Pastoralism in the Eastern Horn of Africa: A possible, new linguistic history

In my last couple of posts I’ve discussed the relationship between Cushitic languages and Semitic languages in a few ways, but my main focus continues to be the possible situation of contact between South Arabian-speakers .

I cannot keep it off my mind, because it seems every day I find new ways to explain it. But today, I am putting it all down in words. Finally. After random posts about the loanwords in Somali and the distribution of these loanwords that are so significant to these theories, I have sat down to write the whole thing out and what it means not just for Somali but for Cushitic and its link to pastoralism in the eastern Horn of Africa. This of course ranges further than that, and we will go as far south as Tanzania to see just how far these words had spread alongside the Cushitic languages that carried them.

Of course, this examination of history begins with an instance of contact. I cannot tell you which languages came into contact exactly, but I can tell you which languages they were ancestral to: Shehri and Somali. Of course, this was long before Somali was well distinguished as a language from the rest of the western Omo-Tana languages such as Maay or Rendille. For all we know, western Omo-Tana at this point was likely a dialect continuum only then expanding northward within the eastern Horn of Africa. This of course is where these words came from:

  • “Cattle” – Somali /ħɔːlɑhɑ/ ~ Soqotri /ʔelheh/ ~ Shehri /lhoti/
  • Bull” – Somali /dibi/ ~ Harsusi /ɣɔɮəb/ ~ Shehri /ɣɔɮəb/
  • Goat” – Somali /rijɑhɑ/ ~ Mehri /tajh/ ~ Soqotri /tɛʔɛh/
  • Sheep” – Somali /idɑhɑ/ ~ Soqotri /daħ/
  • “Chicken” – Somali /degɑg/ ~ Shehri /dəgugət/
  • Cow” – Somali /lɔʔ/ ~ Shehri /leʔ/ ~ Soqotri /leʔe/

And as I had noted in my last post on the subject, the word “eren” in Somali and Maay has cognates in literally every documented South Arabian language:

  • Meh. /ħaːra͡wn/ ~ Bat. /ʔaːʔəraːn/ ~ Soq. /ʔərəhɔn/ ~ Hob. /ħəjwəroːn/ ~ Sheh. /ɛrun/ ~ Har. /ħəwəruːn/

This is important to note because well, that can’t be just coincidence! Especially if you look past lexicon and realize there is very important aspects of Shehri and Somali vowel harmony systems that are only shared between each other and no other neighboring language in the region; in specific the fact that the vowel harmony in both languages works from right-to-left as noted in Txanson (2010) for Somali and al-Aghbari (2012) for Shehri. If I must add, most harmony systems in Afroasiatic languages are consonant based and actually work left-to-right, such as in Ts’amakko (Lowland East Cushitic, Dullay) and Gimira (North Omotic, Gimojan) as noted in Rose & Walker (2011). This is actually an important feature that sets Somali apart from a language such as Maay; which is spoken in the same region but lacks any form of vowel harmony as noted in Comfort & Paster (2009) where it is highlighted how different the phonological systems of Maay and Somali are. These loanwords though made it further than simply Somali and Maay though! As I will show below, even some Omotic languages have the loaned word for camel via the Oromo language:

  • Yemsa – /gaala/
  • Koyra – /gaalo/
  • Zayse-Zargula – /gaala/
  • Sheko – /gaale/

But what must be noted of course is that what came with this South Arabian language is of course the culture it was linked to. A culture seemingly rooted in the necessity of pastoralism; a form of living seen as integral to what is seen as pre-modern Somali identity. It as close to the heart of Somali culture as Islam is. This of course was transmitted between these people, as is most apparent in the rock art of Laas Geel. Laas Geel of course belongs to the “Ethiopian-Arabian” rock art style that in its most archaic phase in the Horn of Africa once had spread from the lowlands of southeastern Ethiopia to the fringes of what is now known as the Danakil depression as noted in Brandt & Carter (1987). Yet of course, a lot has changed since 1987. Back in 1987 the popular working theory for the origin of pastoralism in the eastern Horn of Africa was a theory by the pioneering Africanist Christopher Ehret, but this theory had many flaws. His explanation of pastoralism making its way into the eastern Horn of Africa via the Sahel had gaping holes; holes that I can confidently say I am lacking in. But what is contentious of course is that in terms of the origin of the artistic style used at Laas Geel, it is inherently Arabian. The Laas Geel style is known distinctly as “Sorre-Hanakiya“, which is the earliest stage of this art form in the Horn of Africa; which infers that this work was made sometime around 5,000 years ago at the earliest which coincides with my hypothetical South Arabian movement into the eastern Horn of Africa.

Screenshot (10)
adapted from Brandt & Carter (1987)

What I am inferring it is likely that the creators of Laas Geel may have at the most only been bilingual in this “pre-Somali” language that was in contact with the Shehri-like South Arabian language. If Laas Geel was at a later time though, it is likely this was after the intense cultural transfusion and might have been after the total assimilation of the Semitic-speakerrs, thus making a solely Cushitic-speaking culture of hybrid Arabian-Horn of Africa origins. But as we know, this cultural complex and the words it carried was not confined to the earliest Somali-speakers. Oromo and Afar speakers use some of these same loanwords and indeed share very similar cultural affinities; all originating in this case of contact.

