Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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TEKABE Legesse Feleke, University of Verona, Italy

Ethiosemitic languages are variants of the Semitic language family which are spoken in Ethiopia and in Eritrea. They are classified into North and South Ethiosemitic. The North branch consists of Ge'ez, Tigre and Tigrigna while the South Ethiosemtic includes Amharic, Argoba, Harari and several Gurage varieties. Many of the Ethiosemtic languages are closely related, and the speakers of one variety can sometimes communicate with the speakers of other varieties. The relative distance (Bender, 1971; Fleming, 1968; Hudson, 2013) and mutual intelligibility (Gutt 1980; Ahland, 2003) among the languages previously received some attention. There were also attempts to classify the languages based on shared features (e.g. Demeke, 2001; Hetzron, 1972, 1977; Laslau, 1969). However, previous studies have some shortcomings. First, not all languages were included the studies. Second, the classification proposals were not supported by sufficient data. Third, the classification attempts were hampered by a complex intermingling among the languages and inherent limitations of the methods. Hence, the reported results are somehow inconsistent and often debatable. The present study employed combinations of lexicostatistics, Levenshtien distance, intelligibility measures and geographical distance to determine the distance and mutual intelligibility among 13 South Ethiosemitic languages: Chaha, Geyto, Harari, Silt’e, Wolane, Mesmes, Soddo, Amharic, Argoba, Muher, Innor. Zay, and Mesqan. The study intended to (1) re-examine the previous classification of the languages; (2) determine the relationship between geographical and linguistic distance; and (3) examine the relationship between language distance and mutual intelligibility. Lexical and Levenshtien distances were computed based on 80 lists of vocabularies. The intelligibility scores were taken from Ahland, (2003) and Gutt (1980). The lexical distance was determined by computing the average of the percentage of non-cognate words in pairs of languages. The Levenshtein distance was determined by computing the cost-insertion, substitution, and deletion required to transform a pronunciation of one word to another. GabMap was employed for computation of the distance, cluster analysis, and multidimensional scaling. The geographical distance among the language areas was obtained from Google Earth. The results show that the lexical and phonetic distances among the languages are almost consistent with the typological classifications proposed by Demeke (2001) and Hetzron (1972). However, Harari, Mesmes and Soddo have shown deviations from the previous classifications. This deviation is associated with the influence of substrate Cushitic languages. Strong association was also found between language distance and geographical distance which implies a complex areal diffusion among the languages. There is also a significant relationship between lexical distance and mutual intelligibility, but no significant relationship is found between the phonetic distance and mutual intelligibility. This result implies a crucial role the meaning of words play in determining the mutual intelligibility among the South Ethiosemitic languages.