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Applying the Comparative Method in Afroasiatic (Afrasian) Christopher Ehret.

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1 Applying the Comparative Method in Afroasiatic (Afrasian) Christopher Ehret

2 Over the past decade and a half, the Afrasian language family has been the focus of varied new historical comparative publications, ranging in topic from Cushitic to Chadic to Berber to the family as a whole. As is only to be expected of scholarship that extends our frontiers of knowledge, this work contains mistakes, missed evidence, and the like. These are things to be expected. They are things we can correspond with each other about and correct. They do not detract from the progress of the enterprise, and in fact dealing with such issues drives forward the sharpening and refining of our discoveries. But what cannot and should not be tolerated is loose and permissive application of the comparative method. Unfortunately, looseness and permissiveness have been dismayingly common.

3 This permissiveness takes several forms: –(1) a general lack of rigor in phonological comparison; –(2) reliance on postulating ad hoc irregularities to explain away failed sound correspondences; –(3) failure to take into account the critical evidence of branch reconstructions; –(4) creating of procrustean or protean reconstructed forms to explain away non-corresponding putative cognates; –(5) force-fitting of putative cognate evidence into a particular a priori phonological template

4 PRINCIPLE: To establish a phonological reconstruction of a language family in the first place, fully regular sound correspondence must be demanded at every point in the proposed cognate morphemes. –One cannot make this point too strongly. In one recent comparative work in Afroasiatic, it sometimes seems that almost anything goes. –We must carry through the processes of phonological reconstruction making virtually neogrammarian demands on our data. –Only after the foundations of regular sound correspondence are lavishly and rigorously established can one allow for other levels of process in phonological change.

5 REPEATING OUR PRINCIPLE IN OTHER WORDS If we are to produce a reconstruction that commands any credence at all from other historical linguists, we must rigorously exclude all irregular forms from the diagnostic evidence for our cognation arguments. –To make claims of irregular correspondences before we have established the fully regular sound change histories of the vast majority of our data undermines our enterprise at the most fundamental level.

6 SIGNS THAT IT’S TIME TO RETHINK ONE’S PREMISES If cognates seem difficult to find, the chances are that one simply has not yet discovered the correct correspondences. If one must rely on recurrent postulations of irregularity to build one ’ s cognate sets, this itself is overt evidence that one has indeed failed, for the most part, to discover those correspondences. If one must repeatedly posit multiple shapes for supposed single roots, this is an overt giveaway that one is dealing with distinct roots. Again, this warns us that we have not yet identified the systematic, truly regular correspondences.

7 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison The matter of first importance is to be sure that one ’ s cited attestations for particular consonants or vowels in a reconstructed root actually do present regularity of correspondence. Undoubtedly, some errors will escape our notice. This is certainly true when we write volumes as massive as Orel and Stolbova ’ s or my own Afrasian reconstruction. But the outright errors should relatively few. And they should not be systematically contradictory and so undermine the presentation of evidence.

8 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison Consider the following cases. Here systematically contradictory correspondences are allowed in Orel and Stolbova without further commentary and explanation: –Orel and Stolbova offer two alternative outcomes in Egyptian for their postulated PAA consonant *t ¢: Egyptian has d in entries 2447, 2471, 2479, and 2486, but t in 2448, 2450, 2466, 2467, 2468, and 2472.

9 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison –No environmental distinctions exist that account for this consonant split. For example, both Egyptian db and tb are given without explanation as reflexes of roots reconstructed as * t¢ Vb-. Similarly, Tuareg stems - t 5´f - and - d¢´f - are offered as equally valid reflexes of two posited PAA roots with the identical reconstruction, * t¢ub -.

10 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison Orel and Stolbova similarly allow two alternative outcomes in Lowland Eastern Cushitic for their consonant * h¢ –Again there are no environment differences capable of motivating a consonant split: * h¢ > * h¢ in 1309, 1334, and 1395 * h¢ > *h in 1324 and 1335 (with a third outcome, * ? in 1320, described as “ irregular ” )

11 Assumptions that don ’ t work Orel and Stolbova also adopt an assumption common among students of the most northerly Afroasiatic languages — –that Egyptian d2 often originated from the palatalization of a voiced velar stop * g –that Egyptian t 2 often similarly derived from *k This is a highly important issue for those interested in Afrasian reconstruction to come to grip with, just because it is so widely believed to be true — mostly, I would argue, without adequate basis.

