Contact and genesis: a research program.
Robert Nicolaï


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I. Theoretical framework : the invariables of language change..

The multilingual approach..
The intertwined communities..
The 'finely layered range' of codes..
Detachment and homogenization.
The anthropological setting..
Medial space..

II. Application to the study of sahelo-saharian-sudanes espace of contact.

Starting point.
The context.
History of genetic relations hypothesis.
Theoretical implications.

III. Correlative openings.

The research program presented here is based on a renewed theoretical framework in which the reference to languages contact is inextricably linked to their genesis, and which takes all the anthropological significant dimensions in this dynamics into account - which is not the case today.

This perspective is based on my own scientific work, and on those I have carried out with my german, czech, austrian and italian colleagues within the GDRE 1172 of CNRS I created in 1995. It is linked on one hand to linguistic and sociolinguistic research into linguistic contact, mixed languages (Thomason, Bakker, Muyskens, Mous, etc.) and the dynamics of their transformations, and on the other hand to research into paradigms concerned with languages evolution.

The way of questioning about this matter of fact must be reconsidered. New spaces of empirical description "emerge" according to the change in theoretical perspective. They must be analysed through field work and the study of the analysis framework must be taken further.

So, I shall -naturally- start by the end to present my program. That is to say starting from this unconventional synthesis made of elaborated theoretical propositions to apprehend the object to be described. Then, I shall propose practical directions for the empirical situations involved in this modification of the framework. I must point out that this project concerns the continuation of the elaboration of the theoretical framework outlined here and the re-investment of (african or not) linguistic fields which contributed to its creation at the same time.

I. Theoretical Framework : The invariables of language change.

Linguistic situations of mixed languages, creole forms, and other mixed-like linguistic configurations, areal convergence and the recent discussion of the regularity hypothesis within the comparative method have shown the need for analytical models of language change which give suitable priority regarding language contact and social behavioral contexts in processes of linguistic communication. Such considerations have, of course, never been totally ignored; yet they have often been treated as epiphenomenal. Consequently, contact phenomena have been described as (unnecessarily) complicating a simple situation, rather than as part of a basically complex initial state of affairs.
   Must we accept that linguistic processes can be correctly apprehended only on the basis of the theoretical a priori hypothesis that the right way to start is by postulating a homogeneous structural system? Or would we not be wiser to avoid such reductionism and try to set out from an initial postulate of complexity? This choice of initial postulate is fundamental insofar as it must affect the framework for the explanation of the observed phenomena, as we shall see below from the interconnection of the themes which I shall develop within the framework of an avowedly multilingual approach, - thus favoring complexity.

1) The Multilingual approach.

Multilingualism and/or multidialectalism are both fundamental to, and commonplace in language in general: this is the canonical situation for the description of linguistic communication and the analysis of the processes it involves.

The need to deal with more than one linguistic and/or other code is evident even in such extreme situations as monolingual groups which reject everything extraneous and condemn all departures from the norm (e.g., the Bororo Fulani, teenagers groups, etc.). This ineluctable diversity of codes is one of the necessary conditions of symbolic behavior in general and language behavior (the interaction of language use and language structure) in particular. This is why it must be brought to the fore in all analytical discussions.

The apparently simpler option of taking monolingualism as the normal state of affairs is the result of a rationalization which cannot account for the commonest situations of communication and hence fails to provide the means for describing them properly. Indeed, the analytical process is thereby blinded insofar as the dynamics of multilingualism cannot be (re)constructed by the mere induction of complexity from a set of juxtaposed monolingual situations. On the other hand, the inversion of the canonical situation suggested here allows to shroud monolinguism, defining it as a simple specific situation, part of a multilingualism configuration.

Considering this point of view, I shall always have in mind the importance of considering the large number of codes available in a specific situation, whether they are part of the same language or not.

2) The intertwined communities.

