The Niger-Congo Languages

The Niger-Congo Languages
General Information
• According to Ethnoloque
1,532 languages
• → largest phylum in the
• Occupies larger area than
any other African phylum
• subclassifications has been
continuously modified
– large number of languages
– inaccessibility of much of
the data
– lack of able researchers
1 Kordofanian
• Kordofanian as fist branch
→lexical evidence for uniting with
Niger-Congo languages is poor
• Kordofanian are most poorly
documented languages within
• Small languages
• Spoken in Nuba mountains (Rep.
of Sudan)
• Many have been replace by
political insecurity
•Greenberg: 5 groups of languages,
grouped together as Kordofanian
assigned them to Niger-Congo
•Schadeberg (1981c) removed
Kadugli-Krongo/Kadu from
Kordofanian, added it to NiloSaharian
→ 4 remaining groups classified by
Schadeberg (1989)
Schadeberg showed that the noun class affixed correspond
in a regular way to those of the rest of Niger-Congo
Schadeberg (1989)
2 Mande
•Extend over greater part of the
western half of West Africa (Mali,
Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone,
Liberia, also in Burkina Faso,
Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau,
Mauretania, Benin, Ghana, Togo,
•10 to 12 million speakers
•Over 50% speak Manding
•Most classifications based on
→ problems pointed out by
Kastenholz (1991/2)
→ studied lexical innovations to
gain improved classification
• Mande as part of Niger-Congo
• Dwyer(1998): Excamination of 603 comparative lexical
→leads to table of cognates
From: Dwyer.(1998) The place of Mande in Niger-Congo. In: Language History and Linguistic Description in Africa. Maddison, Hinnebush
Niger-Congo Cognate Types:
Total Set examined:
Probable cognates:
Likely cognates:
Possible cognates:
• Western Nigrit, Benue-Congo and Mande are lexically
→lexical coherence
3 Atlantic
• (West-Atlantic in
Westermann’s classification)
• Spoken along Atlantic
coastline of West Africa
• Largest languages:
– Fulfulde (several million
– Wolof (2 million speakers)
– Diola (400,000 speakers)
– Serer (600,000 speakers)
– Temne (600,000 speakers)
• Classification by Sapir
(1971) based on
• Three-way division:
Northern, Southern, Bijago
4 Ijoid
• Small family, only spoken in
Niger Delta
• Languages:
– Defaka (endangered),
– Ijo - language cluster with over
one million speakers
• Closely related internally, very
distinct from other NigerCongo languages
5 Dogon
• About half a million speakers
in Mali & Burkina Faso
• Often referred as single
• Bertho (1953) proposed at
least 4 languages
Calame-Griaule (1978) list 5
groups of dialects
• Ethnologue: 14 Dialects
6 Volta-Congo
6.1 West Volta-Congo
• Contains three families: Kru, Gur,
6.1.1 Kru
Spoken in the south-west
quadrant of Côte d'Ivoire, greater
part of Liberia
Between 1 and 2 million speakers
Main division: East and West-Kru
First classified within Kwa
(Westermann (1927) and
Greenberg (1963))
Bennett and Sterk (1977)
suggested is as part of
North/West Volta-Congo
Body of Kru languages are closely
Additionally three Kru isolates:
Kuwaa (north-west) Tiegba &
Abrako (from Aizi group) (east),
Sεmε (north)
6.1.2 Gur
Very large family
Spoken in south of Mali, northern
parts of Côte d'Ivoure, Ghana,
Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria
About 5,5 million speakers at
least 1,7mio speak Mõõre
Relationship of the body is quiet
Membership of others is more
6.1.3 Adamawa-Ubangi
Extend from north-west Nigeria
through northern Cameroon,
southern Chad, Central African
Republic northern Gabon,
Congo, Democratic Republic of
Congo, south-west Sudan
about 1,5 million speakers of
2,3 million speakers of Ubangi
Greenberg (1963a) divided
Adamawa into 14 groups,
"Eastern" into 8 groups
Bennett added group 3
(containing Daka) to BenueCongo
6.2 East Volta-Congo
• Greenberg (1963a:39) doubted
the division between Kwa &
6.2.1 Kwa
• Spoken along Atlantic coast of
West Africa, south western
corner of Nigeria, south-eastern
quadrant of Côte d'Ivoire
• About 20 million speakers
• Greenberg (1963a) divided into 8
groups, intigrated Central Togo
languages into his group
• Benett & Sterk (1977) reassigned
Ijoid and Kru to Benue-Congo
6.2.2 Benue-Congo
Occupy a vast area
Greenberg divided into 4
– Platoid
– Jukunoid
