LINGUIST List 15.2513

Fri Sep 10 2004

Review: Typology/Areal Ling: Childs (2004)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley Collberg at


  1. Pius Tamanji, An Introduction to African Languages

Message 1: An Introduction to African Languages

Date: Thu, 9 Sep 2004 18:24:53 -0400 (EDT)
From: Pius Tamanji <>
Subject: An Introduction to African Languages

AUTHOR: Childs, Tucker G.
TITLE: An Introduction to African Languages
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Announced at

Pius N. Tamanji, African Studies Centre, University of Cologne and
Department of African languages and Linguistics, 
University of Yaounde I, Cameroon.

An Introduction to African Languages is an introductory book in which
the author introduces the reader to some of the fascination and
controversy involved in African linguistics. The book handles the
major sub-domains of the study of African languages and for each
domain, the author enters the fray and introduces the reader to a
variety of features of African languages from the simple and common to
the unusual, complex, typologically distinctive and/or widespread
linguistic phenomena on the African continent. The author usually does
not enter into much detail. He provides an overview of the relevant
phenomenon and presents a subset of what is out there to be uncovered.
Given this orientation, the book might therefore not be very useful to
researchers in search of in-depth discussions on particular aspects of
African languages. It rather serves as a starting point introducing
the simplicity versus complexity of the phenomena and leading the
reader to primary sources and to the (family of) languages that
exhibit the phenomenon in question. Researchers such as language
typologists will find the book very useful in tracking down primary
sources and to students and teachers; the book could also serve as a
valuable reference for a field methods course.

The first chapter of the book presents an interesting array of reasons
for studying African languages. Among many other reasons, studying
African languages leads one to a better understanding of (i) the
incredible diversity in Africa, (ii) how language arose and spread and
how it has changed over time (Africa is the continent where the human
species first appeared), and (iii) the richness and resilience of many
African cultures. In studying African languages, non-Africans get an
appeal of a different culture and help to validate and legitimise
Africa, its people and its cultures view the devastating impact of
colonialism. The chapter further presents various contributions to the
study of African languages, on-going and potential co-operation
between researchers of various orientations and socio-political
organisations. The chapter concludes with a brief presentation of
early scholars on African languages and their contributions to present
day studies.

The second chapter focuses on the classification of African languages.
First the author considers the linguistic background of researchers,
the choice of an informant and the scarcity of reliable data to be
some of the major causes of classification problems. Interestingly,
the author does not mention the fact that some languages show genetic
relatedness to more than one family as one of the causes of
classification problems. An example is the Mbugu/Ma'a language, which
the author points out later in chapter seven as belonging both to
Bantu and Cushitic. Following these problems, the current
classification of the four phyla of African languages is presented
along with the major language groups of each phylum. The three
approaches that have been used for the classification (genetic
relatedness, typological and areal/geographic) are presented and
briefly commented upon. Finally, the author discusses the constituency
of the Nilo- Saharan phylum focusing on the relationship between
member languages and on the relatedness to the other phyla
particularly Niger-Congo which Gregersen (1972) proposed to merge with

The third chapter of the book presents a variety of speech sounds
(their pronunciation and areal distribution) peculiar to African
languages along with some phonological processes that have interested
linguists and influenced linguistic theories especially those dealing
with formal representations. The sounds treated are clicks, nasals and
doubly articulated consonants. This chapter is particularly
interesting to those with an interest in phonetics/phonology
especially as illustrations are drawn from a wide range of
languages. The phonological processes covered include nasalization,
prenasalisation, vowel harmony (height and ATR harmony), consonant
mutation, tonogenesis, Meeussen's law, tone spreading, dissimilation,
downdrift and downstep. Illustrations are drawn from a wide range of
languages including Zulu, Swahili, Igbo, Fula, Biafada, Bambara,
Mandinka, Bamilike Dschang, Mijikenda, Tsonga, Ruciga and Asian

Chapter 4 is devoted to morphology. An overview of the non-
concatenative morphology of the Afro-Asiatic family is provided with
ample illustrations from classical Arabic in the first section of the
chapter. The next section focuses on the gender systems of Niger-
Congo. The noun class systems are characterised semantically,
morphologically and syntactically with examples drawn from Swahili. In
section 3 we turn to verb morphology discussing in turn the verbal
complex, tense distinctions and the person- aspect complex with
illustrations from Swahili, Chichewa, Grebo, Wolof and Kisi. The
chapter concludes with a discussion of verb extensions and argument
structure. Worthy of note in this section is a list of six problems
which researchers try to solve when addressing the issue of verb
extensions in Niger-Congo.

Chapter 5 is devoted to syntax and semantics. The author discusses
ideophones identifying their unusual phonetic characteristics as one
of the reasons why this class of words has often frustrated and
fascinated linguists. Then he returns to the argument structure of
verbs pointing out that while verbs in some languages allow a very
limited number of objects, this number can soar to five in other
languages (e.g. Chaga) especially when the applicative extension is
involved. Other aspects of syntax such as marking negation, predicate
clefting, serial verb constructions and agreement are also
discussed. The discussion on agreement touches on the difficulties in
assigning Bantu nouns to specific classes and highlights the influence
of humanness and animacy in morphological class assignment and in
determining agreement. In this, animacy is considered more important
than discourse factors such as focus/topic. The chapter concludes with
a discussion of consecutive tense, switch reference and
logophoricity. Important to note is the author's clear distinction
between switch reference and logophoricity both of which are divided
by a rather fine line.

