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  • The Kemantney language: A sociolinguistic and grammatical study of language replacement by Zelealem Leyew
  • Gregory D. S. Anderson
The Kemantney language: A sociolinguistic and grammatical study of language replacement. By Zelealem Leyew. (Cushitic language studies 20.) Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe, 2003. Pp. xvi, 291. ISBN 3896450670. €39.80.

A revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation from the University of Cologne, this is the first (and presumably) last good description of the language of the Kemant people. The Kemantney language, also known as Western Agew, belongs to the Central Cushitic branch of the Cushitic subgroup of Afroasiatic spoken in Ethiopia. It is a moribund language, the youngest speakers of which were in their late thirties at the time of publication. The book is divided into six chapters, with accompanying references and two appendices.

Ch. 1 (1–27) begins with an overview of the literature on language death, its nature and causes, and methodological issues that arise when attempting the documentation of a moribund language. It concludes with a brief survey of the previous extant literature of the language (23–24) and finally a description of the terminal Kemantney speakers who served as language consultants for the study (24–27).

Ch. 2 (28–60) presents the historical background of the Kemant people and their region of northern Ethiopia. This serves to establish the cause of the shift of Kemant to Amharic that has been going on over the past few generations. The reader gains insight [End Page 206] here into the complex sociolinguistic issues of ethnolinguistic and religious identity that have conspired to undermine the status of the Kemantney language among the relatively large Kemant population (172,291 according to the 1994 census). In particular, the conversion of the Kemant people from their traditional religion to Christianity (described in pp. 53–60) helps to explain how language, religion, and ethnic identity are inextricably connected in this region.

Ch. 3 (60–103) provides a detailed sociolinguistic analysis of modern language use among the Kemant population. Kemantney has gradually been restricted to a kind of ingroup secret code used only among a small core of the population, and in particular among the traditional religious elite. These sociolinguistic data and especially various quotations underscore the intimate connection between language, religion, and ethnic identity alluded to in the previous chapter, for example, ‘At first I was Kemant, then I got baptized and became Amhara’ (87).

Ch. 4 (104–46) provides a detailed description of the effects of language obsolescence on the lexicon of present-day Kemantney. In particular this describes loans from Amharic and the types of domains to which lexical narrowing or restriction have applied.

Ch. 5 (147–262) is a sketch grammar of the Kemantney language. This is a welcome addition for both typologists and specialists in language contact. Not only are basic structures analyzed, but so also are the structural consequences of the shift to Amharic that modern Kemantney is undergoing. Kemantney data throughout are, where relevant, briefly situated within the comparative Agew context as well as within the typology of contact- or obsolescenceinduced structural language change.

Ch. 6 (263–69) briefly summarizes the findings of the previous chapters. This concluding chapter is in turn followed by the references (270–91) and two appendices, the second of which reproduces the sociolinguistic questionnaire used by the author. Overall the book is a fascinating description of a poorly known language of northeastern Africa and one that will be welcomed by both typologists and Africanists, as well as by sociolinguists and others who specialize in issues of language contact and ethnolinguistic identity.

Gregory D. S. Anderson
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig


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