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Sociolinguistics from the Periphery "presents a fascinating book about change: shifting political, economic and cultural conditions; ephemeral, sometimes even seasonal, multilingualism; and altered imaginaries for minority and indigenous languages and their users"
Review of Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages
AUTHOR: Alice Werner TITLE: Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Orientalia 13 PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH YEAR: 2011
Steve Nicolle, Department of Translation Studies and Linguistics, Africa International University, Kenya
This book is a facsimile re-edition of a work originally published 1919, written by Alice Werner, who was Reader in Swahili at the School of Oriental Studies (now SOAS) in London. It was designed as an introduction to the Bantu languages for students with little or no prior exposure to Bantu languages, and aimed to complement the more detailed descriptions available at the time, notably Bleek (1862, 1869), Meinhof (1906, 1910) and Torrend (1891).
After an introduction, the following topics are dealt with: The Alliterative Concord (that is, noun class agreement), Noun-Classes (two chapters), Locatives, Pronouns, Copulas and the Verb 'To Be', Adjectives, Numerals, Verbs (two chapters), Moods and Tenses, Adverbs and Particles, Word Building (basically nominalization), and Phonetic Laws. The book concludes with a 75-page appendix consisting of narrative texts in Zulu, Herero, Ila, Nyanja, Swahili (both Kiamu, the Lamu variety, and Kimvita, the Mombasa variety), Ganda and a letter in Zulu, and a bibliography of works dealing with the Bantu languages which had been studied at that time.
The languages which are discussed most often are (in approximate order of frequency from most to least frequently mentioned): Zulu (S42), Swahili (G42d), Nyanja (N31), Tswana (S31, which Werner calls “Chwana”), Ganda (EJ15), Herero (R31), Xhosa (S41), Yao (P21), Kongo (H10), Gisu (EJ31a), Venda (S21), Ila (M63), Duala (A24) and Kikuyu (E51). (The letter and number following each name indicates Maho’s (2003) updated version of Guthrie’s classification of the Bantu languages.)
It is not right, when reviewing a re-edition of a book first published in 1919, to evaluate it by the standards of the 21st century. Equally, I am not qualified to say how well it would have achieved its stated aims when first published. What follows, therefore, are the personal reflections of a modern reader.
Some things change very little. In the preface (v), Werner mentions Meinhof’s works in German (1906, 1910), and then comments: “experience has taught me that they are of very little use to at least three-quarters of the students, whom it has been my lot to induct into one or other of the Bantu languages. For one thing, there is as yet no English edition of either, and -- in spite of recent improvements in this respect -- the number of English people who can study a subject by means of a French, German or Italian book (which is a different thing from gathering the drift of a novel or newspaper article) is still deplorably small.” Plus ça change.
In other ways, however, the intellectual climate has changed a great deal since 1919. Werner found it necessary to mention and reject Bleek’s claim “that people whose speech has no grammatical gender were not merely at present incapable of personifying nature, but that they could never in the future advance beyond a certain limited range of ideas.” (9-10) However, she herself talks of “the Bantu mind” and “the still more primitive mind” (161).
Whilst insisting that Bantu languages should be studied on their own terms, Werner nonetheless uses the classical languages as a reference point in many cases. For example, she introduces the chapter on the “Alliterative Concord” (that is, noun class agreement with different parts of speech within a clause) by showing how in Latin suffixes on the noun and adjective indicate declension, gender, case and number, whereas in Bantu languages prefixes on the noun and adjective indicate noun class (which subsumes number). For Werner, the principal characteristics of Bantu languages are “the absence of grammatical gender, the system of prefixes, and the Alliterative Concord”. The choice of the first two characteristics is motivated largely by the fact that the classical (Indo-European) languages have grammatical gender and a system of inflectional suffixes. This tendency to refer to classical languages results in Werner treating possessives and locatives as “cases”; she feels obliged to treat the locative suffix -ni as a case marker on the grounds that it is an “inflexion of the noun-stem” (71).
