Incalculable Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLXXII, No 3 Contents Great Linguistics Movies and Their Famous Lines—Part I—The SpecGram Editorial Board

The Chadic Substratum in English

Nemo Thanneven
Chief Researcher
Munich University Deep Diachronic Linguistics Experiment

The languages of the British Isles are typologically unusual members of the Indo-European family. Previous research has investigated the possibility of Semitic influences on Insular Celtic. However, it is not widely realised that English, too, has an Afro-Asiatic substratum, in this case derived from the Chadic branch. As I demonstrate below, several key features of English that would not be expected for a Germanic language with Romance influences can be readily explained by this hypothesis.

1. Pronouns inflected for TAM

English has lost most of the verbal marking that would be expected for a Germanic language, and the locus of Tense-Aspect-Mood marking has moved to the subject. Compare these paradigms

Pres Cont Perf Pluperf Fut
1s aj ajm ajv ajd ajɫ
2s ju jɔɹ juv jud juɫ
3ms hi hiz hiz hid hiɫ
3fs ʃi ʃiz ʃiz ʃid ʃiɫ
3sn ɪt ɪts ɪts ɪtəd ɪtɫ̩
1p wi wiɹ wiv wid wiɫ
2p ju jɔɹ juv jud juɫ
3p ðej ðɛɹ ðejv ðejd ðejɫ

with the Hausa paradigms shown below

Perf Rel.Perf Cont
1 naː na inaː ...
2ms kaː ka kanaː
2fs kin kikà kina
3ms jaː ja janaː
3fs taː ta tanàː
1pl mun mukà munàː
2pl kun kukà kunàː
3pl sun sukà sunàː
4 an akà anàː
Rel.Cont Fut Indef.Fut Hab
1 nakèː zân ka naː nakàn
2ms kakèː zaː kà kâː kakàn
2fs kikèː zaː ki kjaː kakàn
3ms jakèː zâi jâː jakàn
3fs takèː zaː tà tâː takàn
1pl mukèː zaː mu mâː makàn
2pl kukèː zaː ku kwâː kukàn
3pl sukèː zaː sù sukàn
4 akèː zaː à âː akàn

While the surface forms may differ, the underlying mechanisms are clearly the same. English, in fact, goes slightly further in allowing TAM marking on full nouns. Further evidence that these systems share a common origin is that both require the action of a continuous sentence to be expressed by a verbal noun.

2. Dechticaetiativity

Indo-European languages normally mark the recipient in ditransitive sentences by means of a dative case or adposition. While this is still possible in English:


an alternative strategy is frequently seen:


Here the recipient is treated as the primary object, and occupies the position immediately following the verb which would be taken by the patient in a monotransitive sentence, while the theme is demoted to a secondary object position. This strategy is unique amongst Indo-European languages, but more common in Chadic languages, having been documented in Hausa, Hdi, Lele and Miya.

3. Alveolar-glottal alternation

Some dialects of English have medial /t/ realised as [ʔ] e.g. ‹little› [lɪʔɫ̩]. The mechanisms behind this seem obscure, since the two surface phones are not similar to each other either in acoustic or articulatory terms. It is most easily explained if both allophones derive from an underlying glottalised alveolar stop. The Hausa implosive /ɗ/ provides a suitable candidate. This underwent sound changes:

ɗ  >  ʔ/  V_V

ɗ  >  t  elsewhere

That this is of ancient origin can be seen by the fact that the regions in which it principally occurs, the Thames and Mersey Estuaries, are separated by several hundred miles, and the feature has been lost in the dialects of the intervening regions. Rivers are frequently associated with the retention of ancient features, as in the Old European hydronymy. Throughout the history of the British Isles, incoming groups have repeatedly gained sociolinguistic prestige at the expense of the indigenous population, explaining why this feature is now stigmatized as a sign of uncouth ignorance.

The question naturally arises of how Chadic languages were able to influence English, but it is easily answered. Humans first arose in Africa, and the regions through which they must have passed on their migration out of the continent are populated by Afro-Asiatic speakers to this day. The oldest human footprints outside Africa have been found in England, showing that humans reached the British Isles very soon after leaving Africa. This makes it likely that the first language spoken in the British Isles was Proto-Afro-Asiatic, thus explaining both the Chadic features of English and the Semitic features of Insular Celtic.

Incalculable Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
Great Linguistics Movies and Their Famous LinesPart IThe SpecGram Editorial Board
SpecGram Vol CLXXII, No 3 Contents