A Sociolinguistic Survey of Six Berta Speech Varieties in Ethiopia

Statement of Responsibility:
Bremer, Nate D

This report combines two different surveys within the Berta language area. The majority of the pages are devoted to the ‘primary’ survey, which pertains to the results of a dialect intelligibility survey carried out in April and May 2011 in the western part of Ethiopia, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. A less rigorous ‘secondary’ survey conducted in 2013 appends wordlist data of two additional communities, the Wabosh and the Metehara.

For the primary survey, only four speech communities were surveyed: Maiyu, Fadashi, Undulu and Beleje Gonfoye. In each of these groups, a Recorded Text Test (RTT) was administered to check the level of intelligibility from one language area to another, a small sampling of 200 words was collected, and lastly a collection of forty sentences intended to check various grammatical features was recorded and transcribed. These four communities were selected based on the previous work of Bender (1989), who identified each region as unique. Bender concludes that Berta is a “single language” despite comprising multiple dialects; however, this theory was in need of reexamination due to some internal comments that arose in the context of mother-tongue education initiatives among the Berta people (Bender 1997:10). The appended wordlists from the two additional Berta speech varieties, Wabosh and Metehara, can be viewed in Appendix G. Notably, neither the RTT nor the 40 sentences were conducted among these communities.

Results of this survey of four different speech communities indicated language shift among the ethnic group known as Berta. Recorded Text Testing reveals that there is gradient intelligibility which tends to correspond to the geographic proximity and regularity of contact between one lect and another. Wordlists show that while there are regular sound correspondences which pattern from one variety to another, there are likewise many instances of high-frequency words which are non-cognate. Exposure to varying languages of wider communication (LWC) is the most probable explanation for this and other grammatical variation.

In most cases, intelligibility of different Berta varieties is acquired. Those speakers of Undulu, for example, are located in close proximity to a frequently used gold digging site. Speakers from divergent areas come from near and far to test their luck at finding gold, and it is through this and other forms of contact that intelligibility is most likely acquired. Speakers of the Maiyu dialect, often regarded as the most prestigious Berta variety, have limited contact with other speech varieties and language attitudes reveal that they seldom have desire to accommodate other varieties. Among many Maiyu, Undulu, and Fadashi, contact with the Arabic language has been a seminal force in socio-linguistic development. Maiyu borrows extensively from Sudanese Arabic and has often replaced indigenous forms with loaned varieties. Based on the data collected, Maiyu seems to be the most innovative of the dialects surveyed.

iv, 75 pages
Sudanese Arabic
Recorded Text Test (RTT)
Language surveys
Beleje Gonfoye
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