A short piece, on the Afro-Semitic background of Geʿez *ś

It has been a while since I’ve sat down and attempted to write about the sound represented by *ś in Geʿez, simply because I haven’t had the motivation.

In a prior post (Geʿez, the “phonological enigma”) I had briefly written about the subject and going back to that post, it feels sloppy. I was and am still not very much a fan of that post and a revision of the subject is of course subsequently needed. And given that in my last update on a post regarding Geʿez in specific I had plainly said outright that Tigrinya is likely the direct continuation of spoken Geʿez, it would perhaps be a good idea to go back and write a new post on the subject with a special focus on Tigrinya cognates with Geʿez. This of course is a supplementary post to the one I am writing about the relationship between the two languages in specifc, which is taking much longer than I had originally expected it to take me.

But to go back to the main subject of the reconstruction of the sound value for the grapheme ⟨ሠ⟩, known in the Ethiopianist transcription tradition as the ever ambiguous *ś. This grapheme takes a number of different interpretations but the majority are of course deadset on the claim that it is a lateral fricative being that the grapheme is cognate with the Hebrew letter Shin, which to anyone even vaguely aware of the great controversy of Semitic sibilants means that like the Hebrew orthographic cognate the 
Geʿez grapheme undergoes a rather uneasy time in terms of reconstruction. To anyone who has ever spoken to me about this grapheme or even read anything I have written in regards to it, I simply cannot find a logical reason for the lateral fricative interpretation. The supposed Sayhadic origin theory of the Afro-Semitic languages of course has no reasonable bearing which damages certain points in the aforementioned volume Munro-Hay (2002), and this subsequently casts doubt on the views expressed in papers such as Voigt (1988) regarding sibilants in both Tigrinya (the subject of the paper) and subsequently Geʿez (Voigt’s assumed ancestor to Tigrinya). There is also no diachronic or synchronic evidence of lateral fricatives within the Afro-Semitic languages, outside of Geʿez—which is in its own right not evidence, just an assumption with no counter argument, as noted in Weninger (2010). This is also taking into mind the “ancient” and “modern” dichotomies used by some linguists for the Afro-Semitic languages which is in this case an ontological issue that is based on foundations that I have previously highlighted the issues of being they are face value analyses.

This being said, I have no reason to assume the lateral fricative sound value of *ś but I have every reason to go looking for a counter argument to that assumption that is rooted not in traditional reconstructions and assumed sound values but instead simply in the cross comparison of the Afro-Semitic languages themselves. While of course Tigrinya, Tigre, and Dahalik are perhaps the best candidates for comparison being they like Geʿez are North Afro-Semitic languages a comparison with the languages of the Southern branch could also provide valid supporting evidence of a retained sound value in Geʿez being that in some sense the Northern branch  is phonolgically innovative in areas that the Southern languages are more archaic—although it should be mentioned comparative lexical work on the Afro-Semitic languages is not in the state of art that the majority of other branches of Semitic find themselves in, thus limiting my comparisons. On the other hand relatively uniform realization of the sound value that lines up with *ś in cognates between the Afro-Semitic languages in both branches will relatively provide the strongest logical conclusion as to the sound value at hand. So lets just give an extremely a basic example that can be found in say, Leslau (1982):

  • Ge. *śemɐ ~ Tna. [ʃomɐ], Amh. [ʃomɐ]

This is the verb ‘place, appoint‘ which is akin to the Tigre verb ‘šäyäma‘ which is a verb that describes the act of appointing a leader or chieftain within a community or ethnic Tigre clan. This leads us to the phoneme I would suggest makes far more sense, the post-alveolar sibilant [ʃ]
a phoneme otherwise ubiquitous within Afro-Semitic outside of the current reconstruction(s) of Geʿez. I of course could add a cognate list to supplant this argument and then the examples of Geʿez loans into Sabaic* that I had rather randomly added to my last post on Geʿez, but this would take time I simply do not have and this post itself is a conscious stream that has been waiting to gush forth from the back of my mind since sometime last week. This is not to say that I have not done this work, I’m merely either too lazy or too tired from my actual job; but of course as always such a thing is forth coming (I promise, it is). Nonetheless the philosophical debate as to why it cannot be a lateral fricative needs to also be entertained because until the idea of the lateral fricative itself is shown to be weak at its core, the interpretation of any cognate set between Geʿez and the other Afro-Semitic languages will remain up to personal interpretation as opposed to any demonstrable evidence of it not being a lateral fricative.

