On the role of the lexicon in actionality – Special issue of STUF

I am so pleased to announce the publication of a special issue of STUF – Language Typology and Universals (Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung), focused  on the role of the lexicon in actionality, and guest edited by me, Johanna Nichols, and Bastian Persohn. It contains a great range of articles featuring new work from some of the most influential and innovative scholars currently studying the lexical dimensions of aspect. The papers are listed below.

This volume grew out of a workshop held at ALT 13 in Pavia (which I wrote about here) and also includes articles from several scholars who were not able to be with us at the conference. We are grateful to all of the authors and reviewers who generously participated in the volume and in the precipitating workshop.

Thera Marie Crane, Johanna Nichols and Bastian Persohn
Introduction: the role of the lexicon in actionality

Walter Breu
Actionality and the degree of temporal dynamics 

Jurica Polančec
Two-phase verbs: a crosslinguistic look at an actional class

Ponsiano Sawaka Kanijo
The robustness of Botne and Kershner aspectual classes in Nyamwezi

Leora Bar-el and Malin Petzell
(Im)perfectivity and actionality in East Ruvu Bantu

Sergei Tatevosov
Actionality across (sub)paradigms

František Kratochvíl, David Moeljadi, Benidiktus Delpada, Václav Kratochvíl and Jiří Vomlel
Aspectual pairing and aspectual classes in Abui 

Should I write my dissertation in LaTeX?

A few years ago, a PhD student asked me for advice on whether to write a dissertation using the LaTeX typesetting system. I wasn’t able to give a straight yes/no answer, but it did get me thinking about the pros and cons. Overall, I think more people should use LaTeX, even as I don’t generally use it for my everyday writing. But there is also a non-trivial cost when getting started. I decided to write up a few basic things to think about when considering whether to write a linguistics dissertation in LaTeX. I’ll add to this list over time. I’ve also added some LaTeX resources to my links page.

Bantu 8 – virtually in Essex


Last week, I had the joy of participating in the Bantu 8 conference, organised by the good people (Nancy Kula, Hannah Gibson, and Kyle Jerro) at the University of Essex. The conference had been scheduled for June of 2020 and, for obvious reasons, was postponed and then held virtually. Since I’ve been on family leave, this was my first virtual conference, and the organisers and participants really made it something special and exciting – and I had been bracing myself for something rather less so.

In addition to enjoying, learning from, and being challenged by the many wonderful talks, I gave a presentation called Modal systems in South African Bantu languages: A comparative survey and co-presented a poster on Penultimate lengthening in isiNdebele (South Africa) (our paper on the same topic is coming out soon; more on that later!). Most of the talks are available in some form via the conference’s OSF platform, and they are worth checking out. I feel so lucky to be part of a field with so many brilliant, generous, and kind people.

Constituency, Imbrication, and the Interpretation of Change-of-State Verbs in isiNdebele

A paper I co-authored with Axel Fanego (and congratulations are due to Axel on his marriage and new surnames!) has been published in a special issue of Studia Orientalia Electronica, edited by Malin Petzell, Leora Bar-El, and Lotta Aunio. Most of the papers in the issue were originally presented at the conference “The semantics of verbal morphology in underdescribed languages” at the University of Gothenburg in June, 2017, which feels almost like a lifetime ago now! The conference was fantastic from start to finish, and it’s exciting to see this tangible outcome.

Our contribution is called Constituency, Imbrication, and the Interpretation of Change-of-State Verbs in isiNdebele. In isiNdebele, as in some other Nguni languages, certain verbs have two forms with the “perfective” –ile suffix: one is “imbricated”, changing the verbal root, and one is normally suffixed. In at least some Nguni languages (e.g. isiZulu), it has been noted that imbricated perfectives have present-state readings with verbs describing state changes, while non-imbricated perfectives have state-change readings. For example, in isiZulu, imbricated u-lele ‘s/he is asleep’ contrasts with non-imbricated u-lal-ile ‘s/he fell alseep’. We found that in isiNdebele, while this same contrast is superficially present, the actual situation is more complex, with interpretations varying based on contextual factors and – importantly – tied to constituency and the conjoint/disjoint distinction.

Here is our abstract:

This paper describes the interplay of lexical and grammatical aspect with other grammatical phenomena in the interpretation of the aspectual suffix ‑ile (which we analyse as Perfective) in isiNdebele, a Nguni Bantu language spoken in South Africa. Crucial other phenomena include constituency-related factors such as the conjoint-disjoint distinction and (related) penultimate lengthening, along with morphophonological conditions that trigger different forms of ‑ile. These factors appear to interact differently in isiNdebele than they do in closely related Zulu, suggesting two different paths of grammaticalization, which we argue can change the interpretation of markers of grammatical aspect as they interact with lexical aspectual classes.

New volume on University of Helsinki language research in South Africa!

Happy Africa Day 2020!

I am a little late in posting this, but the volume resulting from the Helsinki Area and Language Studies (HALS) 2016 group field trip to South Africa is now available online, fully free and open access. Many congratulations to all the authors, and to editors Lotta Aunio and Axel Fleisch  for their hard work on this volume, which can be accessed here.  Axel Fleisch and I have a co-authored paper in this volume, entitled “Towards a fieldwork methodology for eliciting distinctions in lexical aspect in Bantu”.