The communities within which language processes take place are likewise not homogeneous. They must therefore be considered to be areas of contact by definition, whose features predetermine the processes of communication. Consequently, a general condition of heterogeneity must be regarded as an elementary principle of language behavior. For this reason, we shall consider the relevance of the notion of intertwined communities (which focuses on 'texture', structure, and connections types) rather than the notion of community (which focuses on division and boundaries). Therefore, the first purpose is to study exchange and contact between langages spoken by intertwined communities, appearing in the interplay of available repertories, and not the linguistic structure as homogeneous.

So, the community is variably defined through the notion of boundaries, part of a linguistic exchange, as the community is a notion derived from it. Consequently, the heterogeneity condition, as an elementary principle of language use, states that every situation of a communicative exchange in a functional area has to be considered potentially multilingual / multidialectal.

- the situation of linguistic contact is really part of the constitution of the community. Even in a textbook case where there would be no inner differenciation ('lectal' and/or social), the differenciation would arise de facto;
- Linguistic exchanges (and dynamics) necessarly exceed the framework of a given community who would appear homogeneous. This means that the boundary which can be the language, the dialect, or any other "-lect", and which appears essential, is finally a social result manipulated and structured according to the strategic needs of the moment.

3) Repertory.

The invidual and/or community repertory of codes (rather than of 'languages') constitutes a continuum for linguistic rearrangement. This continuum is not a finite space: it can always be structurally replicated merely through the use made of it, reintegrating for example forms that already exist (reconstitution of forms, anaphorization, creation of tradition, and so on). Therefore, we notice the emergence of a "finely layered range" of codes, within the repertory, inherent to the functionalization of both language and languages.

4) The 'finely layered range' of codes.

It concerns both linguistic entities of a structure in its functional necessity (cf. alternative utterances, etc.) and positive signs functionalized in an emblematic system whose construction or rejection is a possible stake (various markers). The 'finely layered range' of codes represents the potential, for a linguistic repertory, to re-elaborate the value of linguistic varieties and language activities constituted through the refunctionalization of linguistic forms and discursive and behavioral fragments that are available. This notion is based on two hypothesis:

- in a variable boundary defined de facto by exchange and whatever the number of layers a priori considered (cf. intertwining of languages, codes, usages, forms, norms, interpretations, etc.), there is always a possible restructuration of the whole, with no necessary resort to the outside.
- it is always possible to add or to remove a new layer, by the simple "autonymic" process of pointing out a particular speech production expressed before (anaphorization ?, interdiscursivity ?).

It allows to consider the superposition, the intertwining and the multiplicity of the repertory usages and varieties (the repertory cannot be identifiable to a simple and comprehensive inventory of codes) without a priori attributing a structural homogeneity to them. Therefore, the 'finely layered range' of codes is at the same time the result and the object of a constant stratification which is an outcome of the usage of codes. And this does not necessarly follow constitutive regularities that could allow to guess the development of the layers and the form they will show. Focusing on speakers repertories, rather than on the inventory of their "languages" will highlight a main point: conscious or infra conscious, "negociated" or not norms of usage, and linguistic varieties, along the - identity or not - ruptures, groupings, and various necessities, shall define each other, contrast with each other, and become dependent to each other.
In this perspective, the "finely layered range" of codes applies to "cognitively and semioticly available" objects which are necessarly forms, structures and processes, variably accepted according to their relevance, and meeting variable functionalities requirements.

5) Detachment and homogenization.

The "finely layered range" of codes can also be seen as an operation of detachment independent of linguistic boundaries; in this case, it has to be linked to other operations whose necessity is obvious in the dynamics of linguistic change and the constitution of systems. That is what I call "homogenization operations", such as processes of semantax and metatypy, respectively developed by Manessy (1995) et Ross (1997, 2001).

