Africa: how I reconstructed an ancient unwritten African language

Africa is the continent of origin of humanity. Homo sapiens, with the anatomical and cognitive ability to have human language as we know it today, originated in Africa between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Then, as abundant fossil and archaeological records clearly show, some of our human ancestors left Africa. They spread to neighboring continents, taking their languages ​​with them. Others stayed behind; their descendants speak what we call “African languages”, recalling the long history of these communities on the continent of origin.

There were also those who migrated out of Africa and whose descendants later returned. These include the ancestors of the so-called ethiosemitic languages ​​in Eritrea and Ethiopia, around 3,000 years ago. The most recent and spectacular comebacks have come with the Arab-Islamic invasions beginning in 614 CE, European colonialism after 1492 CE, and the post-colonial labor migration of the 20th and 21st centuries.

One of the results of all this movement is the geographic spread and continued development of human languages ​​- most of them unwritten. It is difficult to study and reconstruct them: unlike the discoveries excavated in paleoanthropology, human language leaves fossils only in writing. Very few living or extinct languages ​​have left written texts. Those that included ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics dating from around 5,000 years ago and the ancestral languages ​​of modern Semitic which left written traces also spanning several millennia, the oldest from Akkadian in modern Iraq in cuneiform script.

For more than 50 years, I have devoted considerable research efforts to the study of the so-called Chadic languages. These are spoken in the west, south and east of Lake Chad (hence their name) in Central Africa. The widely known and best-studied Chadic language is Hausa, spoken as one of the major African languages ​​in much of West and Central Africa by some 80 million people or more. Unfortunately, knowledge about the 200 or so Hausa language parents in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad is coming very slowly.

What researchers want to know most is how these languages ​​developed as a family from a common ancient proto-language; they also want to explain how the languages ​​relate to other more well-known language families – ancient Egyptian, Berber (Amazigh), Cushitic, Semitic and perhaps Omotic – with which they are believed to form a common linguistic phylum, Afroasiatic .

The results of my research will be presented in two books. The first volume focuses on the origin of vowels in these languages. The second and final volume will focus on the sound changes affecting consonants in these languages. It is expected to be released in 2023.

I used well-established linguistic techniques to reconstruct one of the ancestral languages ​​probably spoken a few thousand years ago in the Lake Chad region of Central Africa and which was ancestral to around 80 present-day languages ​​in the region. Until now, these languages ​​were hardly written.


Professional linguists use a number of established tools to discover language histories even in the absence of written texts. Two of them are internal reconstruction and the comparative method. These were developed around 150 years ago by the Neogrammary School in Leipzig, whose scholars have successfully reconstructed the Indo-European linguistic family relationships that link modern and ancient European languages ​​like English and ancient Greek. to modern and ancient Asian languages ​​such as Urdu and ancient Sanskrit.

My own research focuses on the linguistic history of the Afro-Asian language phylum. A phylum, in linguistics, is a group of languages ​​less closely related to each other than those that make up a family. Together, the Afro-Asian phylum consists of approximately 400 languages. Most are spoken in the northern half of Africa, from Morocco and Mauritania in the west to Egypt and Tanzania in the east, and in adjacent parts of Asia. They rank among the oldest modern languages ​​in terms of traceable records. Experts have estimated that Proto-Afroasiatic originated in Africa between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago.

My research focused on the nearly 200 Chadic languages ​​spoken in the west, south and east of Lake Chad in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad. They form the largest family within the Afroasiatic phylum. There are four branches; Central Chadic or “Biu-Mandara” is made up of about 80 languages. The objective was to reconstruct the sound system and the vocabulary of central Proto-Chadian.

My main source was an online database containing 250 meanings of words like “compound”, “cow”, “eat”, “millet”, etc. a pioneering effort to reconstruct the Proto-Central Chadic in his 2014 doctoral thesis, albeit using a different methodological approach. In total, I ended up analyzing about 5,500 words from four to 50 modern languages.

I have meticulously analyzed each word to delineate its historical development from central Proto-Chadian to its present-day forms in modern languages, spanning a temporal depth of potentially thousands of years.

A deep vision

No language develops in a vacuum. Almost all of the words I searched for have changed their tone over time. This would be due in part to the rules and regularities specific to the language in the intergenerational transfer of language. But sound changes are also influenced by new local linguistic habits adopted by following generations of speakers and forming new dialects, or by borrowing words and phrases from neighboring languages.

Nevertheless, languages ​​also retain characteristics of the linguistic heritage, such as those of the ultimate proto-language; in this case, Proto-Afroasiatic.

Proto-Central-Chadic knew only one true vowel, “a”. He used “y” and “w” to serve as vowels “i” and “u” at the same time when he was in the syllable core position (the center of the syllable). Take the modern word Mandara, will go for “head”. In Proto-Central-Chadic, it was * ghwna. I was able to deduce this by understanding the substitutions of vowels and the changes in the sounds of words.

The consonants have also changed. The word for “sheep” was * tama in Proto-Central-Chadic; the m became w, and the suffixes also changed over time, leading to the modern Mandara word for “sheep,” kyawe.

New light

I hope this work will be a step towards uncovering some of the region’s currently unwritten history. By comparing the sounds and words of modern languages, it is possible to detect population movements and migrations in the past, as people adopt sounds and words from other languages ​​with which they have been in contact for some time. time. The reconstructed vocabulary also sheds light on cultural objects and people’s habitats, in particular the dissemination of ideas and the importance of certain concepts.

H. Ekkehard Wolff, Emeritus Professor of African Linguistics, University of Leipzig

About Wesley V. Finley

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