Moro is a Kordofanian language spoken in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan in Sudan. Kordofanian languages have received little attention in the linguistics literature and constitute one of the most poorly described and threatened language families in Africa. The current project aims to fill this void by producing a descriptive grammar, analytical papers, and a dictionary focusing on Thetogovela, a previously undescribed dialect of Moro.

Research to date reveals that many phenomena in Moro present intriguing challenges for linguistic analysis, and provide new data for grammatical typology and relationships between Kordofanian and other Niger-Congo languages. Several especially noteworthy phenomena are: (1) the status of tone in Moro, a previously disputed aspect of the language, which is shown to interact with word formation and sentence structure, (2) a complex verb system that displays several distinctive methods of marking grammatical subjects and objects, and (3) a striking set of properties connecting relative clauses and questions. The project involves close collaboration between speakers of the Moro community, the principal investigators and graduate students, and will make a lasting contribution to African linguistics.

Project Report

Linguistic research aims to discover the properties of human language – how the grammars of natural languages are structured, how language is acquired and processed, and how it varies and changes. An important component of this research is the documentation and description of the many thousands of languages of the world. Such research is vital to establish an accurate portrayal of human language before many endangered languages disappear. Linguistic research also serves communities who are attempting to preserve and strengthen their languages in educational settings. The major goal of the Moro Language Project is to describe the grammatical structure of the Moro language, spoken in the Nuba Mountains of the Republic of Sudan. This area is linguistically complex and home to dozens of languages, but little linguistic research has been conducted due to decades of civil conflict in Sudan that has hampered access and has led to the displacement of thousands of people. All Nuba Mountains languages are threatened due to war and displacement. Our research describes the Thetogovela dialect, a previously undescribed dialect. Existing materials on Moro describe a different dialect, and educational materials and Bible translations are written in a standardized form of this dialect. Speakers of other dialects such as Thetogovela must learn the standardized form in order to read and write. Our research highlights the dialect differences. The project has published ten papers on different aspects of the language. We are currently writing a grammar and dictionary for eventual publication. One major finding is the importance of tone, or pitch differences to convey grammatical and vocabulary distinctions. Tone can be arbitrarily distributed or rule-governed according to syllable structure. Our research has also focused on the structure of verbs and different means of asking questions. These patterns show strong similarities with geographically distant, but related Bantu languages. The project has trained six graduate students and three undergraduate students in fieldwork and linguistic research. We have worked with speakers from the diaspora community in the U.S. and the Moro Language Committee in Sudan. The research funded by this project has contributed to knowledge about a member of a little studied group of languages, bolstering the overall goal of linguistic research to document and describe the languages of the world in order to deepen our understanding of human language properties.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Application #
Program Officer
William J. Badecker
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of California San Diego
La Jolla
United States
Zip Code