Acholi (Northern Uganda and Sudan)

Acholi Language

The majority of Acholi is spoken in Uganda, Sudan, and Australia. Uganda has the majority of the Acholi population. The four major languages in Uganda are Bantu, Sudanic, Eastern Nilotic, and Western Nilotic. These four groups of languages can be as similar as English to French and as different as English to Chinese. In addition to the wide range of similarities and differences among Ugandan languages, there are no clear geographical boundaries of languages. The geographical location of Uganda, the middle of Africa, establishes the region as a mixture of different languages. It’s very common to have neighboring towns speaking different languages. This is a result of the numerous wars in Africa, which causes consistent waves of different settlements. As a consequence, there are not very clear geographical boundaries of the languages and many Ugandans are bilingual. The languages they speak are dependent on the areas in which they live.

Acholi is classified under the Western Nilotic language, along with Lango and Alur. Alternate names for Acholi include: Acoli, Acooli, Akoli, Atscholi, Dok Acoli, Gang, Log Acoli, Lwo, Lwoo, and Shuli. Northern central Uganda is dominated by Western Nilotic Languages which approximately 12% of Uganda speaks. Acholi, Lango and Alur are dialects of Lwo. These three languages have “about 84-90% of their vocabulary in common”.


Acholi has a complicated vowel system with 10 vowel qualities divided into two sets of 5. The second set is an intermediate in quality between those of the first set. The difference of quality between the vowels is voice quality, the way in which the vocal folds vibrate. Words produced in Acholi tend to exercise vowal harmony where words have the same quality of vowels, meaning one word either encompasses either one kind of vowel quality or another. In addition to voice quality of vowels, Acholi contrasts between long and short vowels.
The Acholi language has 18 consanants. The consonants are described by place and manner of articulation. There are four places of articulation including labial, alveolar, palatal, and velar. There are five manners of articulation including voiceless stops, voiced stops, nasals, fricatives, and approximants. It’s important that voicing is including with the descriptions of manner placement.

The /c/ can be regarded as an affricate because the sound is created with friction. Acholi has a variant of /t/ that is close to a vowel like voiced alveolar tap in English, as in butter. The main difference between Acholi and English is the fricatives. Acholi only has labial fricative /f/ and /v/. These labial fricatives can also be used as affricates when adding /pf/and /bv/.


Pitch and stress is used for differentiating between questions and statements, just as in English.

Code Switching of English and Acholi Languages

The act of codeswitching “taps into the reservoirs of semantic/pragmatic fields, and social and psychological associations of words and phrases in not just one language, but in two (or more)”. This article points out the importance of codeswitching as a motivation to “convey the speaker’s intentions” which as a bilingual speaker can be more effective in the two practiced languages. This is the case for individuals who speak both English and Acholi.
This research supports that using the Embedded Language elements of Acholi doesn’t compromise the morphosyntactic frame of an English/Acholi bilingual clause through an analysis of the Acholi/English codeswitching corpus. This analysis supports that “morphosyntactic structures of languages are more flexible than often assumed. As long as abstract grammatical features critical to the Matrix Language are realized, morphosyntax can accommodate to lexical input.”


Language Considerations

Pronounciation- The sound /m/ as in “man” is actually a plosive and involves tightening of lips first and is pronounced in a delayed manner. The sound /w/ as in which is best pronounced when the two lips part almost suddenly. /ny/ is a nasal palatal that does not have an English equivalent.

Cultural Considerations

As an SLP, one should consider the war and the effects on children of Uganda. Betancourt (2009)provided research on the effects of war among displaced children in Northern Uganda. Many local acholi syndromes are similar to western definitions. Those that are described included psychiatric disorders of mood, anxiety and conduct problems. The mood disorders include depressed mood, diminished interest in activities activities, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, inability to concentrate, recurrent thoughts of death and suicide. Anxiety problems include increased arousal and restlessness. Conduct problems include aggressive behavior that causes or threatens physical harm to others such as fighting as well as associated symptoms of deceitfulness, using bad language, drinking alcohol and using drugs.
Culturally specific symptoms also emerged. For example,“sitting kumu”(sitting while holding one’s cheek in their hand) and not greeting people were described as symptoms of the locally derived mood disorder kumu. In the Acholi culture, to not extend a kind greeting to others you encounter is offensive and an important indicator of distress.
Children with language disorders are often respected, partly for the fear that their spirits after their death might come back and into the world to haunt people who had been unkind to them. Vocabulary related to language disorders includes: latelebe oto- one who has unintelligible speech whose nerves connecting the tongue to the brain was damaged or dead; lagwong one who lisps; ladwal a person who stutters.


Original Contributors: Maya Zahm, Ken Hughes, and Janelle Dunn (2011)


Article regarding specifications of morphology and syntax.


To hear the Acholi language