Proto-Maritime : a linguistic overview

Reconstructing an ancient tongue.

The Proto-Maritime language, ancestor of the Maritime language family, was spoken by the Proto-Maritime people who lived on the islands of Mohai and Pheku off the north-east coast of Aheku.

The language arose as a result of the mixing of two cultures some three thousand years before the present (BP). Until that point, the islands were the sole preserve of two groups of the Yelé people.

Around 3000 BP, there was a mass migration to the islands by invaders from the south, known as the Suliq. Over time, the Suliq and the Yelé of Mohai and Pheku merged and developed a culture and language quite distinct from the Yelé cultures of the nearby mainland.

What the newly-merged people called themselves and their language is unknown, but modern scholars refer to them as Proto-Maritime. The PM people kept no written records, so their language is known to us only through reconstruction.

Nevertheless, a vocabulary of 1500 words can be reconstructed with some confidence. It consists mostly of words related to everyday activities, nature, sailing and agriculture.

Number vocabulary is of particular note. PM counted in base 6, though its modern descendants all use base 12. Base 12 was an invention of mathematicians at the Pheku imperial court, during the Classical Age. It grafted easily onto Base 6.

Like its descendants, Proto-Maritime displayed accusative-secundative alignment. Unlike its descendants, it had a single genitive case and lacked classifiers.

PM was characterised by velar, uvular and glottal consonants and moderately complex syllable patterns.

As Proto-Maritime was a contact language it had little in the way of agglutination or inflection. Grammatical relations were mostly expressed by word order and vocabulary.

Mood and aspect were expressed with adverbs and co-verbs. Possession was shown by placing two nouns together. Singular, paucal and plural number were expressed with particles. There were formal and informal pronouns. Derivational morphology existed but was less extensive than in later Maritime languages.

PM was known to favour Verb-Subject-Object word order in sentences and Specifier-Noun-Complement order in noun phrases. Variant word orders cannot be reconstructed with any confidence, though no doubt some existed.

Some linguists now think that many of the languages of Eastern Aheku can be traced to something they call  Proto-East-Aheku. To these linguists, PEA is the ancestor of Bangwa languages like Suliq (and modern Moawapa), Yelé languages (like modern Senduri), and Transmontane languages such as Loa Bateng and Pamak.

As yet, the PEA hypothesis remains highly conjectural. Many of the features it purports to explain can also be explained by long-term areal contact between languages. It is therefore not covered on this site.

The descendants of Proto-Maritime may be divided into two groups: Northern and Southern Maritime. These are descended respectively from Classical Lemohai and Classical Lepheku. By the end of the classical era, the Maritime peoples had spread to the Tepi Peninsula and gone on to conquer much of the coastal plain of North-East Aheku.

A number of distinct Maritime languages emerged after the classical era. Five have survived into the modern era. There are now three Northern Maritime languages: Lemohai, Lekuna and Letepi. There are also two Southern ones: Lepheku and Lehekõ.

Author: David Johnson

Conlanger, writer and activist.

2 thoughts on “Proto-Maritime : a linguistic overview”

  1. This post was first published in August 2017. It was substantially revised and republished in September 2018 to reflect the new scenario. It was edited again in March 2019 to reflect a fuller, richer understanding of the new scenario.

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