Chapter published in:Historical Linguistics and the Comparative Study of African Languages
Gerrit J. Dimmendaal
[Not in series 161] 2011
► pp. 333–346
15. Language and history
When older written records are relatively scarce and rarely date back more than a few centuries, as is the case for regions south of the Sahara and to a lesser extent for northern Africa, one may try and take recourse to alternative methods, e.g. the study of oral traditions, in order to reconstruct history. Historical-comparative linguistics has also been used to this end. Some authors (e.g. Fox 1995: 2) draw a distinction between language history and prehistory. “In the former case we are concerned with changes in languages as reflected in texts, inscriptions, and other documentary evidence; in the latter with changes occurring before the appearance of such evidence”. From this point of view, most studies in an African context of course involve “language prehistory”. If comparative linguistics as a tool is so important for the study of African cultures in their historical context, why is it introduced relatively late in a monograph like the present one? The reason is quite simple. For a proper use of comparative linguistic data for the recon-struction of history in its different domains, it is important to first understand the comparative method as well as its intricacies and limitations. There appear to be a number of mainstays along which the historical and com-parative study of African languages could enhance our understanding of the history of the continent: Reconstruction (as discussed in Chapters 2 and 4), genetic classification (Chapter 3) as well as borrowing and other contact phenomena (Chapters 8–11). But these also have their limitations when it comes to drawing historical conclusions, as should become clear next.