Friday, January 25, 2013

The Linguistic Methods of Chiekh Anta Diop

By Clyde Winters

Chiekh Anta Diop has contributed much to the Afrocentric social sciences. Here we discuss many of Diop's views on using the linguistic sciences to rediscover the ancient history of Blacks.

Chiekh Anta Diop has made important contributions to linguistic theory in relation to African historiography. Diop's work illustrates that it is important for scholars to maintain a focus on the historical and linguistic factors which define the "personnalitè culturelle africaine" (Diop 1991, 227).

Language is the sanctum sanctorum of Diop's Afrocentric historical method. The Diopian view of historiography combines the research of linguistics, history and psychology to interpret the cultural unity of African people.

C. Anta Diop is the founder of modern Afrocentricism . Diop (1974,1991) laid the foundations for the Afrocentric idea in education. He laid these foundations using both the historical and anthropological/linguistic methods of research to explain the role of the Blacks in World History.

There are three components in the genetic model: 1) common Physical type, 2) common cultural patterns and 3) genetically related languages. (Winters 1989a) Diop over the years has brought to bear all three of these components in his illumination of Kemetic civilization. (Diop 1974,1977,1978,1991)

The opposition of many Eurocentric scholars to Afrocentric -ism results from white hostility to Diop's idea of a Black Egypt, and the view that Egyptians spoke an African, rather than Afro-Asiatic language.

Recently, Eurocentric American scholars have alleged to write reviews of Diop's recent book (Diop 1991). Although these reviewers mention the work of Diop in their articles, they never review his work properly, because they lack the ability to understand the many disciplines that Diop has mastered.(Lefkowitz 1992; Baines 1991)

For example Lefkowitz (1992) in The New Republic, summarizes

Diop (1974) but never presents any evidence to dispute the findings of Diop. The most popular "review" of Diop (1991) was done by Baines (1991) review in the New York Times Book Review. In this "review" Baines (1991) claims that "...the evidence and reasoning used to support the arguments are often unsound".

Instead of addressing the evidence Diop (1991) presents of the African role in the rise of civilization that he alleges is "unsound", he is asking the reader to reject Diop's thesis without refutation of specific evidence presented by Diop of the

African contributions to Science and Philosophy. Baines (l991) claims that Diop's Civilization or Barbarism is not a work of originality, yet he fails to dispute any factual evidence presented by Diop.

Baines (1991) wants the public to accept his general negative comments about Civilization or Barbarism, based on the fact that he is an Egyptologist. This is not enough, in academia. To refute a thesis one must present counter evidence that proves the falseness of a thesis not unsubstantiated rhetoric. We can not accept the negative views of Baines on faith alone.

In the recovery of information concerning the African past, Diop promotes semantic anthropology, comparative linguistics and the study of Onomastics. The main thesis of Diop is that typonymy and ethnonymy of Africa point to a common cradle for Paleo-Africans in the Nile Valley (Diop 1978, 67).

Onomastics is the science of names. Diop has studied legends, place names and religious cult terms to discover the unity of African civilization. Diop (1981, 86) observed that:

"An undisputed linguistic relationship between two geographically remote groups of languages can be relevant for the study of migrations. A grammatical (or genetic) relationship if clear enough is never an accident".

As a result, Diop has used toponyms (place names), anthroponyms (personal names) and ethnonyms (names of ethnic groups/tribes) to explain the evidence of analogous ethnic (clan) names in West Africa and the Upper Nile (Diop 1991).

In Precolonial Black Africa, Diop used ethnonyms to chart the migrations of African people in West Africa. And in The African Origin of Civilization, Diop used analyses acculturaliste or typological analysis to study the origin and spread of African cultural features from the Nile Valley to West Africa through his examination of toponyms (Diop 1974, 182-183). In the Cultural Unity of Black Africa, Diop discussed the common totems and religious terms many African ethnic groups share (Diop 1978, 124).


This linguistic research has been based on linguistic classification or taxonomy. Linguistic taxonomy is the foundation upon which comparative and historical linguistic methods are based (Ruhlen 1994). Linguistic taxonomy is necessary for the identification of language families. The determination of language families give us the material to reconstruct the proto-language of a people and discover regular sound correspondences.

There are three major kinds of language classifications: genealogical, typological, and areal. A genealogical classifica-tion groups languages together into language families based on the shared features retained by languages since divergence from the common ancestor or proto-language. An areal classification groups languages into linguistic areas based on shared features acquired by a process of convergence arising from spatial proximity. A typological classification groups languages together into language types by the similarity in the appearance of the structure of languages without consideration of their historical origin and present, or past geographical distribution.


Diop has used comparative and historical linguistics to illuminate the Unity of African civilization. Diop (1977, xxv) has noted that

"The process for the evolution of African languages is clearly apparent; from a far we (have) the idea that Wolof is descendant by direct filiation to ancient Egyptian, but the Wolof, Egyptian and other African languages (are) derived from a common mother language that one can call Paleo-African, the common mother language that one can call Paleo-African, the common African or the Negro-African of L. Homburger or of Th. Obenga."