As these notions are not known by everyone and as they are necessary for my demonstration, I shall say a few words about them: Manessy (1995), considering the genesis of creole languages, has proposed to explain the formal similarity which can be observed in the elaboration of certain syntactic categories in those languages by the fact that the languages spoken by populations belonging to the same civilization area can take over the same characteristics, but this doesn't mean that they share a genetic relationship or the use of common grammatical processes. They experience the same reference to the same modes of categorization. That's what he has called 'semantax'. On the other hand, M. Ross (1997, 2001) has developed the notion of 'metatypy' (or semantics-syntactic borrowing) : it is a linguistic change cognitive process (close to the one called "calque" but it is more sophisticated) resulting from long-term contact between languages in which the vernacular language of a bi- or multilingual group of speakers is restructured according to a lingua franca they use to communicate with speakers who are not part of their group.

Unlike the "finely layered range" of codes process, which concerns detachment, those two processes are linked to the homogenization of forms and structures in the speakers repertory. The main point here is to keep in mind the hypothesis that a dynamic connection, through the "social fact" in which it takes part and that it contributes to create, binds the individual to the group in the "cultured" exploiting of his potentialities. Semantactic and metatypic data, although they are articulated upon different substratums (constant space, 'equilibrium' for the metatypy, space of rupture, 'punctuation' for the semantax) both actualize the dynamics which highlight "taught ways" and "on-going organizations", and which refer to the same contingent dynamics. But where do those operations of detachment and homogenization arise?

6) The anthropological setting.

The multicode dimension of verbal exchange as canonical situation of communication, the intertwined communities as space of contact by definition, the open repertory actualizing the necessary and constant "finely layered range" of forms, linguistic norms and structures: here are the references which can become the framework for an optimal study of dynamics of languages and their transformations; but the main point is still missing, I mean taking into account the actual place to which these structural references apply. Because the dynamics are necessarily situated, contextualized. And if above these few principles, we can point out some regularities and conceptualizations, if we can conceive of some organized operations such as "finely layered range" of codes, semantax and metatypy, it is thanks to an induction based on historically and empirically testified dynamics in a constantly evolving social organization.

Thus, it is in an always particular anthropological setting, in a specific, conventional, always contingent and "historicized" space, that the linguistic dynamics occur; this setting is the context of the actualization of any transformation, and can be defined as substratum space. But the most important point is maybe that these notions are considered outside of the framework of the strict reference to the "language" and/or to the "faculty of language": by definition, the reference here is multicode and the meaning context is predetermined by external constraints.
Considering the heterogeneity condition and the multiplicity of available codes whose I have mentioned, at the beginning, the theoretical value, is satisfying. Then, the cognitive dynamics includes here all the available anthropological dimensions. And the boundaries, representations and other meaning spaces systems which are created and transformed within this dynamics, have to be considered according to this expanding field.

It means that the dynamics of linguistic change and the dynamics of multilingual discursivity strategically determined (code switching, etc.), wether they are sociolinguistically functionalized or not, can be actualized and understood within an anthropological-cultural space integrating the heterogeneity condition and its implications, and not within a simple linguisitic boundary dealing with simple contact effects. The "finely layered range" of codes and its "ever open" aspect is essential to every repertory, and the detachment operation is one of the factor in its "enrichment". Thus, the heterogeneity condition I mentioned at the beginning and the "multicode" premise as canonical situation of any linguistic actualization can be considered both in a practical and theoretical way.

7) The medial space.

These processes are linked to a complex dynamics which can be defined in another integrating system of linguistic expressions, which I call the 'medial space'. Nurtured, bounding and not immediate, it must be hierarchically considered as higher than the structural framework of linguistic organizations and higher than the cognitive schematizations framework considered in a "located" anthropologically setting. The medial space is linked to a particular setting in which - conceptually - neither the "subject", nor the "individual", nor the "speaker", nor the "group", nor the "network", nor the "community" appears, but something really different: the homo loquens, an "active entity" whose activity has not been described yet. It is an entity "without conscience", but necessarily endowed with "memory" and normative references defined in an different system from the one where the structural dynamics of languages occurs. This entity finds a place in an anthropological space whose limits are not the ones of a language boundary since it depends on linguistic, cognitive and cultural dimensions at the same time.

Thus, the homo loquens is a player (cognitively and historitically defined, but not linguistically determined) on anthropological-linguistic structures. They are (re)structured and (re)defined, both necessarily and currently, in a communicative space open through the selection and the constant restructuration of (identifiable -positively or not-) cultural attested "markers" and / or more or less elaborated structures. These markers occur - but not exclusively - both in effects of linguitic permanency and in restructurations and reorganizations of languages. That is to say, through what I have called the "finely layered range" of the available repertory.

II. Application to the study of sahelo-saharian-sudanese space of contact.

The point is to study the dynamics of languages in the sahelo-saharian-sudanese space of contact, on a renewed empirical basis. This should lead us to validate or invalidate the hypothesis I have proposed so far, which, in any case, challenge the traditional hypothesis. Our field of investment particularly concerns the "long-distance and historicized" data: substratum formations, areas of convergence, "linguistic islets", isolates, lingua franca formations, constitutions of languages, etc. ; but correlatively, it also takes into account sociolinguistic advances (formation of emerging linguistic varieties, systems of marking, differenciation and appropriation; symbolic dimensions of codes constitution approach). There after are presented the main justifications of this new approach.

Starting point.

I have started with the data provided by the songhay languages through the "objective chance" of a particular research situation: because the latest states of the comparative research in this field confirm (in an unexpected way compared with the established doxa) the hypothesis of a particular link between songhay languages and Afro-Asiatic languages, and allow to show the reality of a linguistic and populations contact situation in its empirical complexity. I haven't tried to know the traditional "bastions" of Afro-Asiatic languages further, I haven't studied the languages around (for example, chadic or cushitic), I haven't considered the elaborations of mixed languages (northern songhay, kinubi, juba-arabic, ma'a, etc.). I have decided to view the situation beyond the attested linguistic boundaries, and that is how I could reach this new dynamics of research. This way, the linguistic contact in the sahelo-saharian-sudenese space must be considered in a renewed perspective, which calls into question a part of the general problematics of the classification of languages and their modalities of evolution in a multilingual context.

Pratically, this decision was based on the results of the research I started in the early 90's, and (partly) thanks to the using of lexical data on a large scale, particularly with sofware MARIAMA, developed with this aim, and to the dialectologic data of sahelo-saharian SAHELIA, made at the Université de Nice, through a long-term international collaboration within the GDRE 1172 of CNRS, as mentioned above.

The context.

Songhay languages mainly spread around the loop of the Niger river, with the Gourma in the south, and the Sahara in the north. In this area, there are ancient contacts between arabic-berber and negro-african populations; thus, regarding their traditional functionalities, songhay varieties spoken in cities such as Gao or Timbuktoo are important lingua francas in the loop of the Niger river and the riverside regions. These languages have never been considered as genealogically related to the Afro-Asiatic family by anyone: the only comparisons are not based on a strict genealogical relation with this family but on a complex "non-linear" relation caused by contact.

History of genealogical relations hypothesis.

Beyond this matter of fact, the relation between Songhay and the Nilo-Saharan family, asserted by the greenbergian doxa (1964), has been debated (Lacroix : 1969, Nicolaï : 1990) and then apparently "confirmed" by studies concerning the whole nile-saharan family (Bender : 1995, Ehret : 2001). Therefore, the latest research (Nicolaï : 2003) has completely challenged the studies considering songhay as part of the Nilo-Saharan family conducted so far: the hypothesis put forward cannot be acceptable, because of the models and methods chosen, because of their presuppositions, and because of the kind of data that have been used. This study shows that there is a large lexicon of seemingly Afro-Asiatic origin in Songhay which can be reduced neither to arabic loan words, nor to specific phenomena of spreading from languages in contact. It includes a central vocabulary in the ordinary communication and does not concern isolated units but entire lexical fields. Finally, Songhay is now "redirected" to the Afro-Asiatic field, but this does not mean it is genetically related to the languages of this family!

