Saturday, January 10, 2009

Renaming Afro-Asiatic and its Semitic offshoot

It has recently been proposed by several scholars/linguists that Semitic may have originated in East Africa and/or in the north eastern part of Egypt near Sinai, by proto-Afrasan or "pre-proto-Semitic" pre-agricultural migrants in the region...

“A careful reading of Diakonff shows his continuing adherence to his long-held position of an exclusively Africa origin for the family. He explicitly describes proto-Afroasiatic vocabulary as consistent with non-food-producing vocabulary and links it to pre--Neolithic cultures in the Levant and in Africa south of Egypt, noting the latter to be older. Diakonff does revise his location for the Common Semitic homeland, moving it from entirely within northeast Africa to areas straddling the Nile Delta and Sinai, but continues to place the origins of the five other branches of the family wholly in Africa. One interpretation of the archaeological data supports a pre-food-producing population movement from Africa into the Levant, consistent with the linguistic arguments for apre-Neolithic migration of pre-proto-Semitic speakers out of Africa via Sinai.” - Ehret et al.

More excerpts on the matter:

Brandt, Steven. University of Florida and Juris Zarins, Southwest Missouri State University.

An African Origin for Semitic-Speaking Peoples? Archeological, Genetic and Linguistic Perspectives.

The origins of Semitic - speaking peoples have traditionally been linked to Near Eastern cultures that first occupied the lower Mesopotamian alluvium prior to 4000 BC. Drawing upon recent archeological, linguistic and genetic data, this paper develops an alternative model which suggests that Neolithic Afro-Asiatic speaking nomadic pastoralists from North-eastern Africa were the first to introduce “proto-Semitic” languages and an African form of nomadic pastoralism to Arabia, perhaps from multiple dispersal points along the Red Sea and Sinai.Implications of this model for clarifying long-standing issues related to the later prehistory and history of Northeastern Africa and Arabia are discussed.

From the excerpt above,...

multiple dispersal points along the Red Sea and Sinai.

...would explain the abundance, or the bulk of Semitic languages being located in the African Horn. Perhaps a relatively more recent affair, but maybe intuitive:

Semiticized Agaw peoples are thought to have migrated from south-eastern Eritrea possibly as early as 2000BC, bringing their `proto-Ethiopic' language, ancestor of Ge`ez and the other Ethiopian Semitic languages, with them; and these and other groups had **already developed specific cultural and linguistic identities by the time any Sabaean influences arrived.** " - Stuart Munro-Hay

Personal deductions: The Agaw adopted the Semitic languages from indigenous Semitic speaking Ethiopians, [and as stated above] not from southern Arabians. To support this fact, the author makes it quite blatant in the following, what language speakers the Agaw were prior to their adoption of the said Ethio-Semitic languages:

Whatever was the cause of the end of the former Aksumite kingdom, a new centre eventually appeared in the province of Lasta to the south under a dynasty, apparently of Cushitic (Agaw) origin, later regarded as usurpers, called the Zagwé (Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 53ff; Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 200ff). The existence of a long and a short chronology for this dynasty indicates that the Ge`ez chroniclers were in some confusion as to the precise events occurring at the end of the `Aksumite' period until the advent of the Zagwé. - courtesy of S. Munro-Hay.

Taken from: Nile Valley Forum

Ge'ez itself has been characterized as a now-defunct but well differentiated autochthonous Ethiopian "Semitic" language at the time of its use. This would make Ge'ez's ancestor [not Ge'ez itself] the "proto-Ethio-Semitic" language. Apparently, 'proto-Semitic' is the reconstructed hypothetical common ancestor of all so-called Semitic languages.

As part of a discussion, at least one perspective on the matter was this:

I'm curious to know why Semitic is even still considered to be a linguistic branch while Hamitic was abandoned (done at the insistence of Joseph Greenberg that the concept of Hamitic languages were invalid).

It is my understanding that the language family Hamito-Semitic was abandoned in favor of Afro-Asiatic because the concept of Hamite implied a Mesopatamian/Near Eastern origin of various branches of that language family that were dispersed into Africa, as the Bibilical theory of the Table of Nations (from which the words Hamite and Semite are derived from) suggests.

Of course archeological and linguistic evidence shows that it was the other was around, these languages in Africa once regarded as Hamitic originated in Africa and dispersed elsewhere.

So why is it that certain languages in Africa are considered to be part of the Semitic branch (and even proto-Semitic itself has been suggested to have originated in Africa) when the term itself still implies a West Asian origin?

Indeed, the issue of the rationality of sustaining the term "Semitic" in the science of language/linguistics, given its biblical origins, what that implied and its subsequent inspirational impact on the 19th & 20th century Eurocentric racialist ideological schema, is something that crops up time and again. Whatever happened to the idea of separating religion from science?

The way the present author sees it, if someone were to say that the 'Semitic' descriptive should not be an issue, then that same someone should not have any issues with "Hamito-Semitic", the earlier descriptive given to the language family in question. Of course, the 'Hamito' end of it, implicates the Hamitic hypothesis. Hamites too, like Semites, is rooted in biblical jargon, but Eurocentrist scholars from the 19th and 20th century ran off with the term and applied it in bio-anthropological discourse; in some cases, we've seen the disastrous consequences of the Hamitic myth in European imperialism. Here, whereas Hamites were supposedly hybridized "Negroes", Semites were considered to be "non-African" groups from across the Red Sea. The earlier rational of "Hamito-Semitic", is the presumed notion that while these folks were distinct, that is to say—Hamites and Semites, their language were somehow related; Why not?...after all, the rationale was that Hamites partly descended from "non-African" groups from across the Red Sea. The Semitic end of the language family was initially believed to be of "non-African" origin, amongst these "non-African" Semites. If "Hamites" can be dropped, why should "Semites" not be dropped as well? However, if the rationale is that "Afro-Asiatic", as used today, is a linguistic construct, and that Semitic too is the same, well hey, "Hamito-Semitic" too was a linguistic construct in its day; why have issue with it?

