Abstract - Amberber, Billington, Sarvasy

Course: African Languages and Linguistics

Instructors: Mengistu Amberber, Rosey Billington, Hannah Sarvasy

Australian linguistics departments have historically lagged in study of African languages. In this course, three Australia-based researchers with fieldwork experience in multiple sites in North, West, and East Africa present the state-of-the-art in regional phonetics and phonology, and in studies of particular morphosyntactic structures in individual languages and language families. The course aims to present students with a sampling of the panoply of fascinating characteristics in the continent’s languages, and a taste of its linguistic analytic traditions.


Mengistu Amberber Rosey Billington Hannah Sarvasy

Background needed: General background in basic phonology and syntax advisable.

Monday November 27th: The phonetics and phonology of African languages (Instructor: Rosey Billington)

This unit will provide a crosslinguistic overview of the diverse phonological patterns exhibited by languages of the African continent. The range of phonotactic structures and vowel, consonantal and tonal contrasts found across African language families will be discussed, and illustrated with examples from various different languages. Characteristics which are typologically more common among African languages will be examined in detail, and the phonetic bases for key phonemic distinctions will be explored with reference to both classic and recently emerging research. Throughout, theoretical insights resulting from analyses of African phonetic and phonological data will be noted, and specific topics particularly worthy of further research will be highlighted. Some practical suggestions for beginning work on the sound system of an African language will be offered, along with suggested references and resources.

Tuesday November 28th: Typological highlights of morphosyntax in African languages (Instructor: Hannah Sarvasy)

A survey of morphosyntactic characteristics of language families spoken in Africa of interest to typologists. The survey will compare noun class systems and genders across the continent, examine serial verb constructions and clause chains, touch on special typological features like split constituent order (Childs 2005), and conclude with open questions and areas for further research.

Thursday November 30th: Current issues in the syntax and semantics of Amharic (Instructor: Mengistu Amberber)

In this section, we will examine some current issues in the morphosyntax and semantics of Amharic (Semitic; Ethiopia). We will begin with a brief typological overview of Amharic in the context of Semitic and non-Semitic languages of Ethiopia. We will then focus on two areas of current interest: (a) the interaction between modality and the impersonal construction, and (b) the structure of alienable possession. In the domain of the first, we will have a close look at one Amharic verb which corresponds to the English modal ‘can’ in its many uses expressing ‘ability’, ‘possibility’, and ‘permission’. However, when the verb occurs in the impersonal construction where the agent argument is cross-referenced by an object/oblique agreement marker, it expresses the meaning of ‘possibility’ only. In the domain of the second, we will explore the semantics of alienable possession and show that “true possession” or “ownership” is expressed by a construction equivalent to “it is mine”, rather than by the verb that corresponds to “have”, thus lending support to some recent proposals about the semantics of alienable possession.

Friday December 1st: Current topics in Berber studies (Instructor: Hannah Sarvasy)

This unit surveys the current state-of-the-art in Berber linguistics from a typological perspective, focusing on typologically unusual aspects of Tashelhit Berber phonology and pan-Berber morphosyntax, and on the special sociolinguistic context of Berber languages in Morocco. In 1993, mainstream linguists became aware of the existence of Tashelhit Berber through its prominence in Prince and Smolensky’s argument for constraint ranking in phonological analysis. Tashelhit phonology is typologically unusual—possibly unique—because any segment on the sonority hierarchy, including the least sonorous (voiceless stops), may serve as syllable nucleus. The Berber languages are also typologically interesting morphosyntactically. For instance, it has been claimed recently (Mettouchi & Frajzyngier 2013) that the long-recognized distinction marked on Berber nouns between an état libre and an état d’annexion (or two cases) represents an unexplored typological category of coding across various syntactic levels. Finally, Morocco’s indigenous Berber languages Tashelhit, Tamazight and Tarifit Berber were granted national official status by the Moroccan government in 2011. The unit will touch on the current status of these ancient languages, and outlook for the future.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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