In the weekend of 13 and 14 February 2016 I attended the North-American Conference of Afro-Asiatic Linguistics 44. There were a variety of very interesting talks, and I was able to give two talks at the conference (Gene Gragg was unable to come, and a I ended up filling up the gap in the program with a last minute, but I believe well-received presentation). The Program can be found here.
It is difficult to highlight any of the talks, because they were all of high quality. But let me just mention a few.
Simone Mauri's talk was highly interesting. He convincingly shows that in the Ayt Atta Tamazight dialect the 'sequential aorist' is not only used to express a sequentiality, which is how it is often described. Instead the sequential aorist should be considered as a 'default tense', which simply agrees with the established TAM marker earlier in the sentence. Verbs that break the chain of Aorists, by for example a flashback formulated by a perfective, in fact do not even break the aorist chain:
da di nnkkr ṣbaḥ isul lḥal illas nddu s amrdul
'We used to get up (IMPF) in the morning, it was still dark (PF), we would go (AOR, continuing the chain of the IMPF not PF!) to the desert...'
James Allen's keynote address Ancient Egyptian as a Real Language was a highly informative and funny, and was a sobering account on how much work still needs to be done in treating Ancient Egyptian as a real spoken language spoken by actual people, rather than a highly theoretical construct.
Alexander Magidow's talk on Diachronic Classification fo Arabic Dialects via Personal Pronouns was a fascinating talk which shows just how difficult it is to make any sense of the diachronic development of the Arabic dialects spoken today, due to the many overlapping isoglosses in every way. His work on the Database of Arabic Dialects is becoming more impressive and useful as he continues his work on filling in the data. Hopefully with time we may untangle at least some of the messy tangle that is the modern dialects.
The sobering account of the state of Afro-Asiatic from a Semitic perspective by Na'ama Pat-El and Aren Wilson-Wright lead to an animated discussion on what the second A in NACAL should stand for if there isn't an Afro-Asiatic. Their conclusion is the suggestion that Afro-Asiatic languages may be a Sprachbund rather than a Language Family.
I agree that Afro-Asiatic comparison still has a long way to go. At the same time I don't see much explanatory value in the term Sprachbund. In the way that Sprachbund is usually defined (for example when talking about the ever-elusive Altaic, or the striking similarities between Japanese and Korean) is that you have a large group of languages that are structurally incredibly similar, but lack any (convincing) cognate vocabulary or morphology. This is clearly not what is going on in Afro-Asiatic (and it does not seem to be the definition of Sprachbund that Pat-El and Wilson-Wright seem to mean). (Parts of) Afro-Asiatic have very clearly striking morphological similarities (Prefix conjugation in Semitic, Berber and (some of) Cushitic; Feminine suffix -t; probably apophonic plural formations, etc.), but the amount of vocabulary that we can easily reconstruct with regular sound correspondences is rather small.
The absence of regular sound correspondences, is, however, not a (a priori) failing of the methods used by Afroasiaticists. It is simply that the amount of good cognates that we find is often so small, that we simply cannot find enough cognates to establish a sound correspondence. I would start feeling comfortable about a sound correspondence if you have maybe 4 or 5; usually we have about 2. But I still think we can probably write up some:
Proto-Afro-Asiatic *s (?): PBerb. *s; PSem. *s; PCentral-Chad. *ɬ
PAA *l-s 'tongue' > PBerb. *a-iləs < *a-Hĭlĭs; Semitic *lis-ān
PAA *s-m 'name' > PBerb. *a-isəm < *a-Hĭsĭm; Semitic *sim; PCentral-Chad. *ɬɨmɨy ʸ
PAA *s-n 'tooth' > PBerb. *a-sen; Semitic *sinn-; PCentral-Chad. *ɬɨyɨn ʸ
PAA *s-m 'ear' > PBerber *esəm < *a-yĭsĭm; PCentral-Chad. *ɬɨmɨy ʸ (Perhaps cf. Semitic s-m-ʕ 'to hear'?)
Some exceptions, to this correspondence are PBerb. *ăssən < *ăwsən 'to know' ~ PCentral-Chadic *sɨn. But we have to realize that even though that appears to be an irregular correspondence, Proto-Afro-Asiatic is really far back if it existed. There may easily have bee conditioning factors that split Proto-Afro-Asiatic *s into *ɬ and *s which are now completely unrecoverable (e.g. PAA *ws > s but PAA *s > *ɬ ?). There is a limit to the comparative method. Only by studying it really carefully, and even some more of the doubtful cognates, can we understand what the language may have been like. And even if we never conclusively prove it with the comparative method, this doesn't mean that it once was a (unprovable) real thing.