The comparative method is used by linguists to determine the relatedness of languages, and to reconstruct earlier language states. The comparative linguist has two major goals (1) trace the history of language families and reconstruct the mother language of each family, and (2) determine the forces which affect language. In general, comparative linguists are interested in determining phonetic laws, analogy/ correspondence and loan words.

Diop is a strong supporter of the comparative method in the rediscovery of Paleo-African. The reconstruction of Paleo-African involves both reconstruction and recognition of regular sound correspondence. The goal of reconstruction is the discovery of the proto-language of African people is the recovery of Paleo-African:

(1) vowels and consonants

(2) specific Paleo-African words

(3) common grammatical elements; and

(4) common syntactic elements.

The comparative method is useful in the reconstruction of Proto-languages or Diop's Paleo-African. To reconstruct a proto-language the linguist must look for patterns of correspondences. Patterns of correspondence is the examination of terms which show uniformity. This uniformity leads to the inference that languages are related since uniformity of terms leads to the inference that languages are related since conformity of terms in two or more languages indicate they came from a common ancestor.


A person's language provides us with evidence of the elements of a group's culture. Diop has noted that reconstruction of Paleo-African terms can help us make inferences about a group's culture going backwards in time to an impenetrable past undocumented by written records. This is semantic anthropology, a linguistic approach which seeks to discover aspects of man's culture from his language. Thusly, linguistic resemblances can help the anthropologist make precise inferences about a groups culture elements.

Linguistic resemblances denote a historical relationship. This suggest that resemblances in fundamental vocabulary and culture terms can help one reconstruct the culture of the speakers of genetically related languages.


The rate at which languages change is variable. It appears that linguistic change is culture specific. Consequently, the social organization and political culture of a particular speech community can influence the speed at which languages change.

Based on the history of language change in Europe most linguists believe that the rate of change for all languages is both rapid and constant.(Diagne, 1981,p.238) The idea that all languages change rapidly is not valid for all the World's languages.

African languages change much slower than European languages. (Armstrong, 1962) For example, African vocabulary items collected by Arab explorers over a thousand years ago are analogous to contemporary lexical items.(Diagne,1981, p.239) In addition there are striking resemblances between the ancient Egyptian language and Coptic, and Pharonic Egyptian and African languages.(Diagne, 1981; Diop, 1977; Obenga, 1993)

The political stability of African political institutions has caused languages to change very slowly in Africa. Pawley and Ross (1993) argue that a sedentary life style may account for the conservative nature of a language.

African oral traditions and the eye witness accounts of travelers to Africa, make it clear that African empires although made up of diverse nationalities illustrated continuity. To accomodate the plural nature of African empires Africans developed a Federal system of government. (Niane , 1984) In fact we can not really describe ancient African state systems as empires, since this implies absolute rule or authority in a single individual. This political state of affairs rarely existed in ancient Africa, because in each African speech community local leadership was elected by the people within the community. (Diop, 1987) For example the Egyptians often appointed administrators over the conquered territories from among the conquered people. (Diop ,1991)

The continuity of many African languages may result from the steady state nature of African political systems, and long standing cultural stability since neolithic times. (Diop, 1991; Winters 1985) This cultural stability has affected the speed at which African languages change.

In Africa due to the relative stability of socio-political structures and settled life, there has not been enough pressure exerted on African societies as a whole and African speech communities in particular, to cause radical internal linguistic changes within most African languages. Permanent settlements led to a clearly defined system of inheritance and royal succession. These traits led to stability on both the social and political levels.

This leads to the hypothesis that linguistic continuity exist in Africa due to the stability of African socio-political structures and cultural systems. This relative cultural stability has led African languages to change more slowly then European and

Asian languages. Diop (1974) observed that:

First the evolution of languages, instead of moving everywhere at the same rate of speed seems linked to other factors; such as , the stability of social organizations or the opposite, social upheavals. Understandably in relatively stable societies man's language has changed less with the passage of time.(pp.153-154)

There is considerable evidence which supports the African continuity concept. Dr. Armstrong (1962) noted the linguistic continuity of African languages when he used glottochronology to test the rate of change in Yoruba. Comparing modern Yoruba words with a list of identical terms collected 130 years ago by Koelle , Dr. Armstrong found little if any internal or external changes in the terms. He concluded that:

I would have said that on this evidence African languages are changing with glacial slowness, but it seems to me that in a century a glacier would have changed a lot more than that. Perhaps it would be more in order to say that these languages are changing with geological slowness. (Armstrong, 1962, p.285).

Diop's theory of linguistic constancy recognizes the social role language plays in African language change. Language being a variable phenomena has as much to do with a speaker's society as with the language itself. Thus social organization can influence the rate of change within languages. Meillet (1926, 17) wrote that:

Since language is a social institution it follows that linguistics is a social science, and the only variable element to which one may appeal in order to account for a linguistic change is social change, of which language variations are but the consequences.


