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Bench language

Native toEthiopia
RegionBench Maji Zone, SNNPR
Native speakers
348,000 Bench Non, 8,000 Mer, 490 She (2007)[1]
  • Benc Non (Benesho)
  • Mer (Mieru)
  • She (Kaba)
Language codes
ISO 639-3bcq
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Bench (Bencnon, Shenon or Mernon, formerly called Gimira[2]) is a Northern Omotic language of the "Gimojan" subgroup, spoken by about 174,000 people (in 1998) in the Bench Maji Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region, in southern Ethiopia, around the towns of Mizan Teferi and Shewa Gimira. In a 2006 dissertation, Christian Rapold described three varieties of Bench (Benchnon, Shenon, and Mernon) as "...mutually intelligible...varieties of one and the same language".[2] Bench is the ancestral language of the Bench people.[3]

In unusual variance from most of the other languages in Africa, Bench has retroflex consonant phonemes.[4] The language is also noteworthy in that it has six phonemic tones, one of only a handful of languages in the world that have this many.[5] Bench has a whistled form used primarily by male speakers, which permits communication over greater distances than spoken Bench. The whistle can be created using the lips or made from a hollow created with both hands. Additionally, this form of the language may be communicated via the 5-stringed krar.[6]


The phonemic vowels of Bench are /i e a o u/.

There are six phonemic tones: five level tones (numbered 1 to 5 in the literature, with 1 being the lowest) and one rising tone 23 /˨˧/. The top tone is sometimes realized as a high rising 45 [˦˥].[7] On the vowel o, they are ó ō ò ȍ ǒ/

The consonants are:

Bilabial Coronal Palato-
Retroflex Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive Voiceless p t k ʔ
Voiced b d ɡ
Affricate Voiceless ts
Ejective tsʼ tʃʼ tʂʼ
Fricative Voiceless s ʃ ʂ h
Voiced z ʒ ʐ
Trill r
Approximant l j

All of these can occur palatalized, but only before /a/, suggesting an alternate analysis of a sixth phonemic vowel /ja/. Labialized consonants are reported for [p, b, s, ɡ,] and [ʔ], but their phonemic status is unclear; they only occur after /i/.

For the phoneme /p/ the realizations of [pʰ] and [f] are in free variation; /j/ has the allophone [w] before back vowels.

The syllable structure is (C)V(C)(C)(C) + tone or (C) N (C), where C represents any consonant, V any vowel, N any nasal, and brackets an optional element. CC clusters consist of a continuant followed by a plosive, fricative, or affricate; in CCC clusters, the first consonant must be one of /r/ /j/ /m/ /p/ or /pʼ/, the second either /n/ or a voiceless fricative, and the third /t/ or /k/.



Plurals may optionally be formed by adding the suffix [-n̄d]; however, these are rarely used except with definite nouns. E.g.: [wű īŋɡn̄d] "her relatives"; [ātsn̄dī ka̋ŋɡ] "all the people".


Personal pronouns

English oblique subject locative vocative
I [tá] [tān] [tȁtʼn̄]
you (sg.) [ní] [nēn] [nȉtʼn̄] [wȍ] (m.), [hȁ] (f.)
you (hon.) [jìnt] [jìnt] [jìnt]
he [jı̋] [jīs] _
he (hon.) [ı̋ts] [ı̋ts] [ı̋ts]
she [wű] [wūs] _
she (hon.) [ɡēn] [ɡēn] [ɡēn]
himself/herself [bá] [bān] [bȁtʼn̄]
we (excl.) [nú] [nūn] [nȕtʼn̄]
we (incl.) [nı̋] [nīn] [nȉtʼn̄]
you (pl.) [jìntȁjkʼn̄] [jìntȁjkʼn̄] [jìntȁjkʼn̄]
they [ı̋tsȁjkʼn̄] [ı̋tsȁjkʼn̄] [ı̋tsȁjkʼn̄]

The word [bá] goes slightly beyond being a reflexive pronoun; it can mark any third person that refers to the subject of the sentence, e.g.:

[jȉsī dōr ɡȍtùē]
he.S own sheep sell.he.Fin[clarification needed]
"he sold his (own) sheep"
[bȍdám hāŋkʼá bājístāɡùʂn̄ pāntsʼà ěz]
road.abl go.self leopard-NPMk[clarification needed] big see.he.Fin[clarification needed]
"when he was going along the road, he saw a big leopard"

The oblique form is basic, and serves as object, possessive, and adverbial. The subject form has three variants: normal (given above), emphatic - used when the subject is particularly prominent in the sentence, especially sentence-initially - and reduced, used as part of a verb phrase. The "locative" term means "to, at, or for one's own place or house", e.g.:

[kȁrtá tȁtʼn̄ hāŋkʼùē]
return.I I go.I.Fin[clarification needed]
"I went home"


The main determiners are "that, the" (masc. [ùʂ], fem. [èn], pl. [ènd]) and "this" (masc. [hàʂ], fem. [hàn], pl. [hànd]). As suffixes on a verb or an ablative or locative phrase, they indicate a relative clause. E.g.:

[ātsn̄dà] [hàndīs] [hǎrám] [bād] [átsn̄dȁ?] these.O what.abl separate make.fut.Intl[clarification needed]?
"how can I separate these people?"
[átsín kétn̋ jískèn]
woman house.loc be.that

"the woman who is in the house"


The demonstratives include [háŋ] "here", [ēk] "there (nearby)", [jìŋk] "there (far away)", [nēɡ] "down there", [nèk] "up there". Alone, or with the determiner suffixes [ùʂ] or [àʂ] added, these function as demonstrative pronouns "this person", "that person", etc. With the noun phrase marker [-à], they become demonstrative adjectives. E.g.:

