An image of a village in Southern Africa
Photo: Eva-Marie Bloom Ström

How do words get in order? The role of speaker-hearer interaction in languages of southern Africa

Research project
Active research
Project period
2022 - ongoing
Project owner
Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science

Short description

This study will investigate how word order interacts with morphological marking and phonological phrasing, and how this correlates with information structure in the Nguni subgroup of Bantu languages in South Africa, such as Zulu and Xhosa.
The word order in the Nguni languages is very flexible and has importance for pragmatic meaning. Relatively little is still known about how the different word orders, in combination with grammatical agreement and prosody, map onto differences in meaning. What we do know is that the shared knowledge between speakers, as well as the intentions of the speaker, have an important role to play; how does the speaker add to already shared information, what is important in the conversation and what is suggested to be true or not.

The study includes the checking of existing hypotheses against natural spoken data, as well as micro-comparative research in varieties which – although closely related – differ in their morphological marking in ways relevant for information structure. A corpus of spoken data collected by the applicant forms the back-bone of material, complemented by interviews in three varieties of Nguni. Such interview are carried out in a collaborative effort with researchers who are specialized in Xhosa, Southern Ndebele and Zulu. All have expertise in the factors that are crucial in the organization of word order. Their respective recent findings will now come together in a unique opportunity to address unanswered questions in the language group.
Underlying this proposal is the hypothesis that a main driving force behind word order variation in Nguni is whether a person or thing referred to has already been mentioned or can be inferred from context, how recently it has been mentioned (activation state, topicality) and what can be interpreted as alternatives (focus). The first and main aim of the study is to work out in further detail how these activation states and presence of alternatives correlate with the structure of the sentence. Following from this first aim, the second aim is to establish what the function is of the – often referred to as unmarked – Subject Verb (Object) word order. The hypothesis is that there is a relation with the polarity of the sentence. Confirming/denying a proposition is referred to as verum.

Findings will be interpreted in a cross-linguistic and typological perspective. The outcome will inform current debates in information structure and increase our knowledge of what controls word orders in languages with high word order flexibility, by bringing in systematic data from a language family on which relatively little semantic/pragmatic research has been carried out.

Interview with Eva-Marie Bloom Ström

Eva-Marie Bloom Ström has been awarded a three-year research grant from the Swedish Research Council, to study the Nguni languages in South Africa. Her work includes interviews with people whose native language is Zulu or Xhosa.

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