– Cross River
– Bantoid
Shimizu (1975) and Gerhardt
(1989) integrated Jukunoid to
Bennett and Sterk (1977) added
eastern branches of Greenberg's
→ grouped together as "West
→ former "Benue-Congo" was
named "East Benue-Congo" Bantoid
• First used by Krause in 1895
• → describing languages with similarity in vocabulary of Bantu
• Guthrie (1948) used it for languages with noun class systems resembling
Bantu (no regular sound correspondence)
• → established “Guthrie Zones”
– Standart referential scheme
– Most zones not genetic groups → geographical
• Present meaning goes back to Greenberg
• → Bantu together with its closest relatives ("non-Bantu Bantoid")
• Benue-Congo working group tried to define in the 1970s and 1980s "Narrow
Bantu" - the languages recognised by Guthrie as Bantu - as a subgroup of
"Wide Bantu"
• Blench and Williamson (1988) proposed a basic division within Bantiod is
between North Bantoid (old "non-Bantu Bantiod" without Tivoid) and South
Bantoid (all remaining Bantu languages)
• → North Bantu consisting of Mambiloid and Dakoid
• → Dakoid includes Chamba Daka
• Classified by Greenberg as Adamawa, by Bennett (1983) as Benue-Congo
• Blench assigned it to North Bantoid
• Classification of Narrow Bantu is based on lexicostatistics → not overall
• Mostly agreed, that there is North-West Bantu (Zones A, B, C and parts of D)
• → those languages are more distinct from the rest and one another
• → ancient splits
• Definition of boundaries between West and East Bantu differs a lot
• Even suggestions for Central Bantu
Problem with these classifications
• Accept arbitrary boundaries of Guthrie
• Piron (1998) presented most recent lexicostatistic classification, including
samples of all Bantiod groups
• Because of various problems (defective lists, inadequate or
unrepresentative data) the work suggests different levels of relationships
• South Bantoid appears as coherent group
• Furthest Neightbor method shows a break between (Narrow) Bantu and
the rest
• Average method splits East
and South Bantu from
all the rest
• → further work needed
Typology and Reconstructions
1 Vowels
Niger-Congo languages often show vowel harmony
Maximal systems:
[+ATR] Vowels: / i e ɜ o u/
[-ATR] Vowels: / ɪ ɛ a ɔ ʊ /
Some systems with only oral vowels, some with both, oral and nasalised
Always fewer nasalised than oral vowels
Westermann reconstructed #a #i #u for Proto-West-Sudanic
→ midvowels as later developments from coalescence or assimilation
Steward (1998) reconstructed *i *ɪ *a *ʊ *u as oral and *i ̃̃ *ɪ ̃̃ *ã *ʊ̃̃ *ũ as
nasal vowels for Proto-East Volta-Congo
• Doneux (1975) even reconstructed a system of ten vowels with ATR
harmony for Proto Northern Atlantic
• →it is possible that Proto-Niger-Congo had ten vowels
2 Consonats
• Typically five contrasting places of articulation:
Palatal (incl. post-alveolar)
• Almost always voiceless and voiced plosives (often affricates)
• Usually voiced implosives (except for Kordofanian, Dogon, parts of BenueCongo)
• Occasionally unvoiced implosives
• Often labialisation as secondary articulation
• Sometimes palatalisation
• Very rarely verlarisation
• Westermann(1927): Very small consonant inventory
• Mukarovsky (1976-7:37) richer one, including a series of consonants
represented as Ch (might have been aspirate plosive, implosive,
affricate or fricative)
• Stewardt(1973): reconstructed the consonants of Proto-BantuPotou-Tano from sound correspondences
– 4 series of stops
– Voiceless and voiced lenis
• 1993: proposed that lenis consonants were rather implosives
→more promising given wide distribution of implosives in Niger-Congo
• Non-implosive/implosive contrast has not been confirmed as going
farther back than Proto-Potou-Tano
• Possibly the voiced plosives found in daughter languages of ProtoBantu-Potou-Tano go back to voiced implosives
•Steward (1973) showed regular sound correspondence
between Potou-Tano and Bantu
•Also possible between Proto-Ijo and Bantu
3 Noun Classes
• Doubtlessly Proto-Niger-Congo must have had a
grammaticalised noun-class-system
– every family shows at least traces of the system
• Mande as instance for exception
– But initial consonant mutation in nouns suggest conditioning by earlier
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