consensus view

Sally Thomason sally at
Fri Mar 5 02:26:36 UTC 1999

----------------------------Original message----------------------------

   In the middle of his long message about criteria for genetic
relationship etc., Benji Wald wonders `why some scholars have
proposed that Mbugu demonstrates the "borrowing" of (Bantu) noun
classes, etc., rather than the "borrowing" of non-Bantu vocabulary.'
He continues, `Given that Mbugu speakers are all fluent in a Bantu
language...the direction of "borrowing" seems moot to me."

   Here's why -- or, at least, here's why *I* believe that the borrowing
was of grammar rather than (mainly) vocabulary.  First, there is
good historical evidence -- mostly in the form of oral histories
of the Pare and Shambaa peoples -- showing that the Ma'a (a.k.a.
Mbugu, but Ma'a is said to be their self-name) people have for
a very long time shown strong resistance to total cultural
assimilation to the surrounding Bantu milieu.  They resist both
acculturation to Bantu and acculturation to Western ways.  Their
language can be seen as a reflection of this resistance: in the
face of immense pressure from Bantu, including regular contacts
(at least until quite recently) with Bantu-speaking kinfolk who
stopped resisting some time ago (by shiftin to Bantu), the Ma'a have
preserved only the most salient part of their language: the vocabulary.
Not all the vocabulary, of course, but most of the basic vocabulary.
Christopher Ehret estimates that ca. 50% of the total lexicon is Bantu now.
This situation is paralleled by one or two others elsewhere in the world:
gradual borrowing of grammar until nothing remains but (part of) the
original lexicon.

   Second, and most importantly from a linguist's viewpoint, the
linguistic evidence points unmistakably to a partly preserved non-Bantu
lexicon with borrowed Bantu grammar.  Borrowing -- that is, incorporating
stuff from a 2nd language into the native language -- always begins
with non-basic vocabulary, and includes lots of basic vocabulary only
after a lot of non-basic vocabulary and probably structural features as
well have been borrowed.  This is the picture that fits Ma'a.  There
are other possible routes to extreme mixture, but for Ma'a they
can be ruled out on linguistic or social grounds, or both.  (1) It's
not a case of borrowing from a non-Bantu lg. into a Bantu lg., because
if it were the basic vocabulary would be mostly Bantu, not Cushitic.
(2) It's not a case of shift from a non-Bantu lg. to a Bantu lg.,
because again the basic vocabulary would be mainly Bantu, and besides,
if there were enough imperfect learning to cause a significant residue
of non-Bantu words even in the basic vocabulary, then there ought to
be more syntactic & phonological interference, because shift-induced
interference always affects the syntax & phonology most; but there is
no distortion at all in the Bantu grammar of Ma'a.  (3) It's not a
case of shift from a Bantu lg. to a non-Bantu lg., because if it were,
the imperfect learning would be so extremely imperfect as to leave
the entire original Bantu grammar intact -- not something you'll find
in *any* case of shift with imperfect learning.  The closest analogue
would be in a two-language creole like Berbice Dutch; but even there
it's easy to find distortions caused by imperfect learning (in the
Dutch component) and non-preservation of features of Ijo in the non-
Dutch component.  (4) It's not a case of pidgin-turned-"creole", for
the same basic reason as in (3).  Besides, it's awfully hard to
reconcile the social setting of Ma'a vis-a-vis its Bantu neighbors
with the social setting of any pidgin or creole...I'll skip the
details in the hope that that point will be reasonably obvious.  And
(5) it's not a case of relexification into a Bantu lg., a la Media
Lengua (Quechua grammar + Spanish vocabulary), because there's not
enough lexical replacement, and again, the basic vocabulary is mostly
Cushitic.  But in addition, the contacts between Ma'a and others have
been with Bantu-speaking groups for a very long time; this
can be determined by the oral histories of the Pare and the Shambaa.
That is, there haven't been any intimate contacts with Cushitic
speakers recently enough to account for the present and documented
states of the Ma'a language.  And that's even aside from the fact
that Maarten Mous has established that the non-Bantu Ma'a lexicon *can't
possibly* be all from one Cushitic lg.: some of it is Southern
Cushitic, some from another branch of Cushitic, and a large chunk of
it comes from Masai (with whom the Ma'a speakers haven't been in
contact any time lately).  (The question of what Ma'a was like
*before* Bantuization is another and an intriguing story -- but
alas, evidence of any solid kind is lacking, and probably always will
be lacking.)

   Finally, there *was* some active non-Bantu grammar in Ma'a, both
in the earliest good attestations ca. 1930 and in comparative material
that shows chronological layering of Bantuization changes (e.g. Cushitic
suffixes added *after* the Bantu-induced opening of word-final syllables).
Strikingly, the few Cushitic grammatical features that remained in the
earliest materials are now gone, to judge by the most recent fieldwork
(by Maarten Mous).  So what we can observe in the documentary record
is the loss of the last relics of Cushitic grammar.  Even in the
earliest records, the only Cushitic grammatical features that remain
are things that fit well into Bantu typology: a causative suffix,
pronominal possessive suffixes that aren't all that unlike the
Bantu possessive formation, etc.  ...With one exception: a non-Bantu
(probably Cushitic) collective suffix appears on a few nouns, sometimes
alone and sometimes *with* a Bantu plural prefix, to indicate plurality,
in the earlier materials.  Also, though the phonology (even in the
non-Bantu portions of the lexicon) has also been Bantuized, there is
still one un-local-Bantu Cushitic phoneme, a lateral fricative; according
to Mous, Ma'a speakers insert this even into Bantu words, by way of
emphasizing the differentness of their special in-group language.

   One other comment: Wald says that nobody has suggested dismissing
Ma'a `as some kind of (in-group) "slang"': wrong.  This is what Mous
says it now is, and he has good evidence.  (Mous and I differ, though,
on how it got that way.)

   A general point can be made here: the routes by which even the
most exotic mixtures emerge aren't necessarily undiscoverable; if
we have enough information, we can often figure out how mixed languages
got that way.  Sorting out the effects of contact isn't different
in that respect from sorting out the effects of internally-motivated
change.  "Enough information" is of course the crucial requisite.

   -- Sally Thomason

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