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  • History and the Testimony of Language by Christopher Ehret
  • Timothy Scarnecchia
History and the Testimony of Language. By Christopher Ehret. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 288 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper and e-book).

If you are not familiar with the work of Christopher Ehret in African historical linguistics, he is a premier scholar as well as an advocate for a wider appreciation of his field of specialization. As stated in the introduction, he has been working for forty years in the field of historical linguistics and is responsible individually or collaboratively for the reconstruction of most of the Nilo-Saharan and Afrasian (formerly Afroasiatic) language families. This book is a collection of previously published “greatest hits” of Ehret’s work, assembled here to convince a broader community of historians of the importance of linguistic historical work to history writ large. It is therefore a fitting contribution to the California World History Library series. Ehret’s new introduction makes a strong case for world historians and teachers of world history [End Page 666] to learn the basic methods and theories of historical linguistics in order to translate the findings of this field to larger questions of world population movements, innovations in agriculture and culture, and—perhaps most importantly from an Africanist perspective—reversing the long-standing myth of an “Asiatic” introduction of cultural innovation into the Horn and southeastern Sahel. If one gets anything from Ehret’s work it is his persistent insistence on the originality of African languages and cultures and the relative preexistence of African languages to similar developments in the Asian and European world.

Ehret’s work introduces us to the role of language “stratigraphy,” which he has reconstructed for the language families he studies, primarily the Nilo-Saharan and Afrasian families. Each language stratigraphy demonstrates when innovations in farming techniques and grazing of animals and new cultural practices were integrated into the various branches of each language tree. Importantly, language stratigraphy can also demonstrate the direction of innovation from one language family to another.

In chapter 3, for example, Ehret explains to the nonspecialist how historical linguists make decisions about changes in “economy, customs, cultural knowledge, or the material circumstances of life” by examining the particular stratigraphy of a language family and its branches. Ehret then uses this stratigraphy to determine when new vocabulary enters the branch, whether or not it is a borrowed word or an adaptation of an existing word to fit an innovation, and when the old words die out of the lexicon. In chapter five, Ehret introduces nonspecialists to “glottochronology,” a methodology for determining a language’s age by studying “long-term cumulative effects on lexical history” of changes in vocabulary. Ehret defends this method as a reasonable but not precise way to approximate the age of a language. This chapter is very helpful for those interested in explaining to students the dating of Bantu migrations, a fundamentally important aspect of African human geography and history, and to do so using Ehret’s evidence seems an improvement on the textbook emphasis on “migration” that lacks both sophistication and an appreciation of the “slowness” of the Bantu expansion as well as its impact on populations already present, such as the Khoisan in southern Africa and the Nilo-Saharan groups in northeastern Africa. Ehret discusses the adaptation and/or expansion of language families and branches in the context of these major changes in material culture, such as architecture or pottery, as demonstrated by archeological findings. A useful data table provides Ehret’s dating correlations for various African languages (p. 128).

The science of determining the age of language groups remains a [End Page 667] difficult one, but Ehret is not afraid to put forward his own hypotheses. For example, in chapter 6, Ehret shows that the Proto-Afrasian language family was likely around some fifteen thousand years ago, which makes it nine thousand years older than the Proto-Indo-European language, which Ehret places as “generally accepted” to have originated six thousand years ago (p. 145). As the recent debate over the dating of Indo-European language has shown (is it now four thousand or nine thousand years old...


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