logo labex efl


Areal phenomena in Northern sub-Saharan Africa

coordinators: Dmitry Idiatov & Mark Van de Velde


This work package aims to critically investigate the hypothesis that there exists a Sprachbund in northern sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, it aims to refine the criteria proposed in the literature and to identify additional criteria in order to evaluate the validity of the areality hypothesis, and if confirmed, to strengthen it.

Languages spoken within a large belt of northern sub-Saharan Africa from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Ethiopian plateau in the east have long been known to share important structural similarities (cf. Westermann 1911, Greenberg 1959). Although many of these languages are genetically related, the similarities cannot be exhaustively accounted for by inheritance from a common source. Thus, the relevant linguistic features criss-cross genetic borders and are not found in genetically related languages outside of this region, which suggests an important role of language contact in the evolution of the currently observed pattern. The prominent role of language contact in this region has been convincingly argued for by Güldemann (2008), who suggests the existence of a linguistic macro-area, the Macro-Sudan belt. Güldemann uses six linguistic features to delimit the Macro-Sudan belt, viz. the presence of logophoricity markers, labial-velar consonants, labial flaps, ATR (advanced tongue root) vowel harmony, S-(Aux)-O-V-X and V-O-Neg order patterns. Language families where virtually all features are found in the majority of languages comprise Benue-Congo (excluding Narrow Bantu), Adamawa-Ubangi, Bongo-Bagirmi and Moru-Mangbetu. Several other language groups, viz. Mande, Kru, Gur, Kwa, Atlantic, Dogon, Songhay and Ijoid, also participate in the area, but to a lesser extent. Finally, Chadic, Nilotic and Narrow Bantu groups are said to be only marginally affected, basically only along their borders with the Macro-Sudan belt.

While Güldemann’s (2008) proposal involves both (morpho)phonological and syntactic features, Clements & Rialland (2008) consider only phonological properties and argue for the existence of a Sudanic belt, which roughly coincides with the Macro-Sudan belt but is somewhat more inclusive. Thus, they suggest that several segmental (labial flaps, labial-velar stops, implosives and other “nonobstruent stops”, nasal vowels and lack of contrastive nasal consonants, ATR vowel harmony) and prosodic properties (tone, “lax” polar question markers) are particularly representative of the languages spoken in the Sudanic belt. Clements & Rialland (2008) and Güldemann (2008) converge on several criteria, viz. labial-velar consonants, labial flaps, ATR vowel harmony.

This work package aims to critically investigate the areality hypotheses involving the languages of northern sub-Saharan Africa, such as Güldemann’s (2008) Macro-Sudan belt and Clements & Rialland’s (2008) Sudanic belt. The criteria already proposed in the literature need to be refined and additional criteria need to be identified in order to evaluate the validity of the areality hypothesis, and if confirmed, to strengthen it. Furthermore, plausible diachronic mechanisms should be worked out to account for the observed geographic and genetic distribution of these linguistic properties. Finally, the empirical basis of the areality hypothesis needs to be broadened, since most of the languages of the area are still poorly described and documented and many of them, being endangered, risk to disappear without leaving a trace.