12 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison The evidence seems clear in one particular Egyptian case — the clitic second person feminine pronoun t 2 versus the equivalent masculine k. –Here the root forms elsewhere indicate earlier *ki versus *ku. –We can therefore argue on good grounds in this particular instance that — at least in clitic forms and therefore in a probably non-stress- bearing environment — PAA *k > Eg. t 2 /_i.

13 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison But the validity of this correspondence in word-initial and word-medial positions is in doubt. And here ’ s why. Orel and Stolbova come up with a number of examples that contain / g / in the non-Egyptian citations, where their putative Egyptian cognates have d2. –The only problem — and it is a fatal problem — is that the environments of the supposed palatalization are irregular, sporadic, and often unnatural to boot. –In other words, once again, as for their * t¢ and * h¢, they allow unmotivated irregularities. Here are the distributions of g and d2 in word-initial position:

14 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison cases of * g > Eg. g /_a 12cases of * g > Eg. d 2 /_a 5 cases of * g > Eg. g /_e 1cases of * g > Eg. d2 /_e 0 cases of * g > Eg. g /_i 2cases of * g > Eg. d2 /_i 4 cases of * g > Eg. g /_o 4cases of * g > Eg. d 2 /_o13 cases of * g > Eg. g /_u 5cases of * g > Eg. d 2 /_u 0 cases of * k > Eg. k /_a 10cases of * k > Eg. t 2 /_a 2 cases of * k > Eg. k /_e 3cases of * k > Eg. t 2 /_e 3 case of * k > Eg. k /_i 1cases of * k > Eg. t 2 /_i 6 cases of * k > Eg. k /_o 2cases of * k > Eg. t 2 /_o 7 cases of * k > Eg. k /_u 7cases of * k > Eg. t 2 /_u 0 cases of * k > Eg. k /_ ü 0cases of * k > Eg. t 2 /_ ü 1

15 Lack of Rigor in Phonological Comparison The examples of * g form a complete hotchpotch. There is no regularity of sound correspondence here. –Out of 22 proposed cases of * g > * d2 palatalization word-initial, only four are given the plausible following environment of a front vowel – these four cases are contradicted by an almost equal number of cases in which * g in the same environment is claimed to give g. The same problem holds for *k. –cases before the unnatural environment /_o are as proportionally common as before the natural context /_i. –Even if we supposed that perhaps palatalizing of *k took place word- initially only before *i, that would mean the discarding of more cases (eleven, /_a, /_e, and /_o) than we would keep (seven, /_i).

16 Reliance on Ad Hoc Irregularities to Explain Failed Sound Correspondences In more than 600 instances, OS invoke ad hoc deletions of syllables or consonants, most often cases of a pharyngeal/laryngeal consonant, to explain irregular consonant outcomes. In more than 300 instances, they specifically identify ad hoc irregular correspondences. –A variety of terminology, in addition to the explicit word “ irregular, ” reveals the irregularities: correspondences are “ not very clear ” ; they are “ unexpected, ” a “ secondary modification, ” a “ contraction, ” etc.; they “ may be a prefix ” ; a syllable or consonant has been “ lost without a trace ” ; and so forth.

17 Reliance on Ad Hoc Irregularities to Explain Failed Sound Correspondences More than 120 times, OS explicitly invoke metathesis to explain irregular consonant outcomes, sometimes twice (and in a few cases thrice) for the same set of items. In about 60 instances, Egyptian 3, especially in medial position but also word- final as well as word-initial, is treated as a vowel sign, on an ad hoc rather than regular, rule-based fashion. In around 30 cases, Egyptian w in word-initial position is explained away as representing a stem vowel coming after the second consonant of the word, whereas at least as many w, indistinguishable on the surface of things, are treated as word-initial consonants. In another almost 500 instances, when we take the published evidence of branch reconstructions into account, non-cognate words can be seen to have been wrongly combined in the same root.

18 Creating multiple reconstructions of a supposed single root, in this way explaining away non-corresponding forms A further indulgence has been the reconstruction of protean root shapes. These multiple shapes for supposed single roots allow one to crunch together incompatible data in one root. In this article by Militarev dealing with putative agricultural reconstructions, out of the 32 posited roots, every one is given least two alternative shapes and often three or more alternants. This root format should send up red warning flags immediately. Such root shapes are an almost dead giveaway that the roots are not valid reconstructions, but collections of partially resemblant words.