But who is to say that this stopped there? Pastoralism did spread via Cushitic-speakers in eastern Africa, and if we are to take this hypothesis into mind then it would not be likely that Cushitic-speakers emanating from the eastern Horn of Africa had not carried over this new hybridized culture and languages full of new, exciting South Arabian loanwords for this new mode of living. As I noted in my last post, Cushitic-speakers likely would’ve spread along waterways being dependent on agriculture; which infers that while the Cushitic-speakers in this case were pastoralists they likely still retained knowledge of sustainable agriculture. And here we go: this links the contact of South-Arabian and Cushitic speakers with the Savannah Pastoral Neolithic. The peoples of the Savannah Pastoral Neolithic were the predecessors of the modern-day South Cushitic-speakers of Tanzania and those who caused the formation of the highly divergent Lowland East Cushitic language known as Dahalo. While there is theories that South Cushitic and Lowland East Cushitic are inherently linked, they rest on uneasy ground due to lack of reconstructions as noted by Kießling (2000). This of course is not much of a roadblock, because Lowland East Cushitic-speaking pastoralists at this time would’ve been within range to simply pass on these cultural traditions to pre-existing early South Cushitic-speakers already living in-situ within what is modern-day Kenya.

And here, here is where things become complicated. Remember the loanword for ‘cow’ in Somali that came via the South Arabian language in question? It happens to be a loanword that has cognates spanning as far south as Iraqw /ɬeː/ in Tanzania and as far west as Ga’ada, a Chadic language of Nigeria which exhibits /ɬa/*. Of course, this is not isolated. Spanning between Chadic and Lowland East Cushitic there is evidence of possible transmission such as in the case of the Bilin (Central Cushitic) word ‘lewi‘ as noted in Blench (2008). But the chances of such a loanword simply being a coincidental cognate are, low at best. With Iraqw being that it is a South Cushitic language I undoubtedly do strongly see the evidence toward this being linked to the Somali loanword /lɔʔ/; but Chadic is the real question. Between Chadic and Cushitic, no other branch  of Afroasiatic exhibits cognates with #l-ʔ. This of course lends some weight to the “Trans-Saharan” origin of Chadic via the westward movement of Cushitic-speakers in antiquity; meaning that #l-ʔ in Chadic is inherently tied to its origin as a divergent branch of Cushitic.

Both Egyptian and Berber have cognates with the Somali word /sɑʔ/, which is indeed spread throughout Cushitic but is likely an Arabic loanword being this root appears to be absent from South Arabian languages yet appears in Somali, Sidama, Afar, and Beja which have all had contact with Arabic; 3 of those 4 being extensive contact. This being said, Semitic seems to be a point of diffusion for both #l-ʔ and #s-ʔ although the one seems to have spread to Egyptian and Berber long before it had been spread to Cushitic or even the handful of Chadic languages that have the root #s-ʔ due to contact with Shuwa Arabic as noted by Blench (1999). Of course, #l-ʔ and #s-ʔ amongst Afroasiatic could have a relationship much like “chá” and “tê” when it comes to loanwords for tea thus meaning they originally had a common source in the Near East but disseminated differently into other languages. But it seems that while #l-ʔ spread southward† through Semitic and then westward via Cushitic, #s-ʔ had spread westward initially and then southward via Arabic. This may explain why Beja seems to lack evidence for #l-ʔ but exhibits evidence of #s-ʔ, being that Beja-speakers tend to be bilingual in Arabic and historically have had a co-dependent relationship with Arabic-speakers since the initial introduction of Arabic into Northeastern Africa.

This would imply that even though this seemingly inconsequential event of language contact in the eastern Horn of Africa happened so long ago, it would have a long-standing imprint on the languages of not only the eastern Horn of Africa but seemingly anywhere where the traces of this event could be felt. I could be on to something, I’m not sure. All I know is I view Afroasiatic entirely different now.


* Being that Ga’ada is a Central Chadic language, the realization of the root as #ɬ-∅ is expected being that as constructed very well by Gravina (2014) Central Chadic languages typically lack /l/ but have /ɬ/ in its place. It can be argued that #ɬ-∅ could not simply be a variant of #s-ʔ on the basis that other Central Chadic languages such as Kotoko which have an instance of #s-ʔ without any change besides /ʔ/ > /∅/. In the case of Iraqw, this is more complicated being that Cushitic languages not only have a larger time depth than most other branches of Afroasiatic but they also have a high degree of lexical dissimilarity, with South Cushitic being an extreme case. The only other possible case of /l/ >/ɬ/ that I was able to find was in  regards to the verb ‘to get’ which is /ɬaw/ in Iraqw and /hel/ in Somali. What I did notice is that Lowland East Cushitic */d’/ (which is realized as /ɗ/ in Maay and /ɖ/ in Somaliis cognate with Proto-South West Cushitic */t͡ɬ’/ in a few instances as noted in Blench (2010) such as:

  • “cut up” – PLEC */k’ad’/ ~ PSWC – /q’uːt͡ɬ’/
  • scoop” – Somali /faɖ/ ~ Alagwa /fat͡ɬ’/
  • middle of” – Somali /ɖeħe/ ~ Iraqw /t͡ɬ’aʕa/
  • cattle lane/path” – Somali /ɖɑbbe/ ~ Iraqw /t͡ɬ’eːsani/

This of course brings up the whole topic of South Cushitic being very contact changed, with the most extreme example of a contact situation resulting in a very odd outcome being the divergent Lowland East Cushitic language known as Dahalo. But regardless there is room to examine what caused the /l/ >/ɬ/ in the lexical item in question,

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