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The (West) Atlantic languages of West Africa are a subgroup of Niger-Congo language family. These languages are generally spoken along the Atlantic coast from Senegal to Liberia, though nomadic Fula speakers have spread eastward and are found in significant concentrations across the Sahel, from Senegal to Nigeria and Cameroon. Fula and the Wolof language of Senegal are the largest Atlantic languages with several million speakers each; other significant members include Serer and the Jola dialect cluster of Senegal and Temne in Sierra Leone. Many Atlantic languages exhibt consonant mutation, and most have a noun class system similar to that in the distantly related Bantu languages. Some members are tonal, while others have pitch accent systems. The basic word order tends to be SVO.
The Atlantic language family
The Atlantic family was first identified by Sigmund Koelle in 1854. In the early 20th century, Carl Meinhof claimed that Fula was a Hamitic language, but August von Klingenhaben and Joseph Greenberg's work conclusively established Fula's close relationship with Wolof and Serer. W. A. A. Wilson notes that the validity of the family as a whole rests on much weaker evidence, but linguists generally accept Atlantic as valid. Similarly, most linguists accept Atlantic's inclusion in the Niger-Congo family, based on suggestive evidence such as a shared noun class system; nevertheless, comparative work on Niger-Congo as a whole is still in its infancy. Proposed subclassifications of Niger-Congo (usually based on lexicostatistics) generally claim that Atlantic is a rather divergent branch of the family, but less so than Mande and Kordofanian.
David Sapir proposed a tentative subclassification of Atlantic involving a three way split between a northern group, a southern group, and the highly divergent Bijago language spoken in the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau. This was adapted by (Wilson 1989) and by Ethnologue:
- Bijago - spoken in Guinea-Bissau
- Northern - with the exception of Fula, spoken mainly in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea
- Cangin: Lehar , Palor , Ndut , Saafi-Saafi , and Noon
- Eastern Senegal-Guinea
- Banyun: Bainouk-Gunyuño , Bainouk-Samik , and Bainouk-Gunyaamolo
- Tenda: Biafada , Basari , Wamei , Badjara , and Budik
- Nun: Kasanga and Kobiana
- Mbulungish-Nalu: Baga Mboteni , Mbulungish , and Nalu
- Southern - spoken mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia
Many Atlantic languages exhibit consonant mutation, a phenomenon in which the intitial consonant of a word change depending on its morphological and/or syntactic environment. In Fula, for example, the initial consonant of many nouns changes depending on whether it is singular or plural:
|pul-lo||"Fulani person"||ful-ɓe||"Fulani people"|
Atlantic languages have noun class systems similar to those found in other Niger-Congo languages, most famously the Bantu languages. Bantu noun classes are marked with prefixes, and linguists generally believe that this reflects the proto-Niger-Congo system. In Atlantic, however, some languages, such as Temne, use prefixes while others, such as Fula, have noun class suffixes. Joseph Greenberg argued that the suffixed forms arose from independent post-posed determiners that agreed with the noun class.
- CL-Noun CL-Det > CL-Noun-CL > Noun-CL
In fact, some Atlantic languages, such as Serer, do mark noun class with both a prefix and a suffix.
==Notes=="West Atlantic" is the more traditional usage, following Diedrich Hermann Westermann; "Atlantic" is more typical in recent work, particularly since (Bendor-Samuel 1989).
- Sapir, David (1971). West Atlantic: An inventory of the languages, their noun class systems and consonant alternations. Current Trends in Linguistics 7:45-112. The Hague: Mouton.
- Wilson, W. A. A. (1989). Atlantic. In John Bendor-Samuel (Ed.), The Niger-Congo Languages, pp. 81-104.
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