[hàŋ nás dȁdn̄ àtāɡùʂn̄]
here man near reach.stat.det.when
"when he came near to the man..."
[njāʔà nēɡà hàndī]
boy.NPMk down.there.NPMk det.S
"these boys down there"


The numbers are:

1 [mātʼ]
2 [nám]
3 [káz]
4 [ód]
5 [ùtʂ]
6 [sàpm̄]
7 [nàpm̄]
8 [njàrtn̄]
9 [ìrstn̄]
10 [ta̋m]
100 [bǎl]
1000 [wňm]

20, 30, etc. are formed by adding [tàm] "ten" (with tone change) to the unit. In compound numbers, [-á] is added to each 'figure, thus:

13 [ta̋má kázá]
236 [nám bǎlá kāztàmá sàpm̄á]

When a cardinal number functions as an adjective, the suffix [-ās] can be added (e.g. [njāʔà kázās] "three children"). Ordinal numbers are formed by suffixing [-nás] to the cardinal, e.g.: [ódnás] "fourth".


Adjectives are sometimes intensified by changing the tone to top; e.g. [ěz] "big" → [e̋z] "very big".


Verbs with monosyllabic roots can have three different forms of their active stems: the singular imperative, which is just the root; the past stem, usually identical to the root but sometimes formed by adding -k (with changes to the preceding consonant); and the future stem, usually identical to the root but sometimes formed by changing the tone from mid 3 to high 4 or from bottom 1 to top 5. Some have causative (formed by adding [-ās] or [-̏s], and changing mid tone to high) and passive (formed by adding [-n̄], [-t], or [-̏k] to the causative) forms. Verbal nouns are formed from the stem, sometimes with tone change or addition or [-t].

Verbs with polysyllabic roots have at least two forms, one with an intransitive or passive meaning and one with a transitive or causative meaning; the former ends in [-n̄], the latter in [-ās]. A passive may be formed by ending in [-āsn̄]. Verbal nouns are formed by taking the bare stem without [-n̄] or [-ās].

Compound verbs are formed with [màk] "say" or [màs] "cause to say", a formation common among Ethiopian languages.

The primary tenses are simple past (formed from the past stem), future (future stem plus [-n̄s-]), present perfect (from present participle stem); negative (future stem plus [-árɡ-].) E.g.: [hām][hāŋkʼùē] "he went"; [hámsm̄sùē] "he will go"; [hāŋkʼńsùē] "he has gone".

There are four corresponding participles: past (formed from the past stem), present perfect (formed from the past stem with the suffix [-ńs-], [-ńɡ], or [-áŋkʼ-]), imperfect (formed from the future stem with the stative suffix [-āɡ-]), and negative (formed from the future stem with the negative suffix [-árɡ-] or [-ù-] or a person/number marker.) The order of affixes is: root-(tense)-(negative)-(foc. pn.)-person/number-marker.

Orthography and literature

Bench New Testament, ISBN 9966-40-063-X

A Latin-based orthography was adopted in 2008.[1] Previously, the New Testament had been published in the Bench language using an orthography based on the Ethiopian syllabary. Tones were not indicated. Retroflex consonants were indicated by such techniques as using extra symbols from the syllabary (the "nigus s") and forming new symbols (the addition of an extra arm on the left side for "t").


  1. ^ a b Bench at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b Rapold 2006
  3. ^ Giday, Mirutse; Asfaw, Zemede; Woldu, Zerihun; Teklehaymanot, Tilahun (2009-11-13). "Medicinal plant knowledge of the Bench ethnic group of Ethiopia: an ethnobotanical investigation". Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 5 (1): 34. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-5-34. ISSN 1746-4269. PMC 2780996. PMID 19912633.
  4. ^ Breeze 1988.
  5. ^ Wedekind 1983, 1985a, 1985b.
  6. ^ Wedekind 1983
  7. ^ Note that this is the East Asian tone numbering convention, and the opposite of the literature for other African languages, where 1 is high and 5 is low. The issue will be avoided here by using IPA diacritics.


  • Breeze, Mary J. 1986. "Personal pronouns in Gimira (Benchnon)." In Ursula Wiesemann (ed.), Pronominal systems, 47–69. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.
  • Breeze, Mary J. 1988. "Phonological features of Gimira and Dizi." In Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst and Fritz Serzisko (eds.), Cushitic - Omotic: papers from the International Symposium on Cushitic and Omotic languages, Cologne, January 6–9, 1986, 473–487. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.
  • Breeze, Mary J. 1990. "A Sketch of the Phonology and Grammar of Gimira (Benchnon)". In Richard J. Hayward (ed.), Omotic Language Studies, 1-67. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
  • Rapold, Christian. 2006. Towards a Grammar of Benchnon. Dissertation, Leiden University.
  • Wedekind, Klaus. 1983. "A six-tone language in Ethiopia: Tonal analysis of Benč non (Gimira)." Journal of Ethiopian Studies 16: 129–56.
  • Wedekind, Klaus. 1985a. "Why Bench’ (Ethiopia) has five level tones today." In Ursula Pieper and Gerhard Stickel (eds.), Studia linguistica diachronica et synchronica, 881-901. Berlin: Mouton.
  • Wedekind, Klaus. 1985b. "Thoughts when drawing a map of tone languages." Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 1: 105–24.
  • Wedekind, Klaus. 1990. "Gimo-Jan or Ben-Yem-Om: Benč - Yemsa phonemes, tones, and words." In Richard J. Hayward (ed.), Omotic language studies p. 68-184. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
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Bench language
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