Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is Omotic Afroasiatic?

Omotic, a small group of non-Cushitic, non-Semitic languages spoken in the highlands of Ethiopia, has always been the odd one out in Afroasiatic; by anyone's tree it is the first to have split off, and the noted Chadicist Paul Newman expressed scepticism about its membership in the family. I know little about Omotic, or Cushitic for that matter, but after reading a few sketch grammars in Omotic Language Studies , I found it very difficult to imagine these languages as Afro-Asiatic; with Berber or Hausa or Beja or Semitic the cognates are instantly visible, but none of the most familiar grammatical morphemes or lexical items seemed to be present. However, a paper I just came across by Rolf Theil is the first I've seen to present an argument against the hypothesis, and a pretty good one at that. There are parts I would question - for example, the suggestion that pronouns are unreliable (they are conspicuously unreliable in regions where extensive politeness systems have developed, like East and Southeast Asia, but I didn't think highland Ethiopia fell in that category) - but the overall argumentation seems good. In particular, the attempt to show that a roughly equal number of similarities can be observed between Omotic and families other than Afro-Asiatic is on the right track - if Omotic were to have more similarities with Afro-Asiatic than with any other family, then merely pointing out problems with some of those similarities would be inadequate. I'll be interested to see the reactions of people better acquainted with the family.

On another note, I passed my upgrade presentation yesterday - yay!

11 comments:

bulbul said...

If I remember my readins in Soviet linguistics correctly, some Russian scholars have questioned the status of Omotic as Afroasiatic languages since the late 70s.
Congrats on passing the upgrade presentation. I have absolutely no idea what it is, but it sure sounds like a good reason to celebrate :P

Etienne said...

Ehret (1995) is mentioned in the text but is absent from the bibliography. Nitpicking aside, the author is quite right. I would add that it would be very surprising, for geographical reasons, if words of Cushitic origin were NOT found in Omotic. And from this point of view even the discovery of regular sound correspondences between Omotic and other branches of Afro-Asiatic would prove nothing: loanwords can exhibit regularity just as much as a stratum of borrowed words: as Luis Mitxelena pointed out, Basque (i.e. its borrowed Latin element) and Italian have a great many "cognates" which correspond in a quite regular and straightforward fashion.

David Marjanović said...

Hm.

Theil clearly shows that Omotic is much less similar to (the rest of) AA than people used to think. In fact, there is much less evidence for the AA affinities of Omotic than there is for Dené-Caucasian, a much less widely accepted hypothesis! That's impressive.

Strictly speaking, though, Theil has not shown that Omotic is not AA. This would require showing that either Omotic or (the rest of) AA is more closely related to something else than to the previously supposed partner, and he hasn't done that.

Incidentally, many of the IE comparisons clearly don't work (e. g. because of the chaotic treatment of the "laryngeals"), but a few, like the causative, the genitive, and the 1st person plural pers. pronoun (exclusive?), have been advanced as evidence for Nostratic in general.

One thing is obvious, though: a rigorous reconstruction of Proto(-Rest)-AA would be very, very helpful, because this is what Proto-Omotic (assuming anyone has made that reconstruction) needs to be compared to.

The claim that personal pronouns tend to look alike all over the globe sounds dubious to me. Why is there m-/t'- (I/thou) all over Nostratic or at least Eurasiatic -- while completely absent from Dené-Caucasian! --, and n-/m- all over most of the Americas? The claim that personal pronouns tend to have unmarked consonants clearly has a point, but the t' in the example above is an ejective.

David Marjanović said...

I forgot an important point: Theil shouldn't have used IE for comparisons, because IE has a chance of being (distantly, but discoverably) related. If he finds just as many correspondances to Pama-Nyungan, then we can talk! :-)

(AFAIK no reconstruction of Proto-Pama-Nyungan exists, however.)

Lameen Souag said...

Hey, who says Paman-Nyungan couldn't be demonstrably related to Omotic? It's not likely, but it's not likely that it would be related to IE either. All he has to do to show that Omotic is not Afro-Asiatic is show that the evidence for it being something else (eg Indo-European) is equal or greater; that implies that Afro-Asiatic+Omotic does not, on its own, form a valid node. He hasn't quite done that - as you note, his IE comparison is not carried through very seriously - but he has shown that the evidence for Omotic being Afro-Asiatic is not very strong (considerably weaker than for any other branch, or so it seemed to me.)

"The claim that personal pronouns tend to look alike all over the globe sounds dubious to me." - Absolutely - it's clearly false. Even though personal pronouns tend to be short, they show distinctly different patterns in different parts of the world.

Lameen Souag said...

"even the discovery of regular sound correspondences between Omotic and other branches of Afro-Asiatic would prove nothing"

It would prove that part of the Omotic lexicon was of Afro-Asiatic origin - which, as you note, is unsurprising. The question of whether that part is "borrowed" or "inherited" - ie whether it includes most "core" elements of the language or not - can only be answered statistically or impressionistically; in that sense, at least, the lexicostatisticians were on to something.

David Marjanović said...

Hey, who says Paman-Nyungan couldn't be demonstrably related to Omotic?

Not me -- but if so, I bet IE will turn out to be much closer.

He hasn't quite done that - as you note, his IE comparison is not carried through very seriously - but he has shown that the evidence for Omotic being Afro-Asiatic is not very strong (considerably weaker than for any other branch, or so it seemed to me.)

I agree.

in that sense, at least, the lexicostatisticians were on to something.

They had it right that large amounts of data need to be compared at once. They made the mistake, though, of confusing shared similarities with shared innovations.

Incidentally, if you look closely at what their modern successors say(Greenberg & Ruhlen most prominently), they are aware that their approach is useful for generating phylogenetic hypotheses but not (or not much) for testing them.

David Marjanović said...

Not me --

Well, I actually did say it. I didn't mean it, though.

Language said...

Congratulations!

Joseph B. said...

Ironically, Theil's paper seems to support the need for mass comparison rather than just binary comparison. I was left wanting comparisons to the other African language families instead of just IE / Eurasiatic, and the commenters above have already mentioned most of the other continents.

Rolf Theil said...

I'm so happy to have come across your interesting discussion of my paper "Is Omotic Afroasiatic?", which I presented at a conference at Michigan State University in October 2006.

Joseph B. said that "Ironically, Theil's paper seems to support the need for mass comparison rather than just binary comparison. I was left wanting comparisons to the other African language families instead of just IE / Eurasiatic, and the commenters above have already mentioned most of the other continents."
I don't think mass comparison is what is required, but rather the good old comparative method applied to more languages. "Mass comparison" is Greenberg's dubious method.