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Negation in Ngoreme - on a system in flux

Culture and languages

Seminar within the research area Linguistic Structures, Department of Languages and Literatures. All interested are welcome!

26 Nov 2020
13:15 - 14:30

Rasmus Bernander, Helsingfors University
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Seminar language: English

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Department of Languages and Literatures


This talk focuses on negation in Ngoreme (JE401) [ngq], a Great Lakes Bantu language spoken by some 55,000 speakers in the linguistically dense Mara region in north-western Tanzania (Aunio et al. 2019). The domain of negation in Ngoreme is in a state of considerable flux; it appears to be caught up in several different and intertwining diachronic cycles of change affecting both standard (main/declarative) as well as non-standard negation.

In contrast to its closest relatives, Ngoreme seems to have moved towards the (re-)instantiation of a more canonical Bantu negative system with a syntactically based and syntagmatically coded division of labor between a “pre-initial” negator te-/ti- for standard negation and a “post-initial” negative prefix -ta- for more “marked” clauses (cf. Güldemann 1999; Nurse 2008:179-201; Devos forthc.). This shift, however, is far from complete, as negative main clauses may still optionally be expressed with the post-initial negator. What is more, the pre-initial negative prefix may be accompanied with a (non-obligatory) post-verbal particle he in a type of discontinuous negation construction more reminiscent of the initial stages of the cross-linguistically renowned Jespersen’s Cycle (see e.g. van der Auwera 2010, Devos & van der Auwera 2013).

Changes are also taking place with regard to non-standard negation: The imperative verb form inflected with post-initial negative morphology has been re-analyzed as expressing an affirmative rather than a negative command. Instead, imperatives – but also several subordinate clause types – are negated through the use of different auxiliaries which vary in functional range.

Finally, there is a separate development where another auxiliary construction marking ‘not yet’ (as well as ‘before’) appears to be neutralizing into a regular negative perfect along the cyclic route sketched by Veselinova & Devos (2021).

The aim of this talk is to account for this intriguing mess and the historical processes behind it, drawing on language-internal as well as both intra- and inter-genealogical comparative data.  


  • Aunio, L., H. Robinson, T. Roth, O. Stegen & J. B. Walker. 2019. The Mara languages JE40. In M. van de Velde, K. Bostoen, D. Nurse & G. Philippson (eds.), The Bantu Languages, 501-532. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Devos, M. forthcoming. Negation. To appear in L. Marten (ed.) Oxford Guide to Bantu Languages. Oxford: OUP.
  • Devos, M. & J. van der Auwera. 2013. Jespersen cycles in Bantu: double and triple negation. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 34(2): 205-274.
  • Güldemann, T. 1999. The genesis of verbal negation in Bantu and its dependency on functional features of clause types. In J.-M. Hombert & L. Hyman (eds.), Bantu Historical Linguistics: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives, 545-587. Stanford: CSLI (Center for the Study of Language and Information) Publ.
  • van der Auwera, J. 2010. On the diachrony of negation. In L. R. Horn (ed.), The expression of negation (The Expression of Cognitive Categories 4), 73–109. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Veselinova, L. & M. Devos. 2021. NOT YET expressions as a lexico-grammatical category in Bantu languages. To appear in R. Kramer (ed.), The Expression of Phasal Polarity in African Languages. Berlin: De Gruyter.