December 13, 2003

Language relationships: families, grafts, prisons

When I recently read a reviewer's assertion that linguists borrowed from Charles Darwin the notion of a "family tree" as a way to describe and explain similarities among languages, it surprised me. The true direction of historical influence is mostly the other way, though of course linguists have been inspired in turn by Darwin's ideas. So I've been attuned to the ways that people think in pre-Darwin discussions of linguistic relationships.

In the post linked above, I quoted from Thomas Jefferson, who in 1781 clearly understood that affinities among contemporary languages should be seen as the residue of descent with modification. The metaphor of family trees for the relation among languages is a commonplace during the centuries before Darwin. However, not everyone who used that metaphor was as clear a thinker as Jefferson.

In 1855, Sir Richard Burton used both "family" and "tree" (or maybe "vine") metaphors in one short sentence when he wrote

"The Harari appears, like the Galla, the Dankali, and the Somali, its sisters, to be a Semitic graft inserted into an indigenous stock."

From the context, it appears that what Burton means by the "grafting" metaphor is a milder version of what creolists would mean by talking about a semitic lexifier on an "indigenous" substrate. However, it seems that Burton's evidence for this idea here is just a combination of recent borrowings from Arabic into these languages, along with (what I think are) some inherited cognates that he attributes to earlier borrowings into an originally-unrelated African language. That is, he sees the four cited languages as "sisters", but does not see their relationship to Arabic in terms of the slightly more distant "family connection" of Afro-asiatic, as more recent scholars would, but instead sees only contact effects at different time depths.

Burton is also wrong (by modern standards) in calling Harari, Galla, Dankali and Somali "sisters":

Harari is ethnologue code HAR, classification Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, South, Ethiopian, South, Transversal, Harari-East Gurage
"Galla" is Oromo, ethnologue code GAX, classification Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Oromo.
"Dankali" is Afar, ethnologue code AFR, classification Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Saho-Afar.
Somali is ethnologue code SOM, classification Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Somali.

Thus Oromo, Afar and Somali really are sisters, but Harari is more of a (not very close) cousin, if the ethnologue classification is accurate.

In a footnote, Burton quotes a passage from the 1850 Swahili grammar of the Anglican missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf, which presents a rather different metaphor for relations among languages, that of linguistic divergence as escape from captivity:

"In the Abyssinian language, especially in the Ethiopic (or Ghiz), and in the Tigre and Gurague, its dialects, we find the Semitic element is still predominant; the Amharic manifests already a strong inclination of breaking through this barrier. The Somali and Galla languages have still more thrown off the Semitic fetter..."

This metaphor may have been suggested to Krapf by the pervasiveness of the slave trade in East Africa during his travels there, and the key role of Arab slave traders. Burton does not seem to notice any contradiction between Krapf's escape from servitude and his own grafting: both are just metaphors for some kind of mixed situation, and he does not seem to be thinking about either one of them very precisely.

The quoted passages come from Appendix II of Burton's his two-volume work First Footsteps in East Africa, or, An Exploration of Harar. A handsome hyperlinked e-text version, which according to its footers was "rendered into HTML ... by Steve Thomas for the University of Adelaide Library", has recently appeared on the web. Unfortunately this version omits appendix II, the Grammatical Outline and Vocabulary of the Harari Language, because "because of the large number of Arabic characters it contains, which makes it impossible to reproduce accurately." Though it is unreasonable to complain about the quality of a free good, I do want to point out to the University of Adelaide Library that there are several alternative methods for accurate html reproduction of Arabic characters, including Unicode.

The story of Burton's trip is an interesting one in itself. When he entered the walled city of Harar on January 3, 1855, it was considered a "forbidden city", closed to Europeans on pain of death. Burton attributed this exclusion not only to a superstition that would "read Decline and Fall in the first footsteps of the Frank," but also to the fact that "at Harar slavery still holds its head-quarters, and the old Dragon knows well what to expect at the hand of St. George."

The ancient metropolis of a once mighty race, the only permanent settlement in Eastern Africa, the reported seat of Moslem learning, a walled city of stone houses, possessing its independent chief, its peculiar population, its unknown language, and its own coinage, the emporium of the coffee trade, the head-quarters of slavery, the birth-place of the Kat plant, and the great manufactory of cotton-cloths, amply, it appeared, deserved the trouble of exploration.

Harar hosted another famous European later in the century. Between 1880 and 1884, and again from 1888 to 1891, the poet Arthur Rimbaud lived there, as a storekeeper and trader. He was apparently not a fan, writing shortly after he arrived for the first time in Harar that "je ne compte pas rester longtemps ici, je n'ai pas trouvé ce que je présumais et je vis d'une façon fort ennuyeuse et sans profits." ("I do not intend to stay here very long. I have not found what I was expecting and I am living in a very boring and unprofitable fashion".)

Now you can buy coffee from the Harar region on the internet. You can find several web sites devoted to the city of Harar, including one from UNESCO and one oriented to prospective tourists. There are web sites for Harari communities in Dallas, the Bay Area, Toronto, Atlanta and elsewhere, and a RealAudio feed for a Harari radio program from Melbourne, Australia. We live in wondrous times.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 13, 2003 05:44 PM