Friday, December 14, 2012

The subclassification of Songhay and its historical implications

Just about two years after its acceptance, my article The subclassification of Songhay and its historical implications has finally appeared, in Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 33:2. (If you don't have access to this journal, you can contact me for offprints.) The linguistic history of Songhay is not well-understood; in particular, although much ink has been spilled in speculation about its possible distant relationships, very little has been done to understand its internal classification and what that tells us about its recent history. This paper is an attempt to get to grips with the latter. The abstract is as follows:
This paper seeks to establish the first cladistic subgrouping of Songhay explicitly based on shared arbitrary innovations, a prerequisite both for distinguishing recent loans from valid extra-Songhay comparanda and for determining how Songhay spread. The results indicate that the Northern Songhay languages of the Sahara form a valid subfamily, even though no known historical records link Tabelbala to the others, and that Northern Songhay and Western Songhay (spoken around Timbuktu and Djenné) together form a valid subfamily, Northwestern Songhay. The speakers of Proto-Northern Songhay practised cultivation and permanent architecture, but were unfamiliar with date palms. Proto-Northwestern Songhay was already in contact with Berber and probably (perhaps indirectly) with Arabic, and was spoken along the Niger River. Proto-Songhay itself appears likely to have been in contact with Gur languages, confirming its relatively southerly location. This result is compatible with two scenarios for the northerly spread of Songhay. On Hypothesis A, Northern Songhay spread out from an oasis north-east of Gao, probably Tadmakkat or Takedda, and Northwestern Songhay had been spoken in areas west of Gao which now speak Eastern Songhay. On Hypothesis B, Northern Songhay spread out from the Timbuktu region, and Western Songhay derives from heavy “de-creolising” influence by Eastern Songhay on an originally Northern Songhay language. To choose between these hypotheses, further fieldwork will be required.
Actually, since writing that I've put together another paper that suggests a more specific explanation for the presence of Northern Songhay in Tabelbala – but that's still under review...

8 comments:

PhoeniX said...

Hey cool! We're in the same journal!

I'll have a look at the article once I'm back in my office at Leiden (I have access to JALL from that website)

The review of Takács' book is my first publication in a journal. It was fun to familiarize myself with Proto-Afro-Asiatic linguistics.

But the state of the field is outright depressing. There are so few cognates that have any significantly wide attestation to warrant a reconstruction into PAA.

John Cowan said...

Please send me an offprint at johnwcowan@gmail.com. Thanks.

earthtopus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Sadly, yes - the state of comparative AA is dire. I'm not yet sure why; I suppose the extent of mutual borrowing, starting quite early, makes it harder.

PhoeniX said...

Unsatisfying as it may be: Maybe the time-depth of PAA is simply too deep to make a meaningful reconstruction with the methodology that we have.

Anonymous said...

An unrelated comment, with apologies: I'd noticed that you'd moved into linguistics from an undergrad background in maths. Would you happen to have any suggestions for someone trying to make a similar switch? And thanks for your time in advance, if you do choose to answer this.

David Marjanović said...

The abstract sounds awesome! I'd greatly appreciate if you found my e-mail address in Google Scholar and sent me the pdf. :-)

Sadly, yes - the state of comparative AA is dire. I'm not yet sure why; I suppose the extent of mutual borrowing, starting quite early, makes it harder.

I guess another reason is that little research seems to have been done on Chadic and Cushitic. If you only had good data on Italic/Romance, Celtic, Germanic, and Iranian, you could reconstruct some semblance of PIE, but you could only get so far.

Unsatisfying as it may be: Maybe the time-depth of PAA is simply too deep to make a meaningful reconstruction with the methodology that we have.

Well, very few people have ever tried, and their datasets suffered from all kinds of problems, as our esteemed host has repeatedly pointed out over the years.

languagehat said...

I too would like to see it: languagehat AT gmail. Thanks!

I too moved into linguistics from an undergrad background in math, but all I can say is that I'm glad I did it, which probably isn't very helpful.