mats'
guru-'ín 'their stomach'hasam-ar-'ín 'their dilemma'hhafeeto-'ín
guru-qá' 'that stomach'hasam-ar-qá' 'that dilemma'hhafeeto-qá' 'those mats'


Noun phrases

The noun comes first in the noun phrase, and precedes possessors, adjectives, numerals, and relative clauses. An element called the construct case suffix appears between the noun and these modifiers, as discussed in the Morphology section above:

'the stick of my father'
'big python'


An Iraqw sentence contains a verb in final position, and an auxiliary-like element called the 'selector'. Either the subject or the object of the sentence may precede the selector (Mous 2004:110), and the selector agrees with the preceding noun. So in the first example below, iri shows agreement with /ameenirdá' 'that woman', and in the second example, uná shows agreement with gitladá' :

'And that woman was surely eating.'
'I hate that man.'


  1. "Iraqw". Ethnologue. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Iraqw". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  • Mous, Maarten. 1993. A grammar of Iraqw. Hamburg: Buske.
  • Mous, Maarten, Martha Qorro, Roland Kießling. 2002. Iraqw-English Dictionary. With an English and a Thesaurus Index. Cushitic Language Studies Volume 18.
  • Whiteley, W.H. 1958. A short description of item categories in Iraqw. Kampala:East African Institute of Social Research.
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