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date: 02 June 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains the goals and describes the overall structure of the book. It gives reasons for the range of eight major subject areas (Parts II through IX) into which the work is divided, and which are considered to be of particular relevance in African linguistics today. These involve the usual domains of grammar in synchronic linguistics (Part II), with the exception of semantics; linguistic typology and language comparison from a genetic point of view are central to Part III; a detailed investigation of all major language families with special focus on lower-level genetic groupings (Part IV) is followed by case studies of eighteen languages from different language families (Part V); language, cognition, and culture are discussed in Part VI; sociolinguistics is central to Part VII, whereas the role of language in historical studies is discussed in Part VIII; the final chapters (in Part IX) investigate the link between language and orature.

Keywords: language comparison, linguistic typology, language family, sociolinguistics, orature, synchronic linguistics

Approximately 6,000 languages are said to exist on earth, nearly one-third of them are located on the African continent. According to a widely accepted hypothesis, African languages can be classified into four larger genetic units (so-called phyla); these have been labeled Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan. Niger-Congo represents the largest, Khoisan the smallest unit. All phyla subdivide into a number of language families. However, a good number of African languages present themselves as hardly classifiable and are, therefore, considered unaffiliated for the time being.

A few—more or less successful—attempts have been made to reconstruct the histories of African language phyla. There have also been ventures to establish genetic links between language phyla, such as Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan, but the results were not overwhelmingly convincing. For sure, the most promising historical reconstructions were attained at the language family and/or subgroup level.

This volume is a reference book, providing a set of descriptive, typological, historico-comparative, sociolinguistic, and other analytical statements about African languages. It is meant to meet the interest of different populations of readers, especially students, Africanist as well as general linguists, but also non-linguistic scholars specializing in Africa. A large amount of the data presented in the book is drawn from the authors’ own field experience and collections assembled over the last thirty years approximately.

The book consists of nine parts divided into seventy-seven chapters, as described below.

1.1 Part I: Introduction

This chapter explains the goals and describes the overall structure of the book. It gives reasons for the range of eight major subject areas (Parts II through IX) into which the work is divided, and that are considered to be of particular relevance in African linguistics today.

(p. 4) 1.2 Part II: Domains of grammar

This part deals with the major domains of grammar. The four chapters by Michael Kenstowicz on phonetics and phonology (chapter 2), David Odden on tonology (chapter 3), Klaus Beyer on morphology (chapter 4), and by Jochen Zeller on syntax (chapter 5) each summarize the current research situation and contain a wealth of vivid examples illustrating occurrences and, at times, patterns of distribution of subject-specific phenomena in Africa. These presentations are of fundamental importance for the comprehension of the book as a whole.

1.3 Part III: Language comparison

Three chapters are devoted to aspects of language comparison that partly implies but at the same time goes beyond genetic relationship. While the overall discussion of structural language types by Rainer Vossen (chapter 6) appears to be a compelling task of a handbook such as the present one, dialectology and language geography are hardly ever taken into account in manuals on African linguistics. Mena Lafkioui (chapter 7) is trying to come up to current expectations against the background of a remarkable upswing in the field of linguistic variation on the African continent. Chapter 8, by Ludwig Gerhardt, touches upon the fascinating research history of African language classification. It is regarded a prerequisite of understanding current attempts at linguistic taxonomy within and across the four language phyla.

1.4 Part IV: Language phyla and families

As shown by Ludwig Gerhardt in chapter 8 on the history of African language classification, the situation is far from settled. Part IV, therefore, takes the “Greenbergian” classification into four phyla for the African continent (Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan) as a starting point, but focuses on well-established families which themselves may or may not be part of one of these larger phyla, as for Mande or Ubangi (and their disputed Niger-Congo affiliation), or Khoisan, which is primarily an areal grouping according to specialists. As shown by the chapters on these smaller families in Part IV, some authors focus more on typological variation within these smaller families, whereas others are more concerned with subclassification issues.