Proto-Afro-Asiatic *b: PBerb. *β; PSem. *b; PCentral-Chad. *v
PAA *l-b 'heart' > PBerb. *ul(ə)β < *a-Hŭlŭβ; PSem. *libb- (or *lubb-?)
PAA *b-ṭ 'night'> PBerb. *a-aβăṭ < *a-Hăβăḍ; PCentral-Chad. *viɗ
PAA *ʔ-b-n '(mill)stone' > PBerb. *ta-ʔ(v)βun-t; PSem. *ʔabn-; PCentral-Chad. *wɨvɨn
PAA *b-n 'hut' > PBerb. *a-βăn; PCentral-Chad. *vɨn ʸ; cf. Sem. *b-n-y 'to build'?
We may count the isolated word for 'rain' in Awjili here avún and compare it to PCentral-Chad. *vɨn 'rain'. I think we should avoid isolated nouns in language families mostly, but in this case, Awjili does seem to be one of the first languages to branch off from Proto-Berber (no significant shared innovations with any other Berber language, and a couple of (almost) isolated nouns which don't look niew, this being one fo them). The sound correspondences to check out, so this may be taken as a true cognate, just not as evidence for the sound correspondence.
Proto-Afro-Asiatic *m: PBerb. *m; PSem. *m;
PAA *s-m 'name' (see above)
PAA *s-m 'ear' (see above)
PAA *m-ṭ-r 'rain' > PBerb. *a-m(v)ẓar; PSem. *maṭar- (I don't know of the emphatic ṭ in PAA is actually ṭ or some other emphatic. I Believe Takács reconstructs č̣ for this root...)
PAA *m-w-t 'to die' > PBerb. *ămwət 'to die'; PSem. *m-w-t-; PCentral-Chad. *mɨts < PChad. mɨt?
PAA *m-y 'water' > PBerber *a-aman < *a-Hămā̆̆y-ăn?; PSem. *may-; PCentral-Chad. *yɨyɨm
PAA *m-y 'mouth' > PBerber *a-me < *a-măy? PCentral-Chad. *may
Proto-Afro-Asiatic *n: PBerb. *n; PSem. *n; PCentral-Chad. *n
PAA *s-n 'tooth' (see above)
PAA *ʔ-b-n '(mill)stone' (see above)
PAA *b-n 'hut' (see above)
Proto-Afro-Asiatic *l: PBerb *l; PSem. *l; PCentral-Chad. *l
PAA *l-s 'tongue' (see above)
PAA *l-b 'heart' (see above)
(Some correspondences like Proto-Afro-Asiatic *t > PBerb. t~H; PSem. *t almost go without saying, due to the many parallel morphemes in Berber and Semitic and Cushitic that share *t as well as some lexical items such as 'to die' above).
I think if we remain really conservative and strict about our correspondences (something previous Afro-Asiaticists haven't really done), we might find more than we think in terms of good correspondences.
Pat-El and Wilson-Wright make a very strong case that basically everything about Afro-Asiatic needs to be reevaluated with fresh eyes, and that we should seriously consider that at least some of the traditionally considered Proto-Afro-Asiatic languages may not be Proto-Afro-Asiatic. But I personally think (and I haven't always thought this) that if you keep the scope small enough that you can actually have an informed opinion about the Proto-languages of some of the members, very promising correspondences will show up.
Now onto my own papers.
The first was titled The Secondary Origins of the Berber e Vowel, in which I argued that a large amount of the e vowels found in Berber (i in most dialects) should be considered allophones of Proto-Berber *a. I have been writing on the subject of the origin of this vowel, and other vowels in Berber for quite some time. and the paper that I have been writing on it is becoming bigger and bigger. There is a good chance that the eventual paper might end up as a small monograph, rather than an article.
This monograph would complement Maarten Kossmann's Essai sur la phonologie du proto-berbère well. That book mostly focuses on the Proto-Berber consonantism, while my monograph would focus on the Proto-Berber vocalism.
I have uploaded both the slides and the handout provided with this talk on Academia. My handout provides several little tidbits of attractive similarities both in cognates and formation between Berber and Semitic.
The second talk was titled A feminine formation in Arabic & Berber, where I compare some of the semantic and morphological peculiarities of Berber feminines with the suffix -e and -a with Arabic feminine nouns with the feminine suffix -ay and -āʔ. This is hopefully a good step to more formally studying the quite obvious close connections between Berber and Semitic.
Rather than attempting to reconstruct all of Afro-Asiatic, I think it would be useful to focus our efforts first on the obviously promising connections, and should explore smaller possible subbranches first, like Berbero-Semitic.