How to express ‘feel’ in Ethiopian languages

In the preparation for a talk on language contact in Ethiopia, which I gave last week, I tried to find out how ‘feel’ is expressed in Ethiopian languages. One would think that this is an easy question to answer – but since most (?) Ethiopian languages don’t have a separate and semantically general verb ‘feel’, it took me quite a while to collect the data.

(Before I proceed: Sorry to all of you who have waited for the next post on Baskeet culture, music and life. Unfortunately, this post is very “linguisticky”.)

I. Earlier works on the topic

In Ethiopia (and beyond), languages of three branches of the Afroasiatic language family have been in long-term contact, i.e. Semitic, Omotic and Cushitic languages.* As a result of this contact, languages that are only remotely related have assimilated to each other. In the past decades, many publications have been dedicated to the so-called “Ethiopian language area” and the shared phonological, grammatical and lexical features that languages have developed in this contact situation. In one of these works, Richard Hayward (1991: ‘A propos patterns of lexicalization in the Ethiopian language area’) mentions that ‘feel (experientially)’ is expressed by the passive derivation of ‘hear’ in Amharic (Semitic), Oromo (Cushitic) and Gamo (Omotic) (1991: 152). He considers the expression of ‘feel’ as ‘be heard’ to be a possible shared lexicalisation pattern of the Ethiopian language area, i.e. a typical feature of Ethiopian languages.

I have shown in 2010 (‘Perception verbs and taste adjectives in Kambaata and beyond’) that Kambaata can also use the passive derivation of ‘hear’ to express ‘feel (experientially)’. See one of the examples I have found in my corpus (click to enlarge and pay attention to the literal translation):

Example expressing 'feel' in Kambaata

Example expressing ‘feel’ in Kambaata (Treis 2010: 321)

‘A person feels something’ is literally expressed as ‘Something is heard to/for a person’, i.e. the experienced feeling is the subject of the sentence and the experiencing person is expressed as a recipient or beneficiary.

After I had re-read Hayward’s article and taken a look at my own data again, I tried to find out how many languages in Ethiopia actually use ‘be heard’ (but not the active form of the verb ‘hear’) to express ‘feel’ and whether this feature could really qualify as a shared lexicalisation pattern of a significant number of languages in the assumed Ethiopian(-Eritrean) convergence zone.

When I looked into my own Baskeet corpus, I could not find a single example speaking of (general) feeling experiences. (I could only find controlled feeling activities, like ‘X felt to check whether something is thin/fat/soft etc.’). I was really disappointed about the gap in my data! All I can do is to check this during my upcoming fieldtrip.

2. My survey

I then turned to dictionaries and grammars of other Ethiopian languages and a time-consuming search for examples. To be brief, it was really difficult to find translational equivalents of ‘feel’ or example sentences expressing feelings. In the end, I have come up with 11 languages in which ‘feel’ can be expressed as ‘be heard (to/for someone)’:

In the Semitic language group:

In the Cushitic language group:

In the Omotic language group:

I have collected some negative evidence from Afar (Cushitic) and Libido (Cushitic), which do not seem to share the lexicalisation pattern (acc. to Mohamed Hassan pers. comm. and Joachim Crass pers. comm.).

3. The case of Oromo

The data I found on Oromo is quite interesting: Hayward (1991) and Gragg (1982), who worked on Western Oromo varieties, show that ‘(s.o.) feels (’ is expressed in a passive construction as ‘( is heard (to s.o.)’.

  • d’agaya (vt) ‘hear’ (Gragg 1982: 118)
  • d’aga’ama (vi) ‘feel’ (the passive morpheme is in bold) (Gragg 1982: 118)
  • maaltu isinitti d’aga’amaa? ‘What do you feel?’ (Gragg 1982: 118) (literally “What is heard to you [pl]?”)

