Book out! Domains and Regions in Tense and Aspect, edited by Robert Botne and Axel Fanego Palat

Domains and Regions in Bantu Tense and Aspect
Domains and Regions in Bantu Tense and Aspect

I picked up my complimentary author’s copies of this book from our semi-local “Afro & Asian” food shop on Wednesday (the Finnish postal system is full of mysteries). I was very excited to receive it, and I’m even more excited to have been a part of this publication, after many years of working to understand and apply Robert Botne’s Domains and Regions framework, which, in my opinion, can handle facets of (many) Bantu languages’ multiple time distinctions that other theories do not always address.

As always, it was a joy to work with Bob Botne and with Axel.

The volume is available for purchase at


I spent much of the first part of this week attending the 52nd Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics online. Such a  breadth of topics — pursued in depth!  My talk, which I somewhat ambitiously titled “What modal
distinctions are salient in Nguni languages?”, attempted to summarize some of the major findings of our comparative study on modal expressions in South African Bantu languages thus far, and specifically dealt with the question of participant-internal vs. participant-external possibility categories (and the salience of the distinction), and with the less-commonly discussed, and, it turns out, somewhat confusingly named category of “existential” possibility.  The interaction with the audience was stimulating and my collaborators and I came away with new insights and directions for our ongoing studies. I am not a huge fan of attending conferences remotely as a rule (even as I prefer to avoid air travel whenever possible!), but I am nevertheless grateful to intrepid organizers of hybrid conferences everywhere for opening up their events to a much wider range of participants.

On Wednesday, I also gave an informal talk at our department coffee hour  with my thoughts on the meaning of “productivity”, and on organizing sane and humane individual and group workflows. I very briefly introduced Trello and showed some of the boards I’ve been using for my own work and (with sensitive information omitted!) those we’ve been using to organize our work at the journal.  Over the past several years, I’ve become extremely interested in the intersections of technology, attention, decision-making, and senses of time, and it was exciting to discuss some of my semi-developed ideas with colleagues.

Penultimate lengthening in isiNdebele: A system and its variations

Lotta Aunio, Richard Kerbs, and I have  a new paper in Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus: Penultimate lengthening in isiNdebele: A system and its variations. Abstract below:

Lengthening of the penultimate syllable in a word, phrase, or utterance is common across Bantu languages, especially in Eastern and Southern Bantu languages. Despite the prevalence of the general phenomenon, there is significant cross-linguistic diversity in how PUL is instantiated. The aim of this paper is to describe the PUL patterns and variation in isiNdebele, a Nguni language spoken in South Africa. IsiNdebele is closely related to Zulu and frequently spoken in situations of intense contact with Zulu, but its realisation of penultimate lengthening nevertheless shows important differences from what has been reported for Zulu and other Nguni languages. In addition, penultimate lengthening in isiNdebele shows significant internal variation, both across speakers and across utterances produced by the same speaker. This variation has implications for both phonological and syntactic analyses of this language: Many studies of phonological phrasing in other Nguni languages use penultimate length as the main phonetic cue for phrase boundaries, but a strict correlation between PUL and phrasing cannot be confirmed for isiNdebele. Lengthening also depends on factors such as speech rate, emphasis, and careful vs. casual speech.

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.