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Review of  An Introduction to African Languages

Reviewer: Pius Ngwa Tamanji
Book Title: An Introduction to African Languages
Book Author: G. Tucker Childs
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Family(ies): Khoisan
Issue Number: 15.2513

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Date: Thu, 9 Sep 2004 11:37:36 +0200 (CEST)
From: Pius Tamanji
Subject: An Introduction to African Languages

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

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 Nilo-Saharan.

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 languages.

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.