African languages

Some resources

If you're just starting to think about African languages, you might check out work by Roger Blench. Here are my notes on his book about language families across Africa.

People who know about Africa have always been very generous with their time and offers of help. So if there's anything I can help you with, let me know. I've got first-hand experience in South Africa, Ghana, and Ethiopia. In addition to collecting contacts in those places, I do have a few people in Uganda, Chad, Sudan, and the DRC. (In terms of languages I know a little something about, feel free to try me at Zulu/Ndebele (South Africa), Temein (Sudan), Baiso (Ethiopia), and Shako (Ethiopia).) 

If you're considering Congo-Kinshasa (DRC/Zaire), you might take a look at this quick set of notes I typed up on its geography and languages. The most interesting corner linguistically (the northeast) is also the most dangerous: 4 million people died there during the last war and conflict continues to simmer.

Finally, a few years ago I tried to find all the major corpora for African languages, check out the list here.

My own work


Why describe African languages?

The response I found most inspirational came from Larry Hyman's 2003 keynote address to the World Congress of African Linguistics. Here's an excerpt:

Why describe African languages? The loss of a language, African or otherwise is a serious event which is compounded by everything that we failed to do in terms of documentation. Least of our failures may be our inability to know what it might have told us about Language in general. Once in 1970 when I visited Robert Armstrong, then director of the Institute of African Studies in Ibadan, I walked in on a session where he and his assistants were transcribing some mega-recitations of Idoma chants, which had been laboriously recorded over a period of weeks with a single reciter. When I expressed my fascination, Armstrong replied, "Imagine all of the Iliads and Odyssey's that are walking around out there", succinctly characterizing the importance and vastness of the situation. Even if a language is not itself endangered, certain aspects of the culture may be.

Tucker Childs (2003) also talks about the fact that Africa is probably where our species first appeared and may offer us something unique in terms of how languages arise, spread, and change over time. A study of language helps us understand African history: consider Jared Diamond's use of linguistics in understanding migration patterns and complementing genetic data.