Diop has contributed much to African linguistics. He was a major proponent of the Dravidian-African relationship (Diop 1974, 116), and the African substratum in Indo-European languages in relationship to cacuminal sounds and terms for social organiza-tion and culture (1974, 115). Diop (1978, 113) also recognized that in relation to Arabic words, after the suppression of the first consonant, there is often an African root.

Diop's major linguistic effort has been the classification of Black African and Egyptian languages . Up until 1977 Diop'smajor area of interest were morphological and phonological similarities between Egyptian and Black African languages. Diop (1977, 77-84) explains many of his sound laws for the Egyptian-Black African connection.

In Parènte Génétique de l'Egyptien pharraonique et des Langues Négro Africaines (PGEPLNA), Diop explains in some detail

his linguistic views in the introduction of this book. In PGEPLNA , Diop demonstrates the genetic relationship between ancient Egyptian and the languages of Black Africa. Diop provides thousands of cognate Wolof and Egyptian terms in support of his Black African-Egyptian linguistic relationship.


African languages are divided into Supersets (i.e., a family of genetically related languages, e.g., Niger-Congo) sets, and subsets. In the sets of African languages there are many parallels between phonological terms, eventhough there may be an arbitrary use of consonants which may have a similar sound. The reason for these changes is that when the speakers of Paleo-African languages separated, the various sets of languages underwent separate developments. As a result a /b/ sound in one language may be /p/ or /f/ in a sister language. For example, in African languages the word for father may be baba , pa or fa, while in the Dravidian languages we have appan to denote father.

Diop has noted that reconstruction of Paleo-African terms can help us make inferences about an ethnic group's culture going backwards in time to an impenetrable past undocumented by written records. This is semantic anthropology, a linguistic approach which seeks to discover aspects of man's culture from his language. Thusly, linguistic resemblances can help the anthropologists make precise inferences about a linguistic group's cultural elements.


In PGEPLNA Diop makes clear his views on the role of African languages in the rise of other languages. Using archaeological evidence Diop makes it clear that the original West Asians: Elamites and Sumerians were of Black origin (1974, 1977, xxix-xxxvii).

Diop (1974, 1991) advocates the unity of Black Africans

and Blacks in West Asia. Winters (1985,1989,1994) has elaborated on the linguistic affinity of African and West Asian languages.

This view is supported by linguistic evidence. For example these languages share demonstrative bases:

Proximate Distant Finite

Dravidian i a u

Manding i a u

Sumerian bi a

Wolof i a u

The speakers of West Asian and Black African languages also share basic culture items:

Chief city, village black, burnt

Dravidian cira, ca uru kam

Elamite Salu

Sumerian Sar ur

Manding Sa furu kami,"charcoal'

Nubia sirgi mar

Egyptian Sr mer kemit

Paleo-African *sar *uru *kam


Obenga (1978) gives a phonetic analysis of Black African and Egyptian. He illustrates the genetic affinity of consonants within the Black African (BA) and Egyptian languages especially the occlusive bilateral sonorous, the occlusive nasal apico-dental /n/ and /m/ , the apico-alveolar /r/ and the radical

proto-form sa: 'man, female, posterity' in Black Africa.


Agaw asau, aso 'masculine

Sidama asu 'man'

Oromo asa id.

Caffino aso id.

Yoruba so 'produce'

Meroitic s' man

Fonge sunu id.

Bini eso 'someone'

Kikongo sa,se,si 'father'

Swahili (m)zee 'old person'

Egyptian sa 'man'

Manding si,se 'descendant,posterity,family'

Azer se 'individual, person'

Obenga (1978) also illustrated the unity between the verbs 'to come, to be, to arrive':


Egyptian ii, ey Samo, Loma dye

Mbosi yaa Bisa gye

Sidama/Omo wa Wolof nyeu

Caffino wa Peul yah, yade

Yoruba wa Fonge wa

Bini ya Mpongwe bya

Manding ya,dya Swahili (Ku)ya

between t =/= d, highlight the alternation patterns of many Paleo-African consonants including b =/= p, l =/= r ,and

g =/= k.

The Egyptian term for grain is 0 sa #. This corresponds to many African terms for seed, grain:

Galla senyi

Malinke se , si

Sumerian se

Egyptian sen 'granary'

Kannanda cigur

Bozo sii

Bambara sii

Daba sisin

Somali sinni

Loma sii

Susu sansi

Oromo sanyi

Dime siimu

Egyptian ssr 'corn'

id. ssn 'lotus plant'

id. sm 'herb, plant'

id. isw 'weeds'

In conclusion, Diop has done much to encourage the African recovery of their history. His theories on linguistics has inspired many African scholars to explain and elaborate the African role in the history of Africa and the world. This has made his work important to our understanding of the role of Black people in History.


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Related reading:  What Color was Abraham?Recovering the African Background of Genesis; The Nilotic Substrata of Genesis 1; The Bible and the Question of Race; The Proto-Elamite ScriptIs Hebrew an African Language?


Jason said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm largely ignorant of Diop's work, and will now seek it out for research.

Alice C. Linsley said...


Here is some background information on Diop: