Theme 2: Comparison, typology and reconstruction

Coordinators of the programme: Guillaume Segerer & Valentin Vydrin

LLACAN participants

Researchers and teacher-researchers: Nicolas Aubry, Pascal Boyeldieu, Bernard Caron, Dmitry Idiatov, Tatiana Nikitina, Konstantin Pozdniakov, Guillaume Segerer, Claude Rilly, Mark Van de Velde, Valentin Vydrin.
PhD student: Daria Mischenko, Aurore Montebran.


This programme, which is built around the RefLex-Project (lexical database of African languages, ANR 2010-2014) and the QSAP Meroitic projects, aims at better understanding and at describing in detail the mechanisms of the evolution of languages in Africa, in order to make significant progress in the reconstruction of at least three of the four African phyla: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic. We also have the ambition to create the dynamics to trigger a theoretical and methodological renewal of comparative linguistics in general. This is made possible by the considerable progress in the past years with regards to the amount and the quality of available data and with regards to the new automatic processing possibilities of this data. More precisely, we have the intention to obtain concrete results in the reconstruction of several genetic (sub-)units (North-Atlantic languages, Mande languages, Adamawa language, Central Sudanic languages, Northern East Sudanic languages, Bauchi languages …). By making intensive use of the large existing databases (RefLex, among others), the results also support typological works on polysemy and semantic changes (does Africa have any particularities in this domain?), phonotactic constraints (why are certain phoneme sequences subject to certain constraints, are these constraints areal?) and the formal and semantic structuring of Niger-Congo noun classification systems as well as typological works on the consonant inventories of African languages.

Research questions, theoretical framework and methodologies

The projects which make up this programme are extremely varied, as reflected in their research questions. This variety is a strong point of our programme; it reflects the large diversity of linguistic situations, especially in view of the consequences of linguistic contact. The contact is not studied for its own sake in the individual projects; it is one of the important factors of the linguistic complexity of the continent. Whether it concerns the difficulty to establish the genetic links (genetic affinity) of a language (Sinya project by P. Boyeldieu), the diffusion of structural features across linguistic boundaries (project on areal phenomena by M. Van de Velde and D. Idiatov) or the intricacies between convergence and divergence (dialectalisation) (Western South Bauchi project by B. Caron, Yoruba project by N. Aubry and Central-Atlantic project by G. Segererer), contact phenomena may not be ignored.

Despite its 2000 living languages, the linguistic mosaic of Africa has remained the stepchild of comparative studies around the world. Greenberg’s (1963) canonical classification of African languages has recently been called into question, especially by Dimmendaal (2008, 2011), but see also the international conference organised by M.M. Hombert (Lyon, 3-4 dec 2010) on isolates in Africa; the revisions proposed are not necessarily based on new facts but rather on a re-evaluation of the arguments which have traditionally been brought forward. The affinity of the Mande languages to the Niger-Congo phylum, for instance, is now considered doubtful because it cannot be proven. One of the tasks of Theme 2 is the rigorous evaluation of the historical relationships between the languages with newly developed IT resources. The different sources of digitised data already collected amount up to several hundred thousands of lexical items for several hundred languages. Never has such an amount of data been available to linguists. Moreover, the existing modern tools now facilitate the exploitation of this data.

Our works in reconstructions use the postulates of the classical comparative method. We still look out for regular series of correspondences, but we also place increased weight on phenomena that have hitherto been considered marginal, i.e. analogies, submorphemic levelling, or phonotactic constraints, as far as they can be backed up by statistic measurements. The two last aspects of comparative work constitute extremely promising research strategies, which we consider capable of profoundly renewing our view of the phonetic evolution of languages.

The programme comprises, on the one hand, of individual projects targeting particular language groups from most of the African phyla: Niger-Congo: Mande family (V. Vydrin, D. Idiatov), Atlantic and Mel families (K. Pozdniakov, G. Segerer), Bak group and Joola branch (G. Segerer), Adamawa family (D. Idiatov, M. Van de Velde, P. Boyeldieu), Yoruba (N. Aubry); Nilo-Saharan: Central Sudanic group and Sara-Bongo-Bargirmi group (P. Boyeldieu), Northern East Sudanic group and Meroitic (C. Rilly); Afroasiatic: Western South Bauchi group; and other collective activities (development of lexical and typological databases).

Even though the production of lexical reconstructions for a better understanding of the linguistic history of the continent constitutes one of the priorities of the programme, other fields of study from the domain of linguistic evolution are also studied in more typologically oriented projects; see the project on noun classes in Atlantic languages (K. Pozdniakov) or the project on areal phenomena in Sub-Saharan Northern Africa (M. Van de Velde & D. Idiatov). The last project and the Niger-Congo project by V. Vydrin are part of the research programme of the Labex EFL (Empirical Foundations of Linguistics). Regular meeting allow us to reflect on the work progress of the members and to share our experiences.

List of projects

  1. Western South Bauchi languages
  2. RefLex ANR
  3. Etymological dictionary of the Mande family and reconstruction of Proto-Mande
  4. Areal phenomena in Northern sub-Saharan Africa (Labex)
  5. Reconstruction, internal classification and grammatical description in the world’s two biggest phyla: Niger-Congo and Austronesian (Labex)
  6. Noun classes in Atlantic languages
  7. Reconstruction of Proto-Central-Atlantic: Phonology and lexicon
  8. Pilot study on the language of the Boua group (Adamawa-13)
  9. Yoruba dialects
  10. African consonantal systems
  11. The identity of Sinyar
  12. The structure of Wan in a comparative perspective
  13. The Central Sudanic Languages: genetic unit or affinity group? (Labex)
  14. Northern East Sudanic languages: phonological, morphological and lexical reconstruction
  15. Use of the comparative method for deciphering Meroitic (Ancient Sudan) (QSAP Meroitic)