It brings a good point to the table, as to the question of why "Hamito-Semitic" hasn't been dropped "altogether". Perhaps, the answer lies in the now outdated notion that, the "Hamitic" branch of languages were supposedly realized to have been of African origin before the same was realized for the supposed "Semitic" branch—something which Steven Brandt and Juris Zarins, for example, point out about the latter [Semitic] in the excerpt above.

Ehret thought even the term "Afro-Asiatic" was still reminiscent of the idea of African origin and an Asian offshoot, which according to his conclusions about exclusive African origins [for both proto-Afrasan AND its proto-Semitic descendant], did no justice to that conclusion. Thus, Ehret thought the term "Afrasan" would do it more justice, and get that "Asiatic" bit out of the way. But yes, Semitic too, as a term, may well need revision, with preponderance for African origins, especially in light of genetics, in combination with recent archeological findings—genetics wasn't exactly given much consideration back in the old "Hamito-Semitic" days, since very little was known about the science then.

For some, another reasoning for clinging onto that construct [i.e. Semitic] could be that, even though the "proto-Semitic" languages have African origins, their independent further development in the various respective regions where they are now spoken, would not be so apparent, so its linguist advocates reckon, if they did not use the term "Semitic". But again, from a personal opinion, considering the history of that term, perhaps its further usage needs to be revised—how?...a question linguists will have to think about! And here, several reasonable ideas will be proposed, as to how to go about renaming the Afro-Asiatic super phylum appropriately.

Another opinion on the matter:

A part of it had to do with the bias implied in the elevation of the Semitic languages, among the most recently derived - why semitic, and not Chadic for instance?

Then the concept of Hamites as - black skinned whites - was acknowledged to be and essentially ideological ruse.

For starters, let's consider the name Afro-Northern Rift [Valley]/Afro-North Rift (with the latter being an allusion to the Great Rift Valley) Super language, an entry for candidacy in replacing the "Afro-Asiatic" moniker.

It should be noted that the "Semitic" term issue aside, the "Asiatic" in "Afro-Asiatic" has the effect of over-emphasizing Asia's role in the language complex, given that Asia is apparently a gigantic landmass, with the Afrisan derivatives being limited to just the Great Rift region. Thus originating in Africa, this language phylum spreads its wings to only as far as part of the Great Rift Valley on the other side of the Red Sea. Though generally counted as part of Asia in "Western" discourse, the Great Rift areas across the Red sea really more closely lean towards Africa geologically, culturally and even politically. The case can also be made that populations in this area are generally more genetically closer to Africans than those further away.

The "Rift Valley" or "Great Rift Valley" moniker addresses not only the geographical issue, but also the "Semitic" nick end of it.

Then, how about considering a variant of the Afro-Northern Rift super-phylum: "Saharo-North Rift [Valley]" (Saharo-Northern Rift Valley) super language phylum, as a replacement of "Afro-Asiatic".

Why any consideration for the 'Sahara' at all? Technically, Afrisan languages are spoken both on the Sahara and in areas below the Sahara, in east and west Africa. But its spread westward on the continent, would have likely come about via the former wet-Saharan belt corridor.

Here is one opinion on the idea:

I take it you're proposing Saharo-Northern Rift replace Afrisan.
This is good because Asia doesn't have a damn thing to do with
the super-phylum at all in the least and Afrisan retains the 's'
of Asia.

Seeing that the speakers of this superphylum are all indigenous
to the northern Great Rift Valley and the Sahara — including its
periphery to Lake Tschad, the Nile, the Mediterranean, and the
Atlantic — it's the perfect geographic complement to
although it conflicts somewhat with
Nilo-Saharan — but 'Saharan'
in that instance does not include the periphery. And yes the island
of Malta is overlooked in the
Saharo-Northern Rift label but that's
just a tiny forgiveable oversight.

Well yes, the present author is proposing Saharo-Northern Rift as another possible candidate; the present author realizes that Saharo in the "Saharo-Northern Rift" doesn't immediately speak to every single geographical 'periphery' where the Afrisan language may well be spoken, but it is proposed for the reasons stated above: that is to say, the major corridors for its historical or rather, pre-historic expansions. The Sahara would have proven to be a major corridor for its westward expansion on the continent; whereas East Africa is where the language phylum likely first emerged—in the Northern Rift Valley region, and spread thereof across the Red Sea.

The "Afro-Northern Rift" speaks more to the general geographical reach of the Afrisan phylum than the former above, in that "Afro" compensates for any other areas where the language phylum mainly exists outside of the Northern Great Rift areas.

Some have proposed a descriptive to the effect of: Saharo-Erythrean!

However, as for 'Saharo-Erythrean' or any variant of it thereof, this is the present author's opinion on it: Why the invocation of "Erythrean"? The Great Rift Valley already includes the areas across the Red Sea from Africa.

It may well boil down to matter of taste, if not preference of the proposed reasoning behind either variant terms respectively over the other, but the question now is: Between say, "Afro-North Rift" (Afro-Northern Rift Valley) and "Saharo-North Rift" (Saharo-Northern Rift Valley) which is a better candidate?

Whatever the choice between the two may be, there is little to suggest otherwise, that either term is an improvement over the current moniker of "Afro-Asiatic", and by extension, the "Semitic" moniker of its Semitic offshoot; it is like killing two birds with one stone!