Modality Workshop in Berlin

Berlin Humboldt-Universität Juristische Fakultät

In April, I had the great pleasure of attending the “Workshop on modality in underdescribed languages: Methods & insights” at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It was organized by a group of editors and authors of the new volume of the same name (Modality in Underdescribed Languages: Methods and Insights, edited by Vander Klok, Rech and Guesser). I presented a paper discussing some methodological lessons I’ve while studying modal expressions in South African languages, and also co-presented, with Stefan Savić and Onelisa Slater, preliminary results from our  corpus study of modality in isiXhosa. I was honoured and thrilled to receive a copy of the new volume as a prize for “best abstract” (although I have to admit that it was a bit daunting to receive this distinction publicly, shortly before giving my presentation!). Most importantly, I gained new insights on methods and theoretical issues that will guide my work going forward. Many thanks to the organisers for their stellar work in planning the workshop, and to all the participants for the warm and encouraging atmosphere.

The workshop also included an excursion to the Humboldt Forum, which I highly recommend to anyone visiting Berlin!

Language documentation workshop at Inalco, Paris

I’m leaving tomorrow for Paris to give a keynote talk at the workshop Documenter et décrire les langues et littératures minoritaires et en danger à l’ère numérique : épistémologies, pratiques et défis at Inalco. It’s a star-studded workshop and I’m both excited and humbled to be speaking there. I’ll be discussing, among other things, community-based narrative analysis in Totela, a topic that has brought up a lot of memories and emotions, bringing what now feels like my ancient history as a graduate student back to the forefront of my mind.

Among all of the wonderful talks and extremely distinguished colleagues I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing, I’m particularly thrilled (and a bit nervous) to be meeting Ruth Finnegan, world expert in (among other things) African oral literature.

Bantu 9 Malawi

On June 9th, I’ll be presenting a paper co-authored with Remah Lubambo, Msuswa Petrus Mabena, Cordelia Nkwinika & Muhle Sibisi at the Bantu 9 conference, which is being held at Malawi University of Science and Technology this year. Very, very sadly, I am not able to attend the conference in person, but the conference has been running great in hybrid form.  I am very glad that I get to be part of it even though I couldn’t make the trip — even though I feel a little heart prick every time I see an old friend or colleague sitting in one of the conference rooms while I watch via Zoom.

Our presentation is called “Expressions of modal possibility in South African Nguni and Tsonga Languages”, and it compares the contexts in which several modal verbs and prefixes can and cannot be used in isiZulu, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, Siswati, and Xitsonga, respectively. We had a lot of fun developing the presentation, and we uncovered some interesting (apparent) crosslinguistic differences that beg for deeper investigation.

Multilingualism and modal expressions in South Africa

Last Friday, 26 November, I had the honor of giving the last webinar talk of 2021 for the new Southern African Linguistics Network.

Multilingualism and modal expressions in South Africa

The abstract of my talk is below. I was asked to give an overview of my current project and its methodologies. It was great to get feedback and ideas from the expert crowd of Southern African researchers, especially since in-person research has been put on hold for the time being!

Please send me an e-mail if you would like a copy of my slides or access to the talk’s recording.

Abstract: In this talk, I  describe the motivations, goals, and proposed strategies of the research project Accommodating linguistic diversity in conversation: Modal expressions and multilingualism in South Africa.

The project, which focuses on Bantu languages of South Africa came out of the parallel observations that (1) many South African speakers are proficient in numerous South African languages, and (2) these languages, even those that are closely related, have obvious and subtle differences at all linguistic levels. These conditions (which, of course, are old news to any South African speaker) create a fantastic environment for investigating how multilingual communication “works” when it is pervasive and largely naturalistic: multilingual discourse is the norm rather than the exception, and languages are often acquired outside of formal education settings.

The project aims to investigate how speakers deal with cross-linguistic differences by looking at modal expressions (such as English can, may, should, etc.), which show important distinctions across South African Bantu languages, are critical to polite communication, and which might present acquisition challenges for second-language learners.

The project is still in its early phases, and I am eager to receive feedback from experts based in Southern Africa!

(Title image modified from Mary Alexander’s graphic at

Mirativity and evidentiality in Bantu

Last week I had the great pleasure of participating in the online workshop Mirativity and evidentiality in Bantu, organized by Hannah Gibson and Jenneke van der Wal. It was a really inspiring day of presentations of new and profound work in these underresearched topics. My talk was mostly based on a reconsideration of old research. I’ve posted a pdf here, but I really encourage anyone reading this to check out the other folks’ presentations, which I believe will be posted soon on the workshop’s webpage.

Image by LillyCantabile from Pixabay

Actionality and aspect in Southern Ndebele and Xhosa, two Nguni languages of South Africa

When it rains, it pours. An article I co-authored with Bastian Persohn, Actionality and aspect in Southern Ndebele and Xhosa, two Nguni languages of South Africa, has been published (open access) by Studies in African Languages.   The abstract:

This paper presents some key findings of studies of actionality and the verbal grammar–lexicon interface in two Nguni Bantu languages of South Africa, Xhosa and Southern Ndebele. We describe interactions between grammatical tense marking (and other sentential bounding elements) and lexical verb types, arguing for the salience of inchoative verbs, which lexically encode a resultant state, and, in particular, a sub-class of inchoative verbs, biphasal verbs, which encode both a resultant state and the “coming-to-be” phase leading up to that state. We further discuss other important features of actional classes in Xhosa and Southern Ndebele, including topics such as the role of participant structure and the relative importance of cross-linguistically prominent distinctions such as that between Vendlerian activities and accomplishments. Although differences between Xhosa and Southern Ndebele are evident both in the behaviour of individual tense-aspect forms and in the interpretive possibilities of specific verbs, the general patterns are quite similar. This similarity suggests that the patterns are likely to extend to other Nguni languages, as well, and that cross-linguistic comparison of particular lexical items across these languages are both feasible and likely to bear fruit.

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.