The idea of the lateral fricative reconstruction itself, from its inception, lacks the input of the Afro-Semitic languages being that in the beginning the running assumption was that Geʿez was the natural heir to the variety of Sabaic exported from the highlands of Yemen to the highlands of the Northwestern Horn of Africa; which it turns out is merely not the case. These ideas themselves tended to be based on face value interpretations of the cultural interactions between the Pre-Aksumite societies and ethnicities of this region and the assumption that the Pre-Aksumite state of DʿMT and subsequently the Aksumite state itself were the imports of foreign peoples whom had “cultured” the indigenous peoples, whom are always characterized vaguely as “Agaws“. It is at least now recognized that the peoples known as “Agaws” are indeed indigenous to the Northwestern Horn of Africa, simply not the areas once inhabited by Aksum or any of its predecessors and that these peoples themselves speak or formerly spoke languages that were subject to intensive influence from the Afro-Semitic languages themselves. This means that the non-linguistic assumptions as to the origin of Geʿez and the Afro-Semitic languages as a whole fell and is still falling on the way side and thus is not ample source of any argument that would support claiming Geʿez had a lateral fricative at any point in its development. Geʿez is no descendant of Sabaic, and thus has no source of the lateral fricative unless you rely solely on its reconstructed ancestor which in theory should not be a reliable source of comparison if Geʿez is not reconstructed itself.

 Taking all of this into mind, the basis of the suggestion is at best weak if you wish to include the supposed evidence from Proto-Semitic in its current form(s). When taking solely Afro-Semitic into mind, alongside the general typology of the languages of the Horn of Africa be it Afro-Asiatic or non-Afro-Asiatic languages, there is no basis for the lateral fricative. Like the case of lateral fricatives in the South Cushitic languages, lateral fricatives in the Semitic languages are relatively geographically confined where they can be definitively proven to have had once existed or currently exist (Arabic, Sayhadic, South Arabian, perhaps Proto-Central Semitic?). It simply could be argued that Geʿez would typologically cline against such a reconstruction as an Afro-Semitic language and in general as a language within the Horn of Africa; but on the other hand would simply have more supporting evidence for the reconstruction of the post-alveolar fricative *ʃ for the same exact reasons. The ʃ-lacking argument itself tends to neglect these inherent factors of Geʿez as a language, and while one could always make the typological outlier argument it is simply too convenient that the typological outlier would be this language in specific and not say, languages such as the uncalssified Afro-Asiatic language Ongota or even the Gumuz languages of the adjacent lowlands. It is just far too easy to make the claim of a typological outlier with a reconstruction that otherwise would be gawkily awkward in its given linguistic geography and context.

To add one of my older arguments that needs far better structuring and background work, the appearance of lateral fricatives in the languages of the Semitic languages of the Arabian peninsula could just as likely be a substratum as opposed to an internal innovation as I have also prior suggested. We know nothing of the pre-Semitic languages of the Arabian peninsula that undoubtedly did exist, and if they had any influence on the Semitic languages that had appeared after Semitic entered the Near East in the Out-of-Africa scenario we simply would not be able to conclusively be able to tell. So on the end of the Out-of-Africa viewpoint, the lateral fricative(s) are in question as to their inclusion in Proto-Semitic to begin with (I take the post-Arabia appearance viewpoint) and should still have no influence on how Geʿez is reconstructed.

These of course are just short, perhaps insignificant excerpts from my otherwise unorganized and random thoughts regarding Afro-Semitic. They’ll be better after the expected unorganized and random updates, of course.