Typology of African Languages

Bernd Heine bernd.heine at UNI-KOELN.DE
Thu Jan 2 08:43:34 UTC 2003

About a month ago I asked you to assist in a typological survey aimed at
defining Africa as a linguistic area. Many of you have volunteered by
completing the questionnaire printed below, containing a list of eleven
typological properties. So far I have received data on 139 languages, of
which 95 are African languages, 39 non-African languages, and five
pidgins/creoles. The data are attached to this message. What they suggest
is that it is possible on the basis of the eleven properties to
characterize African languages typologically. The following are some of the
main observations made (note that the term "Africa" refers to sub-Saharan
Africa, that is, it excludes Afro-Asiatic languages, with the exception of
Chadic languages):

(a) Non-African languages can be expected to have less than five of the
eleven properties and an average of 2.6 properties, while African languages
have at least five properties (with two exceptions: Khoekhoe and Sandawe,
both Khoisan languages, have only four properties) and an average of 7.2

(b) The most widespread African properties are (3), (5), (6), (7), (8), and
(10), each found in at least 70 % of the African sample languages, but (5),
(6), and (8) are also widespread outside Africa.

(c) No non-African language of the sample in B has been found to have
properties (1), (2), or (10).

(d) Pidgins and creoles do not exhibit any special typological relationship
with African languages, having an average of 1.8 properties.

Many thanks for your cooperation!

Bernd Heine

The questionnaire contains the following properties:
(1) Labiovelar stops
(2) Implosive stops
(3) Lexical (A) and/or grammatical tones (B)
(4) ATR-based vowel harmony
(5) Verbal derivational suffixes (passive, middle, causative, benefactive,
(6) Nominal modifiers follow the noun
(7) Semantic polysemy 'drink (A)/pull (B), smoke'
(8) Semantic polysemy 'hear (A)/see (B), understand'
(9) Semantic polysemy 'animal, meat'
(10) Comparative constructions based on the Action Schema (X is big
exceeds/passes Y)
(11) Noun 'child' used productively to express diminutive meaning
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Bernd Heine
Institut für Afrikanistik
Universität zu Köln
50923 Köln, GERMANY
Phone: (0049) 221 470 2708
Fax:   (0049) 221 470 5158

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