The state of the art in our understanding of Africa’s largest family, Niger-Congo, is discussed by Jeff Good (in the introductory chapter 9) with a special focus on Benue-Congo. The tremendous genetic and typological diversity within this family becomes clear from the discussion of Atlantic by Friederike Lüpke (chapter 10), Mande by Henning (p. 5) Schreiber (chapter 11), Kwa by the late Mary Esther Kropp Dakubu (chapter 12), Gur by Gudrun Miehe (chapter 13), and Bantu and Bantoid by Lutz Marten (chapter 14). These are followed by chapters on what the late Joseph H. Greenberg claimed to be two coordinate branches of a Niger-Congo branch, Adamawa, by Ulrich Kleinewillinghöfer (chapter 15) and Ubangi (called “Eastern” by Greenberg), which is surveyed by Helma Pasch (chapter 16). The survey of Niger-Congo is concluded by a discussion of the current state of the art regarding Kordofanian, by Nicolas Quint (chapter 17). As these various chapters should show, considerable progress has been made in recent times with respect to the investigation of a range of Niger-Congo languages, also from a historical perspective.

The best-established genetic grouping on the African continent is formed by Afro-Asiatic, as discussed in the overview by Victor Porkhomovsky (chapter 18). The current state of the art for Egyptian is treated by Balázs J. Irsay-Nagy (chapter 19), whereas Maarten Kossmann presents the reader with an update on Berber (chapter 20). The subfamily with perhaps the largest internal diversity is formed by Cushitic, whose four subgroups are discussed in chapter 21 by Mauro Tosco (East Cushitic), chapter 22 by Martine Vanhove (North Cushitic), chapter 23 by Zelealem Leyew (Central Cushitic), and chapter 24 by Roland Kießling (South Cushitic). The genetic diversity within Omotic (referred to as West Cushitic by Greenberg 1963) is also considerable, as shown by Bernhard Köhler (chapter 25), but its status as a branch of Afro-Asiatic is no longer disputed. The largest subgroup in terms of number of languages is formed by Chadic, for which Bernard Caron (chapter 26) gives the reader an update. Given the rather dramatic changes within the Ethio-Semitic subgroup of Semitic, these are discussed in chapter 27 by Victor Porkhomovsky.

In a brief overview in chapter 28, Gerrit J. Dimmendaal discusses current research with respect to Nilo-Saharan, the most controversial of Greenberg’s African big-four groupings, sometimes even characterized as a “wastebasket phylum” involving “leftover languages”. Three of the major subgroups of this family are discussed in subsequent chapters: Saharan by Norbert Cyffer (chapter 29), Eastern Sudanic by Gerrit J. Dimmendaal and Angelika Jakobi (chapter 30), and Central Sudanic by Pascal Boyeldieu (chapter 31).

The current view among Khoisan specialists is that the name reflects an areal rather than a genetic grouping, as shown by the late Henry Honken (chapter 32). Greenberg (1963) also included the Hadza language as a member of the Khoisan family, but this language and a range of languages either included by Greenberg in one of his three major phyla or identified as distinct languages in subsequent research, probably constitute linguistic isolates, as discussed in the final chapter of Part IV (chapter 33) by Gerrit J. Dimmendaal.

1.5 Part V: Language structures: Case studies

Africa is sometimes presented as a “hotbed” for noun classes and serial verbs. But, if we leave aside gender-based noun classes, these features are mainly confined to (part of) the Niger-Congo phylum. The tremendous genetic and typological diversity in some areas on the African continent should become clear from the description of language structures in Part V (Map 1.1 shows the geographical distribution of these languages). The sketch of the (p. 6) Atlantic language Bom-Kim by G. Tucker Childs (chapter 34) shows a language which has inherited the prototypical Niger-Congo noun class system as well as the system of verbal derivational markers.


Map 1.1 Geographical position of languages described briefly in Part V

As shown by Valentin Vydrin in his structural survey of the Mande language Dan (chapter 35), this language is typologically and grammatically distinct from Niger-Congo languages like Bom-Kim, or from the Gur language Biali, whose features are discussed by Coffi Sambiéni (chapter 36).

The Jukunoid (i.e. Benue-Congo) language Yukuben, as discussed by Rose-Juliet Anyanwu (chapter 37), has retained the noun class system that is typical of the family it belongs to, but like other languages in the area it developed verb serialization. In this respect, Bende, as described by Yuko Abe (chapter 38), is more conservative and characteristic of the Narrow Bantu group within Benue-Congo to which it belongs.

