Academic journal article Studies in African Linguistics

A Phylogenetic Analysis of Stable Structural Features in West African Languages

Academic journal article Studies in African Linguistics

A Phylogenetic Analysis of Stable Structural Features in West African Languages

Article excerpt


Northern sub-Saharan western Africa ("West Africa") is known for its great linguistic diversity, and also for its unclear linguistic past. Dating back to the 19th century, lexical evidence has predominated in the comparative study of the region's languages (e.g. Koelle 1854; Westermann 1927; Greenberg 1963), while areal relationships have played a minor role in the reconstruction of language history (see Heine & Kuteva 2001). West Africa is characterized by a wealth of widespread lexical and typological features, often shared within areas, which suggest that genealogical connections do not coincide with their distribution (see Heine & Nurse 2008).

This study presents a comparison of languages of West Africa from a typological perspective based on phylogenetic network analysis. In recent years, the application of computational classificatory techniques, i.e. phylogenetic methods, carried over from biology has increased and diversified greatly in historical linguistics, in studies of family relationships and areal phenomena (see e.g. Gray and colleagues 2003, 2009, 2011; McMahon & McMahon 2003; Kitchen et al. 2009; Walker & Ribeiro 2011, to mention a few). Most linguistic phylogenetic studies have used cognate judgments (e.g. of basic vocabulary items) as the basis for analysis, but in other cases, espe cially where processes of internal and external language change have rendered lexical cognates difficult to assess, linguists have turned to cluster analysis of typological features (i.e. structural linguistic properties unconstrained by formal correspondences) for modeling linguistic macrohistory. They assert that abstract structures, not only linguistic forms, are subject to processes of vertical and horizontal transfer which create a historical signal (see e.g. Nichols 1992; Wichmann & Saunders 2007; Dunn et al. 2005, 2008, 2011; Donohue & Musgrave 2007; Donohue et al. 2008; Greenhill et al. 2009, 2010; Reesink & Dunn 2012; Dediu & Cysouw 2013; Wichmann 2015).

We compare a sample of West African languages on the basis of phylogenetic network analysis of character data for a selection of 30 features of phonology, morphology, and syntax from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS; Dryer & Haspelmath 2013; earlier version Haspelmath et al. 2005). The features chosen for our sample were assessed by Wichmann & Holman (2009) to be relatively stable, or conservative, in intergenerational transmission; as such, their distributional properties may retain traces of historical linguistic connections of phylogeny and interaction that can be modeled with computational clustering techniques. We utilize the algorithm NeighborNet (Bryant & Moulton 2004) in SplitsTree v. 4.13.1 (Huson & Bryant 2006) to quantify typological distances between the languages under comparison and to draw splits graphs of resulting clusterings in order to explore the extent to which continuation of the selected features appears to reflect inheritance, patterns of language contact, or no apparent historical signal.

2.The languages of West Africa: classification and areal relationships

In our comparisons, we consider genealogical as well as areal relationships of West African languages when discussing positions of languages in network graphs. To set the scene, this section briefly reviews methods, traditions, and current perspectives of African comparative linguistics. For an extensive discussion on the methods and results of African historical-comparative linguistics, we refer to Campbell & Poser (2008: 120-145).

2.1. Language classification. While the Comparative Method of linguistic reconstruction has been applied at a micro-level to specific subgroups, it has not been comprehensively applied in the study of African linguistic macro-history. Nurse (1997: 262-3) attributes this fact to a combination of reasons: the vast number of African languages (estimated to be over 2,000 in Lewis et al. …

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