Atlantic languages

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The Atlantic or West Atlantic languages[1] of West Africa are a proposed major group of Niger-Congo language family. The Atlantic languages are highly diverse and have never been demonstrated to form a unified group, so that linguists such as Dimmendahl and Blench treat them as three independent branches of Niger-Congo.

The Atlantic languages are spoken along the Atlantic coast from Senegal to Liberia, though transhumant Fula speakers have spread eastward and are found in large numbers across the Sahel, from Senegal to Nigeria and Cameroon. Wolof of Senegal and several of the Fula languages are the most populous 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 exhibit consonant mutation, and most have a noun class system similar to that of the distantly related Bantu languages. Some members are tonal, while others have pitch accent systems. The basic word order tends to be SVO.

Contents

Classification

The Atlantic family was first identified by Sigismund 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, though it is clear that the languages are part of the Niger-Congo family, based on evidence such as a shared noun class system. However, comparative work on Niger-Congo is in its infancy. Classifications of Niger-Congo, usually based on lexicostatistics, generally propose that the Atlantic languages are rather divergent, but less so than Mande and other languages that lack noun classes.

David Sapir proposed a classification of Atlantic into three branches, a northern group, a southern group, and the divergent Bijago language of the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau (Wilson 1989). This tripartite classification is retained by linguists such as Blench who break up Atlantic into its constituent parts.

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