Saturday, November 21, 2009

Songhay and Nilo-Saharan

Following up on the preceding post, I've been looking at Greenberg's (1966) Nilo-Saharan comparisons - specifically, the 29 ones involving Songhay that have reflexes in Kwarandzyey, the Songhay language least likely to be involved in recent contact with Nilo-Saharan. Of these, 20 have comparanda in Saharan (Kanuri/Kanembu + Teda/Daza + Berti + Beria/Zaghawa), 17 in Eastern Sudanic (Nubian, Nilotic, Surmic, etc.), vs. a maximum of 13 for any other branch. (At least 7 also have plausible Mande comparisons.) Now, Saharan only consists of about 4 languages (9 by Ethnologue standards.) For Eastern Sudanic, excluding Kuliak, the Ethnologue counts 103 languages, and a huge amount of internal diversity. If Songhay were equally distant from the whole of Nilo-Saharan, you would expect far more cognates with Eastern Sudanic than with Saharan; the figures suggest that the link (whatever its nature) is primarily with Saharan, and only secondarily, if at all, with the rest of the languages he classified as Nilo-Saharan.

The grammatical comparisons that Greenberg offers are interesting but not compelling; there are only 10 of them (only 4 with Kwarandzyey reflexes), and they often incorporate misrepresentations (as Lacroix noted, for example, -ma forms verbal nouns, not relatives/adjectives, and 1sg ay < *agay, reducing the similarity to forms like Zaghawa ai.) Some of the lexical ones, however, are rather good; similarities such as Koyraboro Senni kokoši “scale (of fish)” = Manga Kanuri kàskàsí “scale (of fish)” cry out for explanation, and, though quite rare, look sufficiently numerous that chance seems unlikely. But whether they should be explained by contact or borrowing remains unclear. Either scenario would be historically interesting, since at present rather a large expanse of Tuareg and Hausa-speaking land separates Songhay from even Kanuri, and Saharan originated closer to modern-day Darfur than to Lake Chad.

4 comments:

lethargic-man said...

: Some of the lexical ones, however, are
: rather good; similarities such as
: Koyraboro Senni kokoši “scale (of
: fish)” = Manga Kanuri kàskàsí “scale
: (of fish)” cry out for explanation

I know nothing of Nilo-Saharan languages, and only what I've learned from your blog of Berber languages, but this example shouts out to me a connection to Hebrew קַשְׂקֶשֶׂת qaśqeśeth (to give an etymological transcription). Klein says this word is related to Arabic 'aqashsha (sorry, it doesn't give Arabic alphabet spelling), "it (the fish) scaled", probably also to Arabic qishr, Ethiopian qesār, "scale".

Curious that the Hebrew example seems closer to the version you give than the Arabic, though.

David Marjanović said...

If Songhay were equally distant from the whole of Nilo-Saharan

But that's not what we should assume. The assumption of something more like a tree, which ought even to be reflected in geography to some extent, is much more parsimonious.

Curious that the Hebrew example seems closer to the version you give than the Arabic, though.

Not at all. The sound Semitists write ś was (and still is in some languages) [ɬ], the voiceless lateral fricative.

Lameen Souag said...

My point is that if Songhay were related at the top level of the tree - as Bender proposes (see Wikipedia, or download his book from nostratic.ru) - then it should be equally distant from all the rest.

The Hebrew similarity is interesting - thanks. If that word is in Chadian Arabic (I haven't checked yet), it might be a shared loanword. If not, I'd assume coincidence unless a few more Hebrew-Songhay-Kanuri isoglosses turn up, and I doubt they will.

David Marjanović said...

[...] then it should be equally distant from all the rest.

Oh, OK. Yes – if we assume a constant lexical substitution rate! Of course we shouldn't.

Forget my original point, I have a new one: phenetics vs phylogenetics. :-)