Languages: Connecting Lake Chad with the Middle East


The Lake Chad region in Central Africa is home to a plethora of languages of different genetic affiliations, among them the about 200 so-called Chadic languages, named after the Lake. The best known of the latter is Hausa; with almost 100 million speakers it is the most widely spread lingua franca in West Africa. Linguists now agree that the Chadic languages belong to the Afroasiatic super-family, which encompass another almost 200 languages belonging to families like Semitic in the Middle East, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, Amazigh (Berber) in North Africa, Cushitic and extinct Ancient Egyptian in Northeastern Africa. Afroasiatic languages rank among the oldest documented languages in terms of written records dating back 5.000 years, but also include many hitherto under-researched or totally undescribed languages, altogether counting almost 400 named languages. Intelligent guesses assume Proto-Afroasiatic, from which all these languages ultimately originate, to have emerged between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago. There is still some debate as to their geographic origin: Was it in Africa, as most experts believe, or rather in the Middle East, as others propose? Linguists have methodological tools that allow to ‘reconstruct’ proto-languages, even in the absence of written records from the distant past. The assumed age makes the ‘reconstruction’ of languages within the Afroasiatic super-family a fascinating topic also for evolutionary anthropology, not the least vis-à-vis some of their speakers’ past and present geographic distribution in or near the ‘Fertile Crescent’ and the latter’s linkage to the so-called ‘Neolithic Revolution’.

The enormous time-depth involved and largely unknown migration histories leaving traceable impact on and from neighbouring languages, account for extreme linguistic diversity in the Lake Chad region. Unfortunately, only very few researchers worldwide devote their time to historical-comparative linguistic studies of African languages in this region. Those who do are impressed by recent research results, which have unearthed salient linguistic features that characterise, among others, the about 80 languages of the so-called Central Chadic (‘Biu-Mandara’) branch. These features connect the languages genetically and typologically, for instance, to the much better studied Semitic languages in the Middle East, like Arabic and Hebrew. Until recently, many experts had considered the Central Chadic languages to be largely devoid of such connections. Ongoing historical-comparative research, however, has identified massive typological heritage from Proto-Afroasiatic in exactly these languages that are spoken along the northeastern border between Nigeria and Cameroon. Part of these inherited features is the so-called root-and-pattern structure, in which only the consonants carry the basic meaning of the word (‘root’), to which vowels can be added (‘pattern’). Often in Afroasiatic languages, the pattern implies semantic and/or grammatical specifications, but apparently not so in Central Chadic, which thereby would testify to an early and much less sophisticated type of root-and-pattern structure as it is represented elaborately by, for instance, Semitic languages. Stunningly, the Central Chadic proto-language only had one contrastive vowel */a/. However, together with the so-called ‘weak radicals’ *y and *w, the proto-language operated a system of three surface vowels *a, *i, *u, which reminds one strongly of Semitic language systems.

Research also showed massive loss of former grammatical markers, which, however, sporadically survived as petrified additions to the original simple roots. So far, 15 morphological markers have been identified, both in prefixal and suffixal positions. Particularly important were two of these markers, because they became sources of morphological prosodies. Prosodies such as palatalization and labialization dramatically changed the synchronic appearance of phonological systems in the present-day languages. In the course of Chadic linguistic history, some (co-) articulation features of consonants could split from the original segment and become attached to other segments, while other consonants would turn into vowels: Both processes affect the pronunciation of other consonants and vowels across the morpheme by feature spreading (prosody). This explains, why modern Chadic languages can have up to 16 surface vowels (short and long), while the proto-language apparently only had one underlying phonemic vowel: */a/.

For each reconstructed word, we can now follow its history of sound changes, which are largely guided by regularities. Yet, a fair amount of ‘sporadic’ sound changes remain that cannot be accounted for other than by local innovation or borrowing from neighbouring languages.

This research opens a profound view into the history of a potentially rather conservative sub-family of one of the oldest documented language super-families on our planet, despite complete lack of written documentation from the past. A major question arising for further research is the following: Are these findings localized innovations within Chadic, or do they represent hitherto overlooked much older features that likely date back to Proto-Afroasiatic? Chadic linguistics faces considerable theoretical and methodological challenges, and the few living experts still have a lot of work ahead of them.

Coming out soon

Wolff, H. Ekkehard. (In press). A Historical Phonology of Central Chadic. Prosodies and Lexical Reconstruction.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolff, H. Ekkehard. (Forthcoming.) Lexical Reconstruction in Chadic (Afroasiatic). A Comparative Study of Vowels, Consonants and Prosodies Based on Internal Reconstructions for 66 Languages of the Central Branch of the Chadic Language Family.  

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