For anyone who’s never explored the wonder that is the Afroasiatic languages, here is your introduction.
The Afroasiatic languages have the world’s longest written history, starting with the names of Predynastic Egyptian tribal rulers down to common street signs in Amharic that liter the cityscape of Addis Ababa. There is no general agreement as to where and when the languages arose, but as long as you’re reading my blog you might as well know my own personal view of the where and when, so:
“Proto-Afroasiatic arose between the 10th and 8th millennia BC, somewhere within the inner Horn of Africa amongst what can be said to be “transitional hunter-gatherers” who lived a lifestyle similar to that of the Shabo of Southern Ethiopia. Although confined to my notes for the most part, I do have a firm conviction that Shabo, and perhaps very distantly Hadzabe may be what can be called “Paraphyletic” languages; in the sense that they may be distantly related to Afroasiatic languages, but not descendants of the actual “Proto-Afroasiatic” language itself.” – my personal notes, 1/6/16
Of course, since then and now my ideas of course have evolved in many ways, and there is many ways in which those basic conclusions have changed. Of course, I’m still an advocate from Shabo being paraphyletic, as well as Hadzabe, although they are at the moment the least of my concerns. My main concern is the Semitic languages of the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, to which my own ethnic language belongs. So, let’s list the 6 major branches of the Afroasiatic languages starting with of course, Semitic.
- Proto-language is vaguely reconstructed, no true consensus on validity of the reconstruction. Unknown time period of emergence, unknown place of origin.
- Most widely spoken language is Arabic, followed by Amharic, Hebrew, and Tigrinya.
- Nearly all languages besides most varieties of Neo-Aramaic exhibit the 3-way voiced-voiceless-emphatic distinction considered to be characteristic of this phylum. Emphatics are either pharyngealized or ejective.
- Proto-language is far from being reconstructed, although interestingly enough the common root for ‘light’, [b-r-k], is shared with Semitic oddly enough. Unknown time of emergence, although it is generally agreed Proto-Cushitic originated in Southern Ethiopia; Blench (2006) provides further insight on this topic.
- Most widely spoken language is West-Central Oromo, followed by Somali.
- Nearly all branches of Cushitic besides Beja, Central Cushitic, and the Afar-Saho branch of Lowland East Cushitic exhibit the 3-way voiced-voiceless-emphatic distinction considered to be characteristic of this phylum. Most languages also lack the voiced alveolar fricative /z/, and emphatics are either ejective, implosive, or mixed.
- Proto-language will probably be reconstructed no time soon. The closest a branch has come to being reconstructed on the basis of solely phonology is Gravina (2014). Nobody knows how Chadic came to be spoken in Central and easternmost West Africa, but Blench (1995) and Blench (2006) proposes a very interesting origin of Chadic as an offshoot of the Cushitic languages.
- Most widely spoken language is Hausa.
- Finding a defining characteristic in any regard for the Chadic languages is difficult due to the sheer amount of contact induced change in each branch. In most languages the 3-way voiced-voiceless-emphatic and in most cases emphatics are either ejective, implosive, or mixed.
- Proto-language has never been fully reconstructed, and any current claims to reconstruction such as those in Thiel (2006) and Thiel (2009) have to be taken with a grain of salt at the best.
- Most widely spoken language is Wolaytta.
- This is the only branch of Afroasiatic that is disputed by a minority of linguists to actually not be Afroasiatic, on the basis of surface evidence. General consensus, and even my own personal view, is that Omotic is indeed Afroasiatic and simply has held the longest amount of time since divergence away from “Proto-Afroasiatic”. This branch, nearly in its entirety, exhibits the 3-way voiced, voiceless, emphatic distinction and ejectives are the most common realization with a minority of languages showing a mixed ejective and implosive emphatic inventory.
- There has never been a full fledge reconstruction of the Berber languages to my knowledge, although I will be on the lookouts for such a thing in the future. It’s likely that the Berber languages originated in easternmost North Africa, more recently than many of the other Afroasiatic branches.
- Tuareg is considered to be the most widely spoken language, although if Tuareg is seen as a dialect continuum than standard Tamazight is the most widely spoken.
- Agglutinative morphology and consonant gemination are very distinctive features of the Berber languages. Like most Afroasiatic languages, the 3-way voiced, voiceless, emphatic distinction where pharyngealization is the only realization; although on a side note some Berber languages do exhibit phonemic interdental fricatives and palatal stops which are rare in terms of Afroasiatic as a whole but thrive on the fringes of Semitic and Cushitic, and in many Chadic and Omotic languages.
- Proto-Egyptian to some degree has been reconstructed, but lack of known close relatives has called for interal-reconstruction which in it’s own right can only say so much. Egyptian as we know it in it’s oldest form may have originated sometime before the Naqada III period of Upper Egypt, and may have caused language levelling within the Nile Valley resulting in the phasing out of it’s closest relatives.
- Egyptian is well, not spoken anymore. In it’s current form it is a liturgical language for the Coptic Orthodox Church, although there has been accounts here and there of Upper Egyptians still using the language.
- Not much is known about Egyptian phonology but the morphology is well known and the nonconcatenative morphology so well known for Semitic and Berber languages is well known to have appeared in Egyptian. The 3-way voiced, voiceless, emphatic distinction does exist in Egyptian although there’s no agreement as to how the emphatics were realized; pharyngealization may be the most probable realization though.