Cushitic-Semitic contact, minus the academic mythology

In my line of academic argument, perhaps it’s the peripheral languages that count the most.

I’ve come to realize in my quest to dispel the mythology of what has become the normalized assumptions in regards to Semitic languages, I had spent the whole time focusing solely on arguing the notion that Ethiopian Semitic was created via an expansion of the Sayhadic languages into the Horn of Africa, eventually bringing them into contact with Cushitic languages that are assumed to have had been in situ and caused “rapid diversification“. This means that the utterly immense amount of internal diversity that characterizes Ethiopian Semitic is seen as the product of well, the likelihood that all of these assumptions are true. And if you trust the Bayesian analysis presented in Kitchen, Ehret, Assefa & Mulligan (2009)*, you clearly believe in all of these unsubstantiated assumptions. I must point out though, this paper is based mostly on lexicon and assumed phylogeny, alongside the idea that the Semitic languages outside the Horn of Africa are assumed to be older than those in the Horn of Africa. In order to find this paper even vaguely feasible, you have to live in a world of assumptions; which is the basis for much of the normalized history of Afroasiatic languages in general, with Semitic being the undoubtedly most extreme case of how far assumptions can go. You even have to live in the assumption that mathematical statistics can add anything worthwhile to the diachronic study of languages; of which Roger Blench argued against in 2015. To bring up one of Blench’s points as well, the Bayesian model cites the existence of Ogadeni Arabic… but what is that? I’m intimately familiar with Arabic dialectology and I have never seen, even after searching extensively, a paper even vaguely on the topic of some supposedly unique Arabic dialect spoken by those living in Ethiopia’s Ogaden. How is one supposed to replicate this data when it uses unclear sources and relies on a f*ck-ton of assumptions?

And I’m sure my regular readers get it, I really don’t agree with the the “Sabaean theory“. I’m a hard critic of the components regarding Cushitic influence, being that it can easily be explained away as something entirely different. But as I said in my last post, I don’t deny cases of Cushitic influence; in fact I’d also argue that the existence of these contacts and their outcomes provides evidence against the assumptions held by this theory. These instances exist in some of the most spectacular forms, culminating in my opinion into a pinnacle that is demonstrated by what is known conventionally as the “East Gurage” languages. Of course, this taxon is a misnomer. None of the speakers see themselves as part of the Gurage pan-ethnic designation, nor do they speak languages closely akin to those who do see themselves as part of the Gurage identity. In fact, these languages are closer to Amharic, in many degrees. All these languages including Amharic belong to the Transversal branch of South Ethiopian Semitic, not the Outer branch of which the “Gurage” languages belong to. To this branch belongs the Harari language, endemic to one city. Wolane and Silt’e, the lesser known twin-like languages of Southern Ethiopia. And of course Zay, the most overlooked Semitic language in the Horn of Africa, in my opinion. These four languages represent what Semitic-Cushitic language contact looks like, and what a Cushitic language’s influence on  a Semitic language would produce.

Of course, to the dismay of many linguists, none of these cases of extensive contact created a “Semitic-Cushitic pidgin“. This is important to note because the “Sabaean theory” relies on the assumption that a pidgin developed between Central Cushitic and Sayhadic-speakers upon contact, thus birthing Ethiopian Semitic from this pidgin meaning that Ge’ez would technically be a creole in this circumstance? As I’ve always said, this theory doesn’t make much sense when you know the languages and history of the region intimately but nonetheless the lack of such pidgins in circumstances of extensive contact between the two branches of Afroasiatic is evidence against the primary assumption that there was ever one to begin with. But the overly-cited-on-my-blog Demeke (2001) does a better job of arguing against this ludicrous assumption.

One could claim that the most extensive cases of contact have produced pidgins and that the products of such are the “East Gurage” languages, but that ultimately makes no sense. Even taking into account the extensive influence of Hadiyya phonology onto Silt’e, as noted in Gutt (1983), there is no evidence of the supposed pidginization that is assumed to have had happened in antiquity under very circumstances.

To best sum up this short observational post, is the words of Maajid Nawaz:

“Dogma not only blinds its protagonist, but it muzzles all other oppositions.”

Oh “Sabaean theory“, for the hundredth time, you are nothing more than an overused dogmatic view of Semitic.

  • On a serious note, why was this paper not published in any linguistics journals? I’ve only seen it in the Royal Publishing Society’s Biology section and on the US National Center for Biotechnical Information site. Should that not be a huge red flag to anyone that this is not published in an academic journal or database under a linguistics subheading? The Royal Publishing Society site doesn’t even have a linguistics section, which in itself makes this a weird choice to publish on being that this is supposed to be a historical linguistics study.



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