Evolution of Human Languages

An international project on the linguistic prehistory of humanity
coordinated by the Santa Fe Institute
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Languages of the World: Etymological Databases
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Evolution of Human Languages

Reconstruction of Proto-Afroasiatic

Alexander Militarev, Russian State University for the Humanities
Olga Stolbova, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

The Reconstruction of Proto-Afroasiatic Project aims at a step-by-step reconstruction of subgroup, group and branch proto-languages within the Afroasiatic (Afrasian, Semito-Hamitic) macrofamily, with a special focus on the insufficiently studied Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic languages. Militarev and Stolbova are particularly interested in constructing a genealogical classification of Afroasiatic that is mainly based on lexicostatistics / glottochronology (the latter following Sergei Starostin's improved version of the method) and in properly defining its limits, which, in the case of Cushitic and especially Omotic, have not yet been fully determined to general satisfaction (for instance, in the controversial case of Ongota, our data support its Omotic rather than Nilo-Saharan origins; there is also increasing, although not yet decisive, evidence for the Afroasiatic origin of Kuliak languages).

Originally developed from a much smaller and "rawer" auxiliary database for the Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary by Vladimir Orel and O. Stolbova, the present Proto-Afroasiatic (PA) etymological database relies on, and is linked to, a set of 16 subbases for lower taxa. Among its 3,700 PA entries, there are both reliable lexemes, well represented in two or more Afroasiatic branches, and merely tentative parallels that require further confirmation or else are liable to elimination. The same is true of all the subbases, even those that are the most elaborate from the etymological point of view: Semitic (3,300 entries) and Egyptian (1,600 entries). As for Omotic, Cushitic and Chadic subbases, their lexicostatistical versions are larger and better developed than the etymological versions; some of the former are already linked to the PA database).

The work is performed by Olga Stolbova, who is responsible for the by far most difficult Chadic materials covering data from a few hundred languages (three Chadic subbases, comprising in sum over 5,000 entries) and Alexander Militarev, responsible for the rest of Afroasiatic. The choice of cognates between branches and the shape of Proto-Afroasiatic reconstructions are the result of their discussions and eventual consensus (not that it is always easy to reach one!).