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Review of  African Languages

Reviewer: Elizabeth Grace Winkler
Book Title: African Languages
Book Author: Bernd Heine Derek Nurse
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Southern African Khoisan
Central Southern African Khoisan
Issue Number: 12.1284

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Heine, Bernd, and Derek Nurse, ed., African Languages: An Introduction
(2000) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. GBP 14.95 paperback; GBP
40.00 hardback. 406 pages, 28 tables, 20 figures, 9 maps.

Elizabeth Grace Winkler, Columbus State University.

Although this text contains the words "an introduction"
it is certainly much more than that. Heine and Nurse have
gathered together a collection of chapters by some of the
most noted scholars in African linguistics. This is a
extraordinary resource for researchers in linguistics (as
well as anthropology and other related fields) as it
provides a very useful overview of general features of the
diverse African language families. To date, no other text
attempts to cover this wide an audience nor provide such
broad coverage.
In their excellent introduction, Heine and Nurse deal
with issues that make the study of African languages
particularly complicated: for instance, the on-going debate
over what constitutes a language and a dialect and how that
a true lack of a distinction between the two complicates
providing an accurate numerical accounting of African
languages and their impressive distribution and diversity.
The family/language divisions are further complicated by the
common transference of lexicon and other features across
geographically adjacent language groups with high degrees of
The text is divided into 3 sections: the first covers
general knowledge about specific language families of
Africa; the second focuses on an overview of phonology,
morphology, syntax, and typology, and the final section
covers comparative linguistics, language and history, and
language and society.
Chapter 2, "Niger-Congo" (NC), by Williamson and Blench
focuses on the elaborate noun class system of many of the NC
languages, verbal extensions, including serial verb
constructions and the lexicon. The description of the noun
class system is quite good, though a couple of my more
advanced undergraduate students found it inaccessible due to
the fact the passages are full of terms like "valency",
"multilateral oppositions", and "pluractional" which are
undefined. Many assumptions are made concerning the base
level of knowledge of the reader. The chapter includes an
interesting discussion on whether the classification of
Niger-Congo languages is really typological or genetic and
the ramifications of this debate.
The authors provide a brief, yet enlightening, history
of NC family classifications including those of Meinhof,
Westermann, and Greenberg. They explain some of the
weaknesses in the NC family tree and provide helpful tables
of sub-families. A brief description of almost a dozen
major subgroups including: Mande, Atlantic, and Kru are
included as well. The chapter ends with a short typological
description of the phonology, noun class system, syntax and
basic vocabulary of NC languages. This is an elegant piece
of work considering the difficulty of giving any kind of
description or analysis of the immense Niger-Congo family in
less than 30 pages.
In "Nilo-Saharan," Lionel Bender brings his decades of
expertise to this work. He begins by arguing that of all of
Greenberg's classifications, the family Nilo-Saharan is the
weakest and, clearly, most polemic among Africanists as
well. This chapter is somewhat more difficult to read than
the chapter on the Niger Congo family, but that is in great
part due to the disparate nature of the Nilo-Saharan family
and groupings rather than a flaw in the writing. There is a
particularly intriguing section on the local practices for
naming and spelling languages and how these practices
complicate classification by linguists. He also supplies a
concise and very accessible section on the cultural
practices and socio-political organizations of the Nilo-
Saharan peoples. Bender concludes with an in depth
discussion of the classification systems, including his own
which is not a rejection of Greenberg's work, but an
extension based on the considerable research which has been
done since Greenberg set down his monumental classification
system. Bender differs from Greenberg in his approach to
the task. Instead of looking for similarities across
languages, indicating a shared ancestry, he looks at the
"sharing of innovations, that is items which they innovated
in a common period of development" (p. 54).
Hayward, in the chapter "Afroasiatic," points out that
there is less argument concerning the classification of the
Afroasiatic family. Unlike the other families, there are
significantly more written records, going back much further
in time, almost 4000 years. Hayward provides a brief
description of each branch. Like Bender, he includes a
short cultural section and a detailed survey of the
historical study of this family. He wraps up the chapter
with a description of some of the more common features of
Afroasiatic languages.
The chapter on Khoisan languages by Guldemann and
Vossen open with a challenge by the authors asking if the
presence of clicks phonemes and related vocabulary among
these languages justifies a classifying them as a separate
language family. They point out that the similarities in
these languages are limited to the lexicon and the
phonology; the comparison breaks down at the level of syntax
- a feature which is so important in the classification of
the other families. They debate Greenberg's classification
and elaborate on others which might result in a different
take on Khoisan. They also lament the loss of so many
related languages before they could be adequately studied
and comment on the need for intense research on the
remaining languages in this family since a great number are
endangered. In the chapter, they provide a detailed
description of clicks.
In Chapter 6, Clements points out how earlier ignorance
of African languages contributed to a euro-centric
understanding of phonology. The study of African languages
has greatly expanded our understanding of the human
phonological system. He provides an adequate description of
typical phoneme systems, especially detailing where African
languages are unusual; for example, he outlines implosives,
vowel harmony and tonal systems. The section on vowel
harmony is particularly well written and clear. In
addition, Clements supplies a very precise explanation of
tonal systems.
Dimmendaal provides a survey of morphological types in
the seventh chapter. Through a plethora of examples, he
gives a detailed accounting of word formation process like
compounding, inflection, and derivation and covers typology,
iconicity and noun classification systems as well.
Having never been a big fan of syntax, I have to admit,
I began this chapter with a good deal of trepidation.
However, I was quickly surprised and pleased by the clarity
of the writing and the scope of the coverage. Watters
furnishes and excellent introduction to the major issues of
syntax while detailing the African contribution to the
field. Most of this chapter will be very digestible to
undergraduates in linguistics and provide them with the key
concepts necessary for continued study; for example: word
order, concord, negation, questions, noun classes among
others. For others wanting a deeper understanding, there is
a sufficient quantity of information and examples to make
for valuable reading. Watters has done an admirable job of
covering such a complex topic as syntax over the great
diversity of African languages.
Creissels focuses on typology from a morphosyntactic
standpoint in Chapter 9 because phonological typology seems
to be "an autonomous component of language structure" (p.
232). Creissels deals competently with the difficult task
of being able to both show us the incredible diversity of
types of features in these languages while still achieving
the goal of typology "to characterize as narrowly as
possible what is (and what is not) a possible human
language" (p. 258). Although this chapter will certainly be
of interest and use to advanced scholars seeking a deeper
understanding of African languages, I fear that it is well
beyond the ability of the average undergraduate in
linguistics. It would serve graduate students after they
have been well-grounded in the core areas of linguistics.
Newman's chapter on Comparative Linguistics is an
excellent, eminently comprehensible overview of the
processes involved in historical reconstruction of
languages. The first section focuses on the classification
of languages into family groups whose members share a common
ancestor. Newman then explains the rationale for
Greenberg's methodology for classification and how mass
comparison of lexical items and grammatical morphemes show
genetic relationships among languages. Internal
Reconstruction and Comparative Method are clearly explained
with useful examples to support the descriptions. In his
conclusion, Newman challenges researchers with some
intriguing questions designed to stimulate more research
into the still understudied field of historical linguistics.
Eheret details the contributions the study of
historical linguistics makes to the general study of
history, "how human history can be recovered from linguistic
documentation" (p. 273). For example, he shows how the
construction of language families details the common
ancestry of ethnic groups and shows which groups diverged
and which groups remained together or in close proximity for
longer periods of time. Lateral and vertical shifts in
language by ethnic groups tell of their historical
relationships with other groups and detail patterns of
migration and alliance. In a detailed section on Nilo-
Saharan languages, he provides support for his claims. He
concludes with shorter treatments of Khoisan, Niger-Congo,
and Afroasiatic families.
The final chapter "Language and Society" by Wolff could
be a mini-course in itself on sociolinguistics. Like so many
sociolinguistic writings, it is presented at the end of the
text almost as an after thought (a theme I will return to
later). The scope of topics covered is impressive. The
effects of multilingualism on language planning, use, and
variation are elegantly covered. Topics on language change
include code-mixing, language death and language birth
(pidgins, creole, and lingua francas). This is a wonderful
examination of how language is manipulated by different
cultures for specific uses. I plan to add this to my
undergraduate reading list for a course entitled "Language
and Culture".

While reading the introduction, I asked myself if the
editors would be successful at achieving such a broad
coverage without significant gaps and trivializing important
topics? By the end of the text, I was able to answer "yes".
It is a worthy accomplishment.
Another concern I had was the editors' claim that this text
would be able to serve a wide range of scholars and
students, including undergraduates. To this claim I have to
answer both "yes and no". Some of the chapters are quite
readable and thoroughly comprehensible and beneficial both
to undergraduate students of linguistics and scholars
outside of the area of linguistics, but as noted above in
the comments on the individual chapters, there are some
which are well beyond the ability of many students - at
least without a great deal of interpretation by their
However, this is what makes this book of value to readers
with more background and expertise on the various topics -
that it goes well beyond the basics.
I did find the organization of the text somewhat
problematic. Some of the earlier chapters would be easier
to digest for non-experts in African linguistics if the text
were reorganized somewhat. It would be helpful to begin
with final chapter, the excellent in-depth treatment by
Wolff on language and society and follow with Ehret's
chapter on language and history to give the reader a general
understanding of the social and historical issues which have
contributed to the development and use of African languages.
Then I would follow up with Newman's educational piece on
comparative linguistics, so that readers outside of the
field would understand how these processes work before
getting down to the case studies, which by the way, I would
present last after the general chapters on morphology,
phonology, syntax and typology.
This text is a worthwhile addition to the library of
anyone with an interest in the study of African languages
and its contribution to our greater understanding of all
areas of linguistics.

Elizabeth Grace Winkler is a linguistics professor at a
state college in Georgia, USA. Her research publications
have concentrated on African substrate influence on Limonese
Creole and codeswitching between Spanish and Limonese Creole
in Costa Rica and Spanish and English in Mexico. She has
also authored a dictionary of Kpelle, a Mande language of


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