#AfricaDay #AfricaDay2020

virALLanguages – Coronavirus information in minority languages

I was scheduled to be on the first field research trip to South Africa for my new project, Accommodating Linguistic Diversity in Conversation: Modal Expressions and Multilingualism in South Africa right now. Instead, I am attempting a remote version of the first research stage, in collaboration with a number of wonderful South African language experts. More on that later, I hope!

In the meantime, I would like to help publicise an effort to spread accurate and trusted information about COVID-19 in the world’s minority languages, which often contend with the dual problems of lack of quality information and the easy spread of misinformation. The project, called virALLanguages, is working to create and share “reliable and memorable information” amongst minority language communities. If you are a speaker or work with speakers of a marginalised language, there are many ways to get involved.

The project is a collaborative effort between the KPAAM-CAM project (University at Buffalo, SUNY, USA), the SOAS World Languages Institute (UK), and the Community for Global Health Equity (University at Buffalo, SUNY, USA). I’m not directly involved, but I think it’s a great idea and I’m trying to spread the word as much as I can!

Paper on Ndebele Futures published in South African Journal of African Languages

Peter Mabena (UNISA) and I co-authored an article entitled “Time, space, modality, and (inter)subjectivity: Futures in isiNdebele and other Nguni languages“, which has just been published in the South African Journal of African Languages  39(3): 291–304. I have free e-prints that I can share, so please contact me if you would like access!

Abstract: Perhaps more than any other tense, expressions of futurity are intricately linked with modality: the future is inherently uncertain. This article explores the outcomes of future markers grammaticalised from ‘come’ and ‘go’ in isiNdebele and several other South African Nguni Bantu languages, and shows that their semantic and pragmatic functions can mark contrasts in time, space, and modality, and can be used both subjectively (communicating speaker stance) and intersubjectively (communicating information about the relationship between speakers). Multiple factors influence the choice and interpretation of isiNdebele future markers in different contexts. These factors can all reasonably be traced to developments from ‘come’ and ‘go’, but the semantic and pragmatic force of these markers differs significantly, depending on context. Because different contrasts are emphasised in different contexts, there is significant functional overlap of ‘come’ and ‘go’ futures, despite their different origins and cognitive frames. Cross-linguistic distinctions are observed in the systems of future marking across South African Nguni languages, suggesting that even in a group of closely related languages that are often in heavy contact with one another, significant semantic and pragmatic differences can be maintained.

ALT 13 in Pavia

Pavia ponte coperto sul Ticino

The 13th Conference of the Association for Linguistic Typology, held in Pavia, Italy, ended today. It was a wonderful event filled with good food, good ideas, and good times with congenial colleagues. I had the privilege of co-organizing a theme session with Johanna Nichols and Bastian PersohnA cross-linguistic perspective on the role of the lexicon in actionality. There was much animated and productive discussion. We’re now planning a special journal issue with papers from the workshop’s presenters and other researchers in actionality.

What’s in a Bantu verb? published in Linguistic Typology

A paper I co-authored with Bastian Persohn, entitled “What’s in a Bantu verb? Actionality in Bantu languages”  has been published (open access) in volume 17.2 of Linguistic Typology. In addition to the main article, there is an online appendix reviewing theories of actionality in Bantu languages (downloadable here). I had a wonderful time writing this paper with Bastian, who is a great collaborator in addition to being a brilliant linguist.

There is still a lot to learn about aspect and actionality in Bantu!


The lexical and phrasal dimensions of aspect and their interactions with morphosyntactic aspectual operators have proved difficult to model in Bantu languages. Bantu actional types do not map neatly onto commonly accepted categorizations of actionality, although these are frequently assumed to be universal and based on real-world event typologies. In this paper, we describe important characteristics and major actional distinctions attested across Bantu languages. These, we argue, include complex lexicalizations consisting of a coming-to-be phase, the ensuing state change, and the resultant state; sub-distinctions of coming-to-be phases, and other issues of phasal quality. Despite these fine-grained distinctions in phasal structure and quality, evidence for a principled distinction between activity- and accomplishment-like predicates is mixed. We review the current state of evidence for these characteristics of Bantu actionality and sketch methodological directions for future research.

Mots et Odes à la Conscience by Simon Nsielanga Tukumu

My dear friend and co-author Simon Nsielanga Tukumu has published a beautiful new volume of poetry Mots et odes à la conscienceThe description blurb in English:  Mots et Odes à la Conscience is poetic interpellation towards more human consciousness for the respect of life that God freely grants us. In front of the horrible killings of people in Ituri and Central Congo a whole human consciousness can’t remain silent like a beggar. Human consciousness cannot remain silent before violence done to women in eastern Congo, before the spoliation of the soils orchestrated by the Congolese political leaders and by the destruction of the road infrastructure, which by negligence, takes away life of many Congolese. Stop to the destruction of life, to violence done to women and to the irresponsibility of our politician leaders!