Before taking this study further, we can already state (Nicolaï : 2003) that Songhay was possibly resulting from the complex evolution of a lingua franca, of an old variety (whose specific origin has not been determined yet - berber, more or less old semitic, ethio-semitic or other-). This variety, not necessarily homogeneous itself, probably simplified, would have stabilized after non afro-asiatic populations would have taken it over.

Correlatively, this allows to understand better the attested presence of "cultural" or "basic" lexical entries in Songhay, which have something to do with the Niger-Congo languages group. In the same way, the common typological structures proper to Mande languages are a sign of the origin of the populations who have nativized Songhay.

The hypothesis of the constitution of a language (and not of the transformation and / or evolution) shown by Songhay facts lies within the framework of generally attested criteria for the devolpement of stabilized pidgins. It also shows the lexical relation concerning the basic vocabulary, as well as the impossibility to properly draft strict phonetic correspondences. Correlatively, its lingua franca status, the anthropological variety of the populations who use it, the coherence of this reality compared with what we know about the medieval african world, are historical indications in accordance with this hypothesis.

At the same time, one of the interesting consequences of this study which involves the exclusion of Songhay from the Nilo-Saharan languages also leads to other problems, and particularly to call into question the ilo-Saharan group as a family of languages genetically related.

Theoretical implications.

In a theoretical perspective, these results have allowed, in a particularly complex field, to highlight the diversity of the explanatory factors which come into play in the explanation of an evolution (of the evolution?), and to point out some methological options:

It is necessary to take into account the global relevance of the effect of linguistic and populations contact to understand evolution. Speaking of "diffusion", of "contact", of "convergence" is useful only if it is explained further, if it is "contextualized". "Diffusion" in itself, "convergence" in itself and "contact" in itself, and even creolization or pidginization "in itself" do not mean anything.

It is inadequate to consider linguistic aspects only, if you wish to properly apprehend the evolutive dynamics. Considering main sociolinguistic functionalities without taking care of the dynamics resulting from individual micro-interactions is not satisfying either, even if the theoretical and practical tools to take this matter of fact into account remain to be elaborated.


The scope of our research includes other questionings: when we only have little historical information about a a period which does not last more than a thousand years, what does this approach concerning Songhay teach us about history of populations and regional languages, and about the dynamics of linguistic systems? What can we learn about linguistics of contacts and cognitive processes in systems transformations? That is what we shall see through the study of all correlated lexical data, linked to typological and structural considerations correlatively led. It will (maybe?) allow us to reach a "historical" vision concerning the songhay and mandé languages field and their relation to the afro-asiatic world.

III. Correlative openings.

The african area is not the only one where we can find interesting empirical data, which can be linked to the set of themes I have presented in the theoretical part of this program. There is also a complementary questioning field in the "globally sociolinguistic" study: situations of potential emergence of linguistic forms in France and its - strongly multicultural or not - areas.

Therefore, the aim is to develop empirical work and research supervisions in these particular areas, where things appear clearer and faster. What is the most important to apprehend about "languages" and "linguistic contacts" is the variable linguistic re-elaboration process, in which are constantly created network systems and representations thanks to ad hoc, divided and restructured, contextually defined and redefined symbols. Where can we find this kind of process? There are specific situations, particularly those which give concrete expression to linguistic contact due to the speakers bilingualism, whatever the boundary may be: "multilingual" or not communities, groups defined or not according to this criterion. That is to say this process can be found everywhere. But it does not mean it is the same everywhere because of course, we also have to take into account the specificity and the creation of each boundary in its constant variability, specific characteristics of positions and projections concerning "in context" functionalized identity representations, because they are important, and potentially "typifying", factors of differenciation.