LINGUIST List 12.528

Sun Feb 25 2001

Review: Heine & Nurse, eds., African Languages

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <terrylinguistlist.org>


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	Date: Fri, 23 Feb 2001 14:39:12 -0500 (EST)
	From: Claire Bowern <bowernfas.harvard.edu>
	Subject: Review: African Languages: An Introduction

	Heine, Bernd, and Derek Nurse, eds (2000) African Languages: An
	Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 396pp. ISBN 0
	521 66178 1 (Hardback)

 Claire Bowern, Harvard University

	This book is an introduction to the languages and language families spoken
	in Africa. The aim of the volume was both to introduce undergraduate
	linguistics students to African languages and to introduce students of
	African languages (particularly in Africa) to general linguistics. The
	editors and the twelve contributors of chapters are all well-respected
	Africanists, and they have done a good job in writing a book both for both
	linguists and non-linguists with an interest in 'African' languages.

	African Languages: An Introduction contains summary chapters of the four
	indigenous language families of Africa - Afro-Asiatic (Richard Hayward),
	Nilo-Saharan (Lionel M. Bender), Niger-Congo (Kay Williamson and Roger
	Blench) and Khoisan (Tom Gldermann and Rainer Vossen), as well as chapters
	on Phonology (G. N. Clements), Morphology (Gerrit Dimmendaal), Syntax
	(John Watters), Typology (Denis Creissels), Comparative Linguistics (Paul
	Newman), Language and History (Christopher Ehret) and Language and Society
	(H. Ekkehard Wolff). Chapter 12 also contains a summary of the modern
	usage patterns of the colonial languages of Africa, such as French,
	Portugese, English and Afrikaans.

	Chapters 2-5 deal with classification within the four phyla. The writers
	give a family tree, a very brief summary of the languages and their
	relationship to each other, a summary of the major typological features
	associated with each branch (in the case of Niger-Congo) and some
	reconstructions and evidence for innovations and the basis for
	subgrouping. The authors are generally careful to distinguish shared
	typological features (that is, family resemblances) from shared
	innovations. The chapters also contain a brief history of the
	classifications; that is, who first proposed them, who has modified them,
	and in what way. Gldermann and Vossen (writing on Khoisan) also give, in
	addition to the typological summary and subgrouping, a list of the
	languages, the state of their documentation and the approximate number of
	speakers. A full list of languages was not possible, given space
	constraints, for the other families.

	Chapters 6-8 contain discussions on phonology, morphology and syntax. It
	is in these chapters more than any other that we see the enormity of the
	task of producing a book such as this - there are simply so many languages
	that are so different from each other. As John Watters writes in his
	concluding remarks to the syntax chapter (8), "In a chapter concerning the
	syntax of hundreds of languages spread throughout at least four major
	families across a vast continent, the coverage has to be spotty and
	selective." Gerrit Dimmendaal, in his chapter on morphology, does an
	excellent job of highlighting the diversity of African languages. He
	compares highly agglutinative languages such as Swahili and Chewa with
	less agglutinating, more isolating, languages, such as Hausa, Ewe and
	Turkana. G. N. Clement's chapter of phonology is a neat summary of the
	phonetic and phonological phenomena that African languages are famous for
	- primarily clicks, coarticulated labial and velar stops (as in Igbo), ATR
	harmony systems and tone. In John Watters' syntax chapter we are presented
	with a summary of the major construction types, along with more detailed
	discussion of negation marking

	Chapters 10 and 11 (Comparative Linguistics by Paul Newman and Language
	and History by Christopher Ehret) focus on language history and language
	change. While chapters 6-8 are really about African languages, and the way
	they illustrate certain phenomena like case marking and negation, these
	two chapters are much more applicable to families outside Africa. They
	deal with the problems of historical reconstruction in an area with no
	long tradition of written records. Newman's summary of issues in language
	change would, with the exception of the examples he uses, apply equally
	well to Australia or much of South East Asia. Ehret's chapter tackles the
	issues involved in correlating language change to non-linguistic (such as
	archaeological) evidence, and in determining a stratigraphy of language
	change, and correlating it with subgrouping, and the like.

	H Ekkehard Wolff's chapter concerns sociolinguistics in its broadest
	sense. The chapter contains information on patterns of multilingualism
	(including, for example, statistics from Nigeria is to the percentages of
	speakers proficient in two, three and four languages). Ekkehard Wolff
	discusses the major creoles and lingue franche of the continent, with a
	brief look at language death, shift and maintenance.

	In a survey volume such as this the reference list and the pointers to
	further reading are an important component of the usefulness of the book.
	Most chapters end with a section for "further reading". Perhaps this
	section could have been expanded a little; while the reference list is
	fine for undergraduate linguistics students, in fulfilling the editors'
	aims to make the book appeal to professional linguists with an interest in
	African languages, a more comprehensive reference list may have been in
	order. (On the other hand, there are other books that fulfil this function
	and in other places the authors have been careful to balance the need for
	detail with the need for brevity.)

	The authors should be commended for the clarity of their writing. This
	book is very easy to read and would make an excellent introductory
	textbook.

	In summary, a reader of this book will gain a basic idea of the major
	typological characteristics of the languages of Africa, their phonological
	systems, their clause types and inflection, a little of their history, and
	their patterns of use within society. The reader will also gain an idea of
	where to look for more detailed information on these topics, and they
	will learn something about linguistics and linguistic methodology. I would
	certainly recommend this book as an introductory English-language textbook
	for a course on African languages.

	[Claire Bowern - Harvard University. Claire is a graduate student in the
	Department of Linguistics at Harvard, working on historical linguistics.
	Her dissertation topic is a reconstruction of the Nyulnyulan languages of
	North-Western Australia. Her other interests include phonology and
	typology.]
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