Voices from the Grave: Dying languages and the complexity of the Mambiloid group

Bruce Connell

Versions of this paper were presented at the Edinburgh Linguistic Circle in May 1995 and at the Leiden Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics in August 1995. Subsequently, further fieldwork in the Mambila region has provided additional data and, while not changing most of the main conclusions of the early paper, it has prompted a re-write of the paper. A revised version of the paper may be posted at a later date.


The Mambiloid language group constitutes a major branch of North Bantoid (Blench 1993), and as such is assumed to be one of the closest non-Bantu relatives of Bantu, having the same common parent, Bantoid.

Diagram One: A chart of the Bantoid group

The unity of this group and its relation to Bantu was first postulated in Williamson (1971), and has since been accepted by Greenberg (1974), and Bennett and Sterk (1977) as well as in most subsequent research. However very little is actually known both of the internal make-up of the group and of the postulated relation to Bantu, and little in the way of concrete evidence has been presented to justify claims which have been made. This paper is a preliminary report of research designed to fill the gaps in our knowledge of these languages. Results of recent fieldwork in West Africa which show the Mambiloid group to be more complex than previously believed are presented, together with discussion of the implications of this research for the historical reconstruction of earlier stages of the Mambiloid group and for the prehistory of the Mambila region of Cameroon and Nigeria. To this end, data from a number of hitherto unreported languages is presented. As many of these languages are nearly extinct, attention is drawn to the urgency of adequately documenting endangered languages before their potential contribution to both linguistic and culture history is irretrievably lost.

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Updated Monday, May 27, 1996