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  • A Comparative Dictionary of the Agaw Languages by David Appleyard
  • Grover Hudson (bio)
A Comparative Dictionary of the Agaw Languages, by David Appleyard Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 2006; pp. x + 200. €34.80.

The dictionary has four parts: a 20-page introduction providing essential linguistic background; the dictionary of some 720 English-Agaw entries comparing words of the four principal Agaw varieties—Bilin, Kemant, Xamtanga (also known as Chamir), and Awngi (Awiya)—plus reconstructions, where possible, and discussion; as appendices, a list of reconstructed forms (about 400) and Agaw-English wordlists of the four Agaw varieties; and a four-page bibliography. Most entries of the dictionary include etymological notes and discussion, with word variants from the older literature, and possible cognates in other Afroasiatic languages. The Agaw-English wordlists are words of main entries but also those that arise in the discussion of these words.

The introduction is a concise review of Agaw-language studies, to which Appleyard has, for some time, been the principal contributor. It has three parts: “the Linguistic Context,” concerning the linguistic and geographic setting of the languages; “The Dictionary,” which explains how entries of the dictionary are constructed; and “The Basis for [End Page 225] Reconstructions,” which describes the author’s method of choosing comparisons and positing reconstructions.

The Agaws are thought to have been an early agricultural people and “culturally one of the most creative peoples in all of Africa.”1 Their languages are Cushitic, an Afroasiatic family spoken from Sudan (Beja) to Tanzania (e.g., Iraqw), but mainly in Ethiopia. Cushitic is often divided into four subgroups: Northern (Beja), Central (Agaw), Eastern (prominently Somali and Oromo), and Southern (a few languages of Kenya and Tanzania, thought by some to be better lumped with Eastern).

There are at least four Agaw languages, in Appleyard’s preferred spellings Bilin, Kemant, Xamtanta, and Awngi, a north to south listing, with Bilin spoken in western Eritrea and Awngi in north-central Ethiopia. A fifth variety, Kaïliña, is little documented and is thought by Appleyard to have a position intermediate to Kemant and Xamtanga. There are other named varieties probably best considered dialects of the above-mentioned, including Qwara or Falasha (a dialect of Kemant), the speech of the “Beta Israel” people long thought to have been a mysterious Ethiopian Jewish remnant. These Agaws were evacuated in the thousands to Israel in the 1990s, at a time of severe drought in northern Ethiopia. Their supposed Jewishness is probably a misinterpretation of their primitive Afroasiatic, early Christian, and locally modified Ethiopian Orthodox Christian practices.2

Bilin, a minority language in mainly Tigrinya-speaking Eritrea, now has a vigorous maintenance movement. Bilin and Xamtanga may each have as many as 100,000 speakers. Kemant is “severely endangered” (4), as its speakers have largely adopted Amharic as their native language. Awngi, according to the Ethiopian census, has over 300,000 speakers. Appleyard says the native speech of the Israeli Agaws “is moribund today, spoken by a mere handful of elderly people” (5).

Geographically, the Agaws inhabit “Cushitic islands in a Semitic sea,” and there are plentiful Agaw words with cognates in neighboring Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the traditional interpretation of which is that “Agaw languages form the principal and oldest traceable substratum of these Semitic languages” (vii). Agaw Bilin is neighbor to Semitic Tigre. Xamtanga, Kemant, and Awngi are today surrounded by Amharic, but the former two are near-neighbors to Tigrinya. In ancient times, Aksumite Kingdom Ge’ez may have influenced all four. [End Page 226]

The introduction continues with “a brief typology of the Agaw languages” (rich inflectional, case-marking, subject-object-verb), discussion of the content and format of dictionary entries, and explanation of the author’s method of reconstruction, including a reconstruction of the Proto-Agaw phoneme inventory and a thorough listing and exemplification of sound changes.

Dictionary entries are principally Agaw translation equivalents of some 720 English words in the four varieties Bilin, Xamtanga, Kemant, and Awngi. A few entries are represented by words of only two of these, but by all four for the large majority. Appleyard’s own fieldwork is the primary source for words of...


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