In chapter 6, the author addresses the question of how and for what
purposes African languages have been compared to each other and to
other languages. Greenberg's dynamic paradigm, which was used for
comparison and reconstruction, is presented first. This is followed by
Heine's grammaticalisation process, which complements Greenberg's
processural comparison. The rest of the discussion in this section
focuses on the role that cross-linguistic comparison; reconstruction
and grammaticalisation can play in resolving the problem of
Niger-Congo word order (SVO/SOV). In the 4th part of the chapter, the
author demonstrates that linguistic evidence can be used to
reconstruct the movements and histories of people and historical facts
can be exploited to understand the structure of a language. The last
part of the chapter is a kind of review in which the author comments
on a proposal by Blench and Spriggs (1999a) to use DNA evidence to
provide new information on language classification.

The last chapter of the book focuses on how social factors such as
contacts with speakers of other languages, prescribed gender roles,
caste systems, socio-ethnic divisions, etc. change the forms of
African languages. Social factors cause the restructuring of African
languages, including speakers abandoning the language and/or the
language completely disappearing. Words of respect and address forms
among the Fula for example are fast disappearing due to the decline in
the social institutions that supported this usage. Social hierarchy in
the traditional kingdom of Burundi gives rise to norms governing the
use of speech explicitly differentiated as to caste, sex and age. In
Zulu and Xhosa, a newly married woman is not allowed to pronounce any
syllable in her husband's name or in the name of any male closely
related to her husband as a sign of respect to the family into which
she is married. In a practice called Hlonipha, women employ ingenious
ways of avoiding these syllables while continuing to communicate. This
avoidance of certain syllables leads to sound substitutions, sound
change or deletion, word substitution, neologisms, borrowings,
etc. Contact situations also lead to restructuring.

Clicks have entered Bantu languages through contact with Khoisan
languages. The Mande expansion had considerable effects on the
languages of the conquered people, which were subjected to phonetic,
semantic, morphological and syntactic restructuring. Syntactically, it
is interesting to note Heine's (1976b:62) proposal that the Manding
SOV word order spread to Gur and Kwa languages. Childs notes that the
picture is similar with regard to Kru word order. According to
Marchese (1989), basic Kru word order is SVO in unmarked
utterances. When an auxiliary is present, the order changes to
S-Aux-O-V. It is interesting to note that this same word order is
characteristic of Grassfields Bantu languages spoken in
Cameroon. Consider this example from Bafut, which is similar to
Child's (2003: 202) Kru example (in this example, o is used for the
mid-low back rounded vowel and tones are not marked):

Bafut Kru
a ke wa'a nda boo o se gbu po
he Tns Neg house build he Neg house build
'he did not build a house' 'he did not build a house'

This similarity in the structures of Bafut and Kru suggest one of two
things: (i) Manding influence extended well beyond the recognised
geographical area (into the grasslands of Cameroon), (ii) the SVO word
order in Gur, Senufo, Bariba and Kru is probably not be a borrowing
from Manding. It might be a more general characteristic of some sub-
branches of Niger-Congo.

Chapter 7 concludes with a brief discussion on some pidgins and
Creoles of Africa. First the author debunks the myth that Swahili is a
pidgin. Then he presents the different varieties of Liberian English,
the self- consciously created Fanagalo pidgin, the origin and
affiliation of Afrikaans and other township varieties of South Africa
including Tsotsitaal and Isicamtho. Other varieties of urban
vernaculars listed are Sango, Lingala, Nairobi Sheng, Indoubil in
Zairian cities, Bemba in Zambia and Juba Arabic.

Overall, the book is excellently structured, clearly written and
reader oriented. The author does a great job in pointing out the
wealth of issues that characterise the study of African
languages. However, although it is clear from the general orientation
of the book that the discussions only give an overview of each
phenomenon, the reader cannot help feeling frustrated at the lack of
depth in the discussion of the issues. This lack of depth is however
compensated for by the wide range of references and languages from
which illustrations are drawn. Linguists will find this valuable in
tracking down primary sources and in keeping their research
focused. The absence of strongly biased theoretical approaches to
language study and the presence of many examples make the book
suitable for non-linguists as well.


Blench, Roger and Mathew Spriggs. 1999a. ''General Introduction'' in 
Archaeology and Language, 4 vols., eds. Roger M. Blench and Mathew 
Spriggs, 1-20. London and New York: Routledge.

Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An Introduction to African Languages.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (this volume)

Gregersen, A. Edgar. 1972. ''Kongo-Saharan.'' in Journal of African
Languages and Linguistics 4:46-56.

Heine, Bend. 1976b. A Typology of African Languages Based on the Order
of Meaningful Elements. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

Marchese, Lynell. 1989. ''Kru'' in The Niger-Congo Languages, ed. John
Bendor-Samuel, 119-139. Lanham, MD and London: University Press of


Pius Tamanji is a senior lecturer of linguistics in the University of
Yaounde I, Cameroon. He did his Ph.D. studies in the University of
Massachusetts-Amherst. Then his main interest was generative syntax;
thus his dissertation: Agreement and the Internal Syntax of Bafut DPs.
Back in Cameroon, he focused his research activities on the
description of Cameroonian languages and the use of these languages in
education. He is currently on a Humboldt research stay at the African
Studies Center, University of Cologne-Germany, working on a
descriptive grammar of Bafut.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue