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Review of  African Languages

Reviewer: Claire Bowern
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: 12.528

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Date: Fri, 23 Feb 2001 14:39:12 -0500 (EST)
From: Claire Bowern <>
Subject: Review: African Languages: An Introduction

Heine, Bernd, and Derek Nurse, eds (2000) African Languages: An
Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 396pp. ISBN 0
521 66178 1 (Hardback)

Claire Bowern, Harvard University

This book is an introduction to the languages and language families spoken
in Africa. The aim of the volume was both to introduce undergraduate
linguistics students to African languages and to introduce students of
African languages (particularly in Africa) to general linguistics. The
editors and the twelve contributors of chapters are all well-respected
Africanists, and they have done a good job in writing a book both for both
linguists and non-linguists with an interest in 'African' languages.

African Languages: An Introduction contains summary chapters of the four
indigenous language families of Africa - Afro-Asiatic (Richard Hayward),
Nilo-Saharan (Lionel M. Bender), Niger-Congo (Kay Williamson and Roger
Blench) and Khoisan (Tom Gldermann and Rainer Vossen), as well as chapters
on Phonology (G. N. Clements), Morphology (Gerrit Dimmendaal), Syntax
(John Watters), Typology (Denis Creissels), Comparative Linguistics (Paul
Newman), Language and History (Christopher Ehret) and Language and Society
(H. Ekkehard Wolff). Chapter 12 also contains a summary of the modern
usage patterns of the colonial languages of Africa, such as French,
Portugese, English and Afrikaans.

Chapters 2-5 deal with classification within the four phyla. The writers
give a family tree, a very brief summary of the languages and their
relationship to each other, a summary of the major typological features
associated with each branch (in the case of Niger-Congo) and some
reconstructions and evidence for innovations and the basis for
subgrouping. The authors are generally careful to distinguish shared
typological features (that is, family resemblances) from shared
innovations. The chapters also contain a brief history of the
classifications; that is, who first proposed them, who has modified them,
and in what way. Gldermann and Vossen (writing on Khoisan) also give, in
addition to the typological summary and subgrouping, a list of the
languages, the state of their documentation and the approximate number of
speakers. A full list of languages was not possible, given space
constraints, for the other families.

Chapters 6-8 contain discussions on phonology, morphology and syntax. It
is in these chapters more than any other that we see the enormity of the
task of producing a book such as this - there are simply so many languages
that are so different from each other. As John Watters writes in his
concluding remarks to the syntax chapter (8), "In a chapter concerning the
syntax of hundreds of languages spread throughout at least four major
families across a vast continent, the coverage has to be spotty and
selective." Gerrit Dimmendaal, in his chapter on morphology, does an
excellent job of highlighting the diversity of African languages. He
compares highly agglutinative languages such as Swahili and Chewa with
less agglutinating, more isolating, languages, such as Hausa, Ewe and
Turkana. G. N. Clement's chapter of phonology is a neat summary of the
phonetic and phonological phenomena that African languages are famous for
- primarily clicks, coarticulated labial and velar stops (as in Igbo), ATR
harmony systems and tone. In John Watters' syntax chapter we are presented
with a summary of the major construction types, along with more detailed
discussion of negation marking

Chapters 10 and 11 (Comparative Linguistics by Paul Newman and Language
and History by Christopher Ehret) focus on language history and language
change. While chapters 6-8 are really about African languages, and the way
they illustrate certain phenomena like case marking and negation, these
two chapters are much more applicable to families outside Africa. They
deal with the problems of historical reconstruction in an area with no
long tradition of written records. Newman's summary of issues in language
change would, with the exception of the examples he uses, apply equally
well to Australia or much of South East Asia. Ehret's chapter tackles the
issues involved in correlating language change to non-linguistic (such as
archaeological) evidence, and in determining a stratigraphy of language
change, and correlating it with subgrouping, and the like.

H Ekkehard Wolff's chapter concerns sociolinguistics in its broadest
sense. The chapter contains information on patterns of multilingualism
(including, for example, statistics from Nigeria is to the percentages of
speakers proficient in two, three and four languages). Ekkehard Wolff
discusses the major creoles and lingue franche of the continent, with a
brief look at language death, shift and maintenance.

In a survey volume such as this the reference list and the pointers to
further reading are an important component of the usefulness of the book.
Most chapters end with a section for "further reading". Perhaps this
section could have been expanded a little; while the reference list is
fine for undergraduate linguistics students, in fulfilling the editors'
aims to make the book appeal to professional linguists with an interest in
African languages, a more comprehensive reference list may have been in
order. (On the other hand, there are other books that fulfil this function
and in other places the authors have been careful to balance the need for
detail with the need for brevity.)

The authors should be commended for the clarity of their writing. This
book is very easy to read and would make an excellent introductory

In summary, a reader of this book will gain a basic idea of the major
typological characteristics of the languages of Africa, their phonological
systems, their clause types and inflection, a little of their history, and
their patterns of use within society. The reader will also gain an idea of
where to look for more detailed information on these topics, and they
will learn something about linguistics and linguistic methodology. I would
certainly recommend this book as an introductory English-language textbook
for a course on African languages.

[Claire Bowern - Harvard University. Claire is a graduate student in the
Department of Linguistics at Harvard, working on historical linguistics.
Her dissertation topic is a reconstruction of the Nyulnyulan languages of
North-Western Australia. Her other interests include phonology and


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