In contrast to this, the examples in Stroomer’s work on the Southern Oromo dialects Borana, Orma and Waata Oromo (1987) illustrate that – in these dialects – the verb ‘hear’ is polysemous in its underived form, i.e. ‘hear’ can be used to express ‘feel’ in its active form. See the following entries in his wordlist:

  • d’agaa ‘to hear, to listen; to feel’ (Borana Oromo, Orma Oromo) (1987: 294)
  • d’agea ‘to hear, to listen; to feel’ (Orma Oromo) (1987: 294)
  • d’egea ‘to hear, to listen; to feel’ (Waata Oromo) (1987: 296)

(The sentence examples in Stroomer’s work confirm that the underived ‘hear’-verb is used to express ‘feel’.)

Consequently, one could hypothesize that the Western variety of Oromo (as described by Hayward and Gragg) acquired the use of ‘be heard’ for ‘feel’ in contact with and under the influence of Semitic languages.

4. Isogloss of the Ethiopian Language Area?

I am still not sure whether the expression of ‘feel (experientially)’ as ‘be heard’ could qualify as a “good” feature (isogloss) of the Ethiopian language area. It seems to be quite widespread in Central and Northern parts of Ethiopia but more data is definitely needed to determine its distribution. I also don’t know how old and established the use of ‘be heard’ for ‘feel’ is in the above-mentioned Ethiopian languages or whether this use of ‘be heard’ just reflects a recent influence of the Ethiopian lingua franca Amharic.

I’d be happy to receive comments from readers who are familiar with other Ethiopian languages (or related languages at the Horn of Africa) and who could let me know how ‘feel (experientially)’ is expressed in their language of expertise. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

*At the Western borders of Ethiopia, languages of the Nilo-Saharan family are spoken.


Acknowledgments: I am very grateful to everybody who provided data in personal communication: Joachim Crass, Dirk Kievit, Saliem Kievit, Ronny Meyer, Ongaye Oda, and Rainer Voigt.

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3 Responses to How to express ‘feel’ in Ethiopian languages

  1. Dirk Kievit says:

    Glad we could contribute to your study! I was hoping to see more data, but I suppose you will save that for when you publish an article on this. I will share this with my SIL colleagues working in Ethiopia. Maybe that will lead to further data. I’m just curious why this paricular verb would’ve been chosen to express a feeling. I suppose we can only speculate. Of course, now that I think about it, what’s so natural about using the verb “to feel” to express our experience of certain emotions? It would be interesting to find out whether “unrelated” languages also resort to the verb “to hear” (or rather “be heard”).

  2. The typological literature (e.g. Ake Viberg’s work) has shown that many languages in the world use the verb ‘hear’ (‘perceive with the ear’) for other sensory modalities (‘feel’ (perception with the skin/body), ‘smell’ (perception with the nose) and ‘taste’ (perception with the tongue), i.e. that languages often don’t make a lexical distinction between ‘hear’ and ‘feel’/’smell’/’taste’. It is also not uncommon for languages to encode the stimulus (what is perceived) as the subject of a perception verb and the experiencer/perceiver as an object or oblique argument.
    In the Ethiopian case discussed above, it is interesting that it is not the verb ‘hear’ per se which is extended semantically but that the passive of ‘hear’ has an extended use. Beyond that, it is interesting that the argument structure of ‘hear’ (experientially) and ‘feel’ (experientially) is different: With ‘hear’ the experiencer is the subject and the stimulus the object, with ‘feel’ (= ‘be heard’) the experiencer is an oblique argument and the stimulus is the subject.

  3. During my last fieldtrip I had the chance to ask about the expression of ‘feel (experientially)’ in Baskeet and I could EXCLUDE that the passive of ‘hear’ is used in Baskeet. Instead feeling experiences are exclusively expressed along the lines of ‘something is cold to me’, ‘something is hot to me’ etc. The only non-auditory interpretation of “X is heard (to someone)” that my assistant Ambaye could imagine was in the sense of “X affected someone emotionally” / “X made someone feel belittled”. This means, if there is an Ethiopian isogloss ‘feel (experientially)’ = ‘be heard’, then Baskeet is not included.

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