There is far more attention paid to matters of etymology than is usual nowadays, and more attention is paid to surface forms as opposed to underlying structural features. For example, Werner observes that the negative form ku-to-penda (‘not to love’ - INF-NEG-love) in Swahili is derived from ku-toa ku-penda (‘to take away loving’ - INF-remove INF-love). This suggests that the form ku-sa-mendza (‘not to love’ - INF-NEG-love) in Digo (E73) may similarly be derived from ku-usa ku-mendza (INF-remove INF-love), the forms in the two languages having the same semantic etymology. This kind of insight is not often found in modern linguistic introductions. Even so, certain historical facts are overlooked, as when Werner comments that there are usually three demonstrative forms (97): near the speaker (often ending in -u), further away and sometimes previously referred to (often ending in -o), and at a distance (often ending in -le or -la). However, the table on p. 98 indicates that the near demonstratives in Ganda and Gisu (and the plural form in Tswana) end in -no, and in fact two of the eight languages sampled -- Tswana and Nyanja -- have four demonstrative forms. This reflects the supposed original situation in which forms ending in -u (or a copy vowel) and -no indicated proximity and very close proximity to the speaker respectively. In most of the languages with three demonstrative forms, one of these two proximal demonstratives has been lost, leaving just a single form to express proximity to the speaker.
Much of the discussion of verbs focuses on ways of forming the negative and on the perfective suffix -ile. Werner reserves the term “tense” for the verb prefixes and uses “mood” to refer to a disparate set of forms such as the perfective, “continuative” (-ga) and relative, and also to the infinitive even though this is formed with the prefix ku-. The discussion of the verb was probably the least satisfying part of the book for this reader. Werner states that the simple (i.e. non-compound) tenses are “few and well marked” (170), which contradicts what is now known about the complexity of TAM marking in Bantu languages (see especially Nurse 2008).
Very little attention is paid to what is now called tone, which Werner refers to as “intonation, or pitch” (16). The study of tonal phenomena in Bantu languages is one of the areas in which most progress has been made in the 92 years since “Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages” was first published (see for example Hyman & Kisseberth 1998; Volk 2011). On the other hand, there is an extensive discussion of ideophones (which Werner calls “Vocal Images”) which are sometimes neglected in more recent grammatical descriptions (Van Otterloo 2011 being a notable exception).
On the whole, Werner's breadth and depth of familiarity with Bantu languages is impressive. This is especially so when we consider that at that time, there were very few speakers of African languages studying at European universities who could act as language consultants, and travelling to Africa to conduct field research was not a matter of some hours on a plane but of some weeks on a steamer. The book also includes glossed texts with extensive notes and free translations (making up almost a quarter of the book). Many more recent grammatical descriptions have failed to include text data, but thankfully this is a practice that seems to be coming back into fashion (see Devos 2008; Van Otterloo 2011).
“Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages” has obviously been superseded in many respects, but it is still interesting to read from both a historical and a descriptive perspective. Lincom are to be thanked for re-issuing this volume.
Bleek, W. H. J. (1862) Comparative Grammar of the South African Languages. Part I: Phonology. London: Trübner and Co.
Bleek, W. H. J. (1869) Comparative Grammar of the South African Languages. Part II: The Concord. Section I: The noun. (No more published.) London: Trübner and Co.
Devos, M. (2008) A Grammar of Makwe. München/Newcastle: Lincom Europa.
Hyman, L. M. & C. W. Kisseberth (eds.) (1998). Theoretical Aspects of Bantu Tone. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Maho, J. (2003) ‘A classification of the Bantu languages: An update of Guthrie’s referential system’. In D. Nurse & G. Philippson (eds.), The Bantu Languages, 639-651. London/New York: Routledge.
Meinhof, C. (1906) Grundzüge einer vergleichenden Grammatik der Bantusprachen. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
Meinhof, C. (1910) Grundriss einer Lautlehre der Bantusprachen (second edition). Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
Nurse, D. (2008) Tense and Aspect in Bantu. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Torrend, J. (1891) A Comparative Grammar of the South African Bantu Languages. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.
Van Otterloo, R. (2011) The Kifuliiru Language, Vol.2: A descriptive grammar. Dallas: SIL International.
Volk, E. (2011) Mijikenda Tonology. PhD thesis, Tel Aviv University.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Steve Nicolle has lived in Kenya since 1999, during which time he has
published on grammaticalization, pragmatics, translation, Bantu languages,
tense/aspect, and ethnobotany. He has worked as advisor to the Digo
language project on the south coast of Kenya and as SIL's linguistics
coordinator for Africa (www.sil.org), and now teaches linguistics and
translation at Africa International University (Nairobi) and at
universities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African
Republic. He is currently investigating the development of demonstrative
systems in Bantu languages.