(p. 7) Whereas in Greenberg (1963) Adamawa and Ubangi (called “Eastern” by him) are treated together as a sub-branch of Niger-Congo, more recent studies could not confirm this closer genetic affinity. Structural properties of a typical Adamawa language, Waja, are discussed by Ulrich Kleinewillinghöfer (chapter 39), whereas Helma Pasch presents an outline of the typologically rather distinct Ubangi language Zande (in chapter 40).

Chapter 41 is devoted to the study of Zenaga, a less well-known Berber language spoken in Mauretania and described by Catherine Taine-Cheikh. Three of the four primary branches of Cushitic (with only North Cushitic missing) are represented by the East Cushitic language Sidaama, as described in chapter 42 by Kazuhiro Kawachi; by the Central Cushitic language Kolisi in chapter 43, authored by Zelealem Leyew; and by the South Cushitic language Iraqw in chapter 44, contributed by Maarten Mous. Finally, in chapter 45, an outline grammar of Wandala, a Chadic language, is provided by Zygmunt Frajzyngier.

The Nilo-Saharan family is represented by the Nilotic language Kumam, whose main structural features are described by Osamu Hieda (chapter 46), whereas major structural properties of the Surmic language Baale are outlined by Gerrit J. Dimmendaal (chapter 47). The genetic position of the Songhay cluster in West Africa as a Nilo-Saharan subbranch or as an independent language family is controversial. As shown by Lameen Souag (chapter 48), Songhay forms a dialect continuum with considerable grammatical variation as a result of contact with other language families.

Structural features of one of the few surviving Central Khoisan languages, Cara, are discussed by Rainer Vossen (chapter 49), whereas ∥X’egwi, a moribund, if not extinct member of the Southern Khoisan branch, is treated by the late Henry Honken (chapter 50). The genetic affiliation of Hadza in Tanzania is controversial, but the affiliation of another language with clicks in the same country, Sandawe, with Central Khoisan is not or no longer contested. Structural properties of this language are treated by Helen Eaton (chapter 51).

1.6 Part VI: Language, cognition, and culture

Whereas the first five parts address issues of core linguistics, both synchronically and diachronically, the following four major sections address interdisciplinary research involving language and its interaction with cognition and culture.

The important role played by ideophones in day-to-day interaction was already noted by early researchers like Diedrich Westermann. They have since received much attention, as shown by Christa Kilian-Hatz in her historical survey (chapter 52). The division of the color spectrum and the constraints set by our cognitive system, or the role played by cultural selection is a classic topic in the ongoing debate between “universalists” and “relativists” in anthropological linguistics, as discussed by Doris Payne (chapter 53). Experiencer constructions have been subject to a debate in cognitive linguistics. Their semantic properties are central to chapter 54, by Ulrike Zoch, who shows that languages vary with regard to the available means for codifying emotional and physical state situations.

(p. 8) Ethnobotanical studies, as discussed in Karsten Legère’s contribution (chapter 55), have also been the subject of debate between universalists and relativists, in particular the question whether indigenous groups follow a taxonomic model parallel to a Linnaean or Darwinian taxonomy of the natural environment in biology, with a set of taxa specifiable by relations of affinity and contrast, or a more functional (natural core) model, with gradable membership and categorial contiguity. This latter model accounts better for the fact that phenomena in the natural environment are not necessarily categorized (or lexicalized) and may be left unclassified instead.

A further topic of interest with respect to language studies involves its social functions, in particular concealment and marking of group membership, as shown by Patricia Friedrich in what she calls “distinctive languages” in chapter 56, where additional concepts for such (technical) languages are discussed, such as guild languages, ritual languages, reverence languages, and urban youth languages.

When it comes to the organization of talk-in-interaction, a range of features are shared by speech communities across the world, as demonstrated by Maren Rüsch in her survey of conversation analyses (chapter 57). But as shown in the same contribution, at the same time there are also interesting differences, for example concerning pauses or the extent to which overlap is allowed in turn-taking. These, as well as differences in “body language”, provide interesting new insights into language and culture-dependent strategies.