19 The error of fitting data into an a priori template A further and recurrent problem in Afrasian reconstruction has been the force- fitting of data into a pre-ordained phonological template, namely, that of Semitic. Example: –Orel and Stolbova seek to explain each and every Chadic implosive labial consonant as a merger of an oral labial consonant and a lost laryngeal. Why, when we have known since Greenberg and Newman in the 1960s that AA in all probability had four oral labials? (Handout, p. 10)

20 A theory of the root in Afrasian An addition, when we take account of the branch reconstructions, we come up against the hard fact that we cannot explain Semitic ’ s triconsonantal forms by consonant deletions in the branches. Sabatini Moscati et al., Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1964), partially accept this position. “ It is the more likely supposition that originally there existed roots of either two or three consonants (as well as a smaller number with one only or with more than three) and that at a certain stage in the development of the Semitic languages the triconsonantal system prevailed — extending by analogy and thus bringing into line biconsonantal roots through the adoption of a third radical. ”

21 A theory of the root in Afrasian Russ Schuh, in the Diakonov festschrift, puts it far more starkly and, I think, right on target: –“ As I see it, the reconstructability of root-augmenting suffixes in Chadic should lead those who have not already done so to rethink the Semitic-influenced concept of ‘ loss of radicals ’ as a way to account for verbs with fewer than three consonants in language families such as Berber and Chadic. A much more likely picture, sketched broadly in Newman (1991), is an ancient and continuing process of ADDING radicals as one of a number of stem- augmenting processes in all families, Semitic included. ” (emphasis added) And there are literally thousands of other cases like these, not just in Semitic, but in Egyptian and to a lesser extent in Cushitic, Omotic, and Chadic. The recognition that these forms exist is hardly new.

22 Concluding Points 1 Irregular sound correspondences cannot be postulated if we are to claim to be valid practitioners of the comparative method. We can establish a valid foundation of proto-Afrasian reconstruction only if we demand fully regular correspondences throughout. I do make that demand upon the evidence in my work. I never intentionally postulate irregular sound changes. I am quite sure that I have made mistakes of citation or recognition and so fallen short of my intentions. But that is quite a different thing from deliberately, time and again, postulating irregularities when things do not work according to expectation. When things do not work according to expectation, then we know that our hypothesis fails to explain the data. Either the hypothesis itself needs revising, or the data do not belong where we have put them. To postulate an irregularity that allows us to leave the hypothesis and the data as they were is to violate the scientific method and our own scientific responsibilities.

23 Concluding Points 2 Neither can we use the gimmick of postulating multiple reconstructed forms for a root. When we do so, we only show that we have not yet discovered the full, regular patterns of sound correspondence. We are essentially manipulating the hypothesis — in this instance, the root reconstruction — so as to make the data fit. Clearly the data do not fit the hypothesis of cognation, or else we would not have to posit a multiple reconstructed form. (I am not talking here of subordinate regularities such as those we see in the o- and e-grade root variants of Indo-European.)

24 Concluding Points 3 Finally, the great majority of solidly reconstructed non-Semitic reflexes of proto-Afrasian roots are irreducibly biconsonantal. They are not contractions of former triconsonantal shapes and cannot be made out to be so. That means that we must build an effective theory of the root in Afrasian if we are to understand why Semitic has so many triconsonantals. And it is time, as Russ Schuh has told us, to get over thinking of Semitic as the prototype of the family. If anything, it is Semitic which is the branch most divergent and least typical in its root structure. I do present a theory of the root in my work, stated in explicit detail and backed up by extensive internal reconstructions. I am currently at work on a volume presenting thousands of detailed data. These further back the theory up. At the same time they require revisions and additions to it. My theory of the root may not be the answer, or it may be only part of the answer. If you disagree with it, then you need to come up with another theory of the root. This kind of explanation is an essential element in any historical reconstruction, and it ’ s certainly essential here.

25 Concluding Points 3 I do present a theory of the root in my work, stated in explicit detail and backed up by extensive internal reconstructions. I am currently at work on a volume presenting thousands of detailed data. –These further back the theory up. –At the same time they require revisions and additions to it. Let me hasten to add that my theory of the root may not be the answer. Or it may be only part of the answer. But here ’ s a key point. If you disagree with this explanatory scheme, then you need to come up with another theory of the root. This kind of explanation is an essential element in any historical reconstruction, and it ’ s certainly essential here.

26 Concluding Points 4 Where do we go from here? –What I am doing: Testing out reconstructions against further data. Testing of OS and Militarev materials: see in my talk today 2 additional volumes near completion by me –Testing reconstruction –Volume testing further my theory of the root –The other side of the challenge is presented by Ekkehard Wolff in his review of my 1995 book in Africa und Ü bersee: The overall reconstruction needs now to be tested and linked from the bottom up — from subgroup reconstructions upward to PAA Wolff has responded to his own challenge with work he presented at the last WOCAL


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