The Nilo-Saharan Phylum is the most controversial outcome of Greenberg's
genetic classification of African languages dating from 1963. It combines a
number of previous "isolates" and its coherence as against the other phyla
(Afrasian, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan) has not been satisfactorily
demonstrated. In this volume, the author undertakes the demonstration,
taking as a starting point major groupings he established in previous
morphological comparisons and then examining a lexical data base of over
600 items from all the documented languages. The large Central Sudanic and
East Sudanic families are represented by reconstructed forms from previous
and forthcoming publications respectively.
The outcome is a set of 359 reconstructed items divided among Nilo-Saharan
isoglosses (174 in number), isoglosses for subfamilies (83), symbolic forms
(21), areal items (35), items linking Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo (30),
and items linking Nilo-Saharan and Afrasian (26). The last four groups are
not evidence for establishment of Nilo-Saharan as a genetic family, but are
equally important in delimiting the phylum and setting it off from other
phyla, a task which has not been given proper weight in the past.
The book begins with a lengthy and valuable Introduction covering purpose
and method, an annotated list of languages genetically arranged, a
demographic and cultural overview summary of speakers, and typological and
areal overviews. A history of Nilo-Saharan studies is included and in a
separate chapter a detailed comparison with the only competing
classification (CH. EHRET, forthcoming).
The main body of the text consists of the establishment of
proto-Nilo-Saharan segments and modern reflexes, consideration of the role
of morphology, and representation of the 359 reconstructed forms. Four
indices allow the reader to locate items by semantic set, English gloss,
reconstructed head-forms in alphabetical order, and selected secondary
reconstructions under head-forms.