The clay tablet tradition of African comparative linguistics

Found this gem in a review of Paul de Wolf’s (1971) The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo:

This work falls within the ‘clay tablet’ tradition of African comparative linguistics, and, like other things in the same tradition (Meinhof, Greenberg), it has the properties of being inscrutable and yet at the same time, in broad outline, convincing. The two together make an infuriating whole. (Kelly 1973:716)

Kelly goes on to list some good things and some major problems about the book; unfortunately, the problems are much bigger than the good things in his opinion. His final paragraph is also worth quoting for the subtle (and not so subtle) critique ingeniously giftwrapped in a counterfactual:

Anyone interested in African comparative linguistics need not regret 50 shillings spent on this monograph, which represents a good deal of painstaking work, more than actually appears between the covers. Used in conjunction with the previous publications of the Benue Congo section of the West African Linguistic Society, it provides a mass of data together with some attempt at a historical overview. But the price is not, alas, 50 shillings. It is £7.55 at this time of writing.


  1. De Wolf, Paul P. 1971. The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo. The Hague: Mouton.
  2. Kelly, John. 1973. Review of The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 36(3). 716-718.

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