LINGUIST List 8.754

Mon May 19 1997

Sum: Language Classification in Africa

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, Sum: questions on African affiliations

Message 1: Sum: questions on African affiliations

Date: Mon, 19 May 1997 12:00:18 -0500 (CDT)
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Sum: questions on African affiliations

Back in early April i posted the following query in LINGUIST and HISTLING:

> Recent browsing in some general texts has made me aware that
>there are or have been recently some questions raised about
>certain putative affiliations amongst certain languages on the
>African continent. Not being an Africanist, this is in no way
>an area i am particularly knowledgeable about, but i have hopes
>someday of teaching a seminar in which students are called upon
>to examine critically the literature arguing pro & con certain
>hypotheses in the field of historical linguistics, and i would
>therefore like some references to good discussions in the
>literature on the following topics:
> 1. There is presumably no question that all the so-called
>`Cushitic' languages are members of the Afro-Asiatic family.
>But do they constitute a well-defined sub-family, or are they
>merely a `miscellaneous' category?
> 2. Are the so-called `Nilo-Saharan' languages a well-defined
>glosso-genetic family or merely a geographically-defined group?
> 3. Ditto the `Khoisan' languages.

I would first of all like to thank the following scholars for their
informative esponses, whether in the way of elucidatory discussion or
direction towards worthwhile literature or both:

David Anderson <>
M. Lionel Bender <>
Ronald Cosper <>
Miguel Carrasquer Vidal <>
Peter Daniels <>
Alice Faber <>
Thomas J. Hinnebusch <>
Robert Nicolai <>
Derek Nurse <>
Bonny Sands <>
Robin Thelwall <>

Below i give my summary of some of the more substantive remarks i
received wrt African affiliation; comments in square brackets are my
own. This is followed by the combined list of references i received.

With regard to Cushitic, Ron Cosper's statement seems to best summarize
the consensus i detected in the messages i got:
`For Cushitic, it is now thought that some of the erstwhile branches may
in fact constitute separate families. West Cushitic has been called
Omotic, and North Cushitic, Beja as a separate branch. To my knowledge
East and South Cushitic are still put together as more recently diverged.'

Miguel Carrasquer Vidal:
Paul Newman ... would exclude Omotic from Afroasiatic altogether.

Alice Faber:
`At Phil Baldi's workshop on reconstruction at the Stanford institute (10
years ago, gasp!) ... Russ Schuh [remarked] that [Greenberg's] African
stuff was incredibly useful and, while wrong in details, had set the
agenda for discussion of linguistic filiation in Africa. [Which i take
to mean that, even if Greenberg is wrong, he has provided motivation for
a lot of good work.] That said, many of the classifications in the Afri-
can system have shifted with more data. Omotic as a group in Afroasiatic
was a subgroup of Cushitic in Greenberg's original classification. Now,
it's mostly still considered Afroasiatic, but coordinate to Cushitic,
Chadic, etc.

I definitely got the impression that Nilo-Saharan is on rather uneasy
ground. Alice Faber: `My impression of the literature is that Nilo-
Saharan is pretty well accepted but that there's disagreement about its
internal structure.' Peter Daniels: `it's Nilo-Saharan that's more a
grab bag.' Miguel Carrasquer Vidal's response included an outline of how
even Greenberg's early attempts at organizing African glossogenetic
affiliations were reluctant to admit of such a family, and of Ruhlen's
proposed internal organization of Nilo-Saharan (about which MCV seemed to
be expressing some scepticism, though that may be a misapprehension on my
part). Robert Nicolai (whose remarks i am translating from French) ex-
presses much uncertainty about the coherence of Nilo-Saharan as a lan-
guage family, though he admits his perception on this subject may be in
part due to his primary interest in Songhay, whose affiliation with (the
rest of) Nilo-Saharan is particularly doubtful, as shown in his own pub-
lished research on the subject. He sums up the situation by saying that
`in this area not a single question has been [persuasively] resolved.'

On the subject of Khoisan, Carrasquer Vidal said, `The position of
Sandawe and Hatsa (Hadza) is of course disputed (neither is particularly
close to Southern African Khoisan or to the other). Nor is the relation-
ship between the North, Central and South groups of S. African Khoisan
universally accepted.' Peter Daniels also referred to Sandawe and Hadza,
saying, `I think Khoisan is unquestioned for the South African languages
but the two "outliers" in Tanzania may have been included in it only be-
cause they have clicks.' [In responding, i pointed out that Zulu has
clicks, too, but as far as i know nobody's tried to affiliate it with
Khoisan, at least not recently.] Several people referred me to Bonny
Sands' recent dissertation on the subject, a copy of which i am ordering
from UCLA.

Bender, M. Lionel. 1975. Omotic: A New Afroasiatic Family. Carbondale:
University Museum, SIU.

___, ed. 1976. The Non-Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. (Occasional
Papers Series, Committee on Ethiopian Studies; Monograph no. 5) East
Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, African Languages Center.

___. 1983. Nilo-Saharan Language Studies. (Committee on Northeast
African Studies monograph no. 13) East Lansing, MI: Michigan State
University, African Studies Center.

Ehret, C. 1979. `Omotic and the subgrouping of the Afroasiatic language
family' in R.L. Hess, ed. Proceedings of the Fifth International
Conference on Ethiopian Studies, Session B, April 13-18, 1979, pp. 51-62.
Chicago: Office of Publication Services, UI Chicago-Circle.

___. A Comparative-Historical Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan,
`which was in manuscript form last I heard of it.' -- Cosper

Fleming, Hal. 1969. `The Classification of West Cushitic within Hamito
Semitic' in J. Butler, ed. Eastern African History, pp. 3-27. NY: Praeger.

___. 1974. `Omotic as an Afroasiatic family' Studies in African
Linguistics, Supplement 5, pp. 81-94.

___. 1976. `Cushitic and Omotic' in M.L. Bender, ed. Language in
Ethiopia, pp. 34-53. London: OUP.

Newman, Paul. 1980. The Classification of Chadic Within Afroasiatic. Leiden

R. Nicolai, Robert. 1990. Parentes linguistiques (a propos du songhay),
209 p. Collection "Sciences du Langage", Editions du CNRS, Paris.

___. 1995. `Parentes du songhay : repondre aux questions, questionner
les reponses' Proceedings 5th Nilo-Saharan Colloquium, Rudiger Koeppe
Verlag, Koeln, pp. 391-412

___. 1996. Problems of Grouping and Subgrouping : the Question of
Songhay, 6th Nilo-saharan Conference , Santa Monica, AAP N0 45 Koeln, pp.

___. 1996. Thoughts on a model for describing linguistic relationships,
26thAnnual Conference on African Linguistics, Los Angeles

Nurse, Derek. [1997.] The Contributions of Linguistics to the Study of
History in Africa. To appear in Journal of African History.

Ruhlen, Merritt. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Stanford:
Stanford UP.

Sands, Bonny. 1995 Evaluating Claims of Distant Linguistic Relation-
ships: The Case of Khoisan. (UCLA Dissertations in Linguistics 14). Los
Angeles: UCLA Linguistics Dept.

- Website:

`There's an on-line bibliography that contains listings of articles about
African languages including Khoisan languages:'

Once again, thanks to all who responded! I'm adding all this to the list
of potential readings & subject-matter for the seminar i mentioned in my
original posting, hoping to teach it someday!

- -------------------
Dr. Steven Schaufele
712 West Washington
Urbana, IL 61801

**** O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum! ***
*** Nihil vestris privari nisi obicibus potestis! ***
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