Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Reconstructing an ancestral African language, mother to 80 present-day languages in the central African Sahel

Ekkehard Wolff

In this blog, I provide answers to a few basic questions that I imagine a reader, who is not an expert in historical African linguistics, might wish to ask the author.

Why this topic, what’s so interesting about it?

Africa is the cradle of humankind and where human language evolved. Tens of thousands of years ago some of our homo sapiens ancestors migrated out of Africa, their offspring spread across the planet. Many of our ancestors did not migrate out of Africa, staying on until this day and thereby testifying to continued physical, cultural, and linguistic human presence on the home continent. Over thousands of years they have been in contact with other residual African languages – unlike their cousins who migrated into Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas into totally different language-contact scenarios. See also my Fifteeneightyfour blog post from 16th November 2021, which introduces the first of two books on the same subject.

The discipline of historical linguistics provides tools that allow to study the evolution of languages over thousands of years, even in the absence of written documents in these languages. ‘Genetically related’ present-day languages, i.e. languages that share the same ancestral language from which they have evolved like offspring from the same mother, can be subjected to rigid historical-comparative analysis. Thereby we arrive at ‘reconstructing’ the sound system, parts of grammar, and some vocabulary of the so-called proto-language, from whose dialects the modern languages have arisen.

In 19th century Europe, scholars of language produced sensational if not revolutionary insights when they applied a new ‘comparative method’ by which to study languages in historical perspective. Since then we know that English belongs to the Germanic language family, and that all Germanic languages ultimately evolved from a common ancestral language Proto-Indo-European, and that this makes English, German, Icelandic and others ‘genetic relatives’ of Classical Latin and modern Italian, Ancient and Modern Greek, and even Classical Sanskrit and modern Hindi and Urdu. Knowledge of this was very important to 19th century European intellectuals for their self-esteem and identity. Achieving comparable progress on African languages and providing African intellectuals with comparable knowledge about their own linguistic identities is long overdue; it will fuel and enrich current discourse on decoloniality in Africa. The traumatising prejudice virulent in colonial Europe presupposing that Africa was ‘a continent without history’, was soon countered by European scholars of language, who were able to establish, by reconstructing ‘Proto-Bantu’ at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, that African languages have history comparable to that of the colonial European languages – and if their languages had, then Africans and their cultures must have as well! Unfortunately, such revolutionary insights from linguistic research in Africa did not affect mainstream colonial discourse at the time, which remained based on racist ideologies of white European supremacy that belittled and discriminated African languages as primitive ‘dialects’, ‘patois’, ‘idioms’ rather than being ‘proper languages’. Establishing and sketching out the long history of African languages by linguistic research, therefore, is a contribution to their re-dignification in current decoloniality discourse and their re-empowerment in modern African societies.

Why writing two books on the same subject, why now, and for whom?

Until this day, the 186 Chadic languages in West and Central Africa remain dramatically under-researched, with only few grammar monographs and even less full-fledged dictionaries available for them. They became a focal point of interest to me during my student days at Hamburg University in the 1960s under the professorial guidance of Johannes Lukas (1901-1980), who was a renowned expert on West African languages. Subsequent to and ever since my first linguistic fieldwork in northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon in 1968/69 and again during later long research periods in Africa, I worked and published continuously on the linguistics of Chadic languages including Hausa, albeit with long periods in-between of being distracted by academic duties and important other (socio‑) linguistic projects. Retirement from the Chair of African Languages and Literatures at Leipzig University finally allowed me to bring 40 years of research to a preliminary close, stimulated by exciting publications of parallel research by professional colleagues.

Why two books? In the first book, A Historical Phonology of Central Chadic, I lay out my own theoretical and methodological concepts and approaches concerning the study of the somewhat unique historical phonology of Central Chadic. I address selected problems and unsolved questions regarding the reconstruction of Proto-Central Chadic vowels, aware that even among experts this task was considered ‘impossible’ to solve. The starting point was my wish to provide a solid response to a remarkable PhD thesis by Richard Gravina (University of Leiden, 2014). His ground-breaking work raised a number of important issues, which adequately to address forced me to publish my own long-grown alternative approaches and solutions regarding the persisting theoretical, methodological and analytical problems with reconstructing vowels for Proto-Central Chadic. For illustration, I used 64 selected and potentially controversial lexical items out of a freely available database of 250 words that was also provided by Gravina (2015).

The second book, Lexical Reconstruction in Central Chadic, complements the first. Here I focus on the reconstruction of consonants. I show that and how altogether four ‘prosodies’, namely palatalisation, labialisation, pre-nasalisation and glottalisation, have affected the evolution of sounds from the common proto-language to the modern Central Chadic languages. (In the first book with its focus on vowels, only palatalisation and labialisation prosodies played a role.) Also, the proposed reconstructions of lexical items covered all available 250 data sets in the database. The second book is accompanied by an ‘online component’, in which the total of about 5.500 words from up to 66 languages are explicitly analysed in terms of their historical development. The books plus online component amount to some 1.650 printed pages – too much for one or even two printed volumes (therefore 675 pages are being offered as an online addition).

For whom did I write the books? Books like these are by necessity somewhat technical and presuppose some familiarity with linguistics. The books target, first of all, experts in and students of African linguistics, in particular those, who show a focal interest in Afroasiatic languages. A second target group are students of linguistics in particular those with an African background, who might be interested to learn more about the histories of African languages and how to study these – a subject area that has been marginalised since the colonial period, when modern theoretical linguistics emerged in the USA beginning with the Chomskyan paradigm of the so-called generative-transformational model. In most linguistics departments of universities the world over, and particularly so in Africa, historical linguistics tends to be completely side-lined in favour of more recent models of theoretical linguistics. My hopeful idea was to whet the appetite of young African scholars to start getting interested in the linguistic histories of their own African languages.

What were unexpected linguistic discoveries, what do we know about these languages now that we didn’t know before?

Among unexpected and surprising genetic and typological features that I discovered, I count the following: (1) The operation of root-and-pattern structure, in which the semantics are encoded in the consonantal skeleton of a ‘root’, and additional grammatical information is encoded as ‘pattern’ in the distribution of vowels in the root. (2) Even though words in the modern languages tend to have only two or one consonant per root, reconstructions show that most of them originally were ‘triliteral’, i.e. had three root consonants. (3) While modern Chadic languages have up to 16 (short and long) vowels, the ancestral proto-language only knew two short vowels, namely */a/ and *ə (‘schwa’). (4) The high vowels i and u occurred in phonetic realisations, where they represent conditioned variants of *j and *w. (5) The many vowels that characterise modern Chadic phonological systems represent effects of so-called prosodies, most of all in terms of palatalisation and labialisation. (6) In the consonantal system, two more prosodies, namely pre-nasalisation and glottalisation, created prenasalised obstruents and additional glottal(ised) sounds, which all cannot be reconstructed for the proto-language. (7) The proto-language was highly agglutinative, i.e. making ample use of grammatical markers in pre-, in-, and suffixal positions.

In terms of more general linguistic typology, these languages are quite special by their original proto-system with only one phonemic vowel */a/, and by being characterised by a fairly unique pervasive system of four ‘prosodies’.

Likely, these features mirror the languages’ deep Afroasiatic heritage.

What do we learn about the people, who speak these languages since times immemorial?

Looking at the shared vocabulary from common proto-language days that we are able to reconstruct, we learn that much of the speakers’ ecological habitat (flora, fauna, seasonal weather), aspects of socio-cultural and family life, and economic activities have remained stable over several millennia. Their presence in their current habitats is estimated to have lasted at least 5.000 years, if not considerably longer.

Announcing the new book as a set of two:

A Historical Phonology of Central Chadic by H. Ekkehard Wolff
Lexical Reconstruction in Central Chadic by H. Ekkehard Wolff

About The Author

Ekkehard Wolff

H. Ekkehard Wolff, Universität Leipzig H. Ekkehard Wolff is Professor and Chair Emeritus of African linguistics at Leipzig University. He is an expert on Chadic languages and Afr...

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