The distinctive role played by African languages in the development of grammaticalization models is one of the themes discussed by Axel Fleisch, who further takes up cognitive research on African languages as a central theme in chapter 58.

1.7 Part VII: Language and society

Writing traditions on the African continent go back at least 5,000 years. But apart from the well-known scripts developed during Pharaonic times, or the more recent Arabic and Latin scripts, there are different indigenous scripts, as shown by Andrij Rovenchak and Solomija Buk (chapter 59). Orthographies play an important role in language policies, in particular for educational and administrative purposes. These and related issues with respect to current language politics are discussed by Kembo Sure (chapter 60). In the next chapter (61), Ingse Skattum addresses the actual role played by African languages in educational systems, in particular the development of written material as part of corpus planning.

Whereas several languages are thriving as spoken or written regional or national contact languages, others are endangered. In chapter 62, James Essegbey discusses modern initiatives to document (or sometimes revitalize) such endangered languages on the African continent. Language loss or obsolescence is just one outcome of language contact. These include the emergence of new varieties of African or European languages primarily in urban areas, as shown by Ellen Hurst in chapter 63. As Klaus Beyer shows in his general survey of language contact phenomena in chapter 64, a number of other outcomes are possible. As shown by Maarten Mous in chapter 65, one of these is the emergence of mixed languages, which are also sometimes referred to as syncretic or intertwined languages, as the term “Mischsprache” (mixed language) is associated with the colonial era in the field of (p. 9) African linguistics, more specifically the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when language and race (as well as culture) were assumed to correlate with each other, resulting in a distinction between pure languages (and races) and mixed languages (and races).

The early days of Western expansion and colonialism also resulted in a diaspora of African languages mainly due to the massive transportation of slaves into the Americas. Andrea Hollington presents a survey of these languages in chapter 66, which have also been maintained in other parts of the world. Another result of this diaspora was the creation of pidginized and creolized varieties of European languages, as discussed in the chapter by Gabriele Sommer (chapter 67). As with conversation analysis, the investigation of African sign languages constitutes a relatively new, important area of research in the field of African linguistics; Victoria Nyst introduces the reader into this emerging field in chapter 68.

Next to major lingua francas emerging from contact situations, such as Hausa and Swahili, Arabic is among the most important in a range of countries in the Sahel region. Its expansion also gives rise to various new varieties of this language on the African continent, as shown in the survey by Jonathan Owens (chapter 69). Variation in language, due to dialect differences or the use of different registers, also raises the question of standardization, a topic which is central to the contribution by Elke Karan and David Roberts (chapter 70). Apart from written communication, there is the oral dimension, which is still of key importance in an African context, as discussed by Thomas Bearth in chapter 71 on pragmatics. But here, too, there are interesting new developments concerning communications technology, as Kristin Vold Lexander (chapter 72) shows in the final chapter on language and society.

1.8 Part VIII: Language and history

The study of languages also plays an important part in the overall reconstruction of the African past. Given the relative scarcity of written testimonies, especially for distant time periods and eras, historical linguistics in cooperation with other diachronically oriented disciplines may serve as one appropriate tool for uncovering historical events. For this reason, two chapters are dedicated to the interplay between language and history: David L. Schoenbrun’s essay on words, things, and meaning (chapter 73) and Koen Bostoen’s strongly methodology-oriented analysis of linguistic–archaeological relations (chapter 74).

1.9 Part IX: Language and orature

In general, Africa and its indigenous populations are viewed as a stronghold of orality. It is, therefore, imperative to devote a major section of this book to language and its role in African orature (or “oral literature”). While chapter 75 by Wilhelm J. G. Möhlig on narratives gives an overview of types of oral literature and story-telling genres, (p. 10) Sebastian K. Bemile (chapter 76) gets right to the bottom of the broad field of proverbs that play an extraordinarily important role in African oral discourse. The chapter shows, inter alia, the intercultural relevance of many proverbs, even far beyond the borders of the African continent. Part IX concludes with a chapter (77) by Clarissa Vierke on African poetry, touching upon various types of oral poetry (e.g. praise, epic-heroic, war and hunting, religious poetry, and songs) as well as written poetry and manuscript cultures.