Workshop on morphological complexity in noun class systems by Rachel Watson

On 21 June we held a workshop on morphological complexity in noun class systems at SOAS. The workshop was organised by our project leader Friederike Lüpke, and inspired by a wish to connect with Francesca Di Garbo, who is doing sterling typological work on this topic in various African language groups. Friederike put together this lovely program, and we were also lucky to have additional learned attendees including our Crossroads project-mates Mia and Sam, as well as Olly Bond and Matthew Baerman all the way from Surrey. We really had a very interesting time and productive discussion, and having spent the last few months attempting to theoretically tame the mad beast that is multilingualism in Casamance, it was rather calming to get back to my (underspecified lexical) roots

Francesca kicked off with a talk introducing her metric of complexity, and exploring this using a number of case studies. The metric breaks morphological complexity into a series of dimensions, and a language is assigned a score for each of those dimensions according to the nature of its noun class system. For example, under the dimension ‘number of gender values’ a language with two genders scores 0 (least complex) and one with 5 or more scores 1 (most complex). Somewhat unsurprisingly, many of the African languages in the sample score high for complexity. The beauty of the approach, however, is that outliers are quickly picked out for further examination. Francesca showed that the noun class systems of Kinshasa Lingala and Bila are unusually uncomplex, and hypothesises that this is due to a peculiar sociolinguistic profile. She stressed the importance of diachronic and sociolinguistic factors in studies of this kind – for me this was a theme that ran through all the talks and became the take-home message of the workshop.

Andrew Harvey presented some of his doctoral research on the wildly complex noun class system of Tanzanian language Gorwaa. Quite apart from his casually impressive pronunciation of Gorwaa forms, I was struck by the sheer scale, on several levels, of his enterprise. This language has around 25 suffixes distributed over three genders (as marked on agreement targets) which have very idiosyncratic behaviour with respect to the number values they mark on different roots.  Andrew has collected data on noun class and agreement for over 1400 nouns  – I can just picture those elicitation sessions :/ Although we work in different frameworks, I found a lot of points of connection between my understanding of noun formation in such languages (essentially that lexical roots are underspecified a la Distributed Morphology). In the discussion, the possibility was raised of applying a paradigm approach to this system, as Alex and I used in our theses and I will be very interested to see what this throws up – in any case we look forward to what will be a very welcome contribution to the noun class literature.

We were very happy to hear about the work of our colleagues at SOAS, and fellow Leverhulme grantees Lutz Marten, Rozenn Guérois and Hannah Gibson. Their project –  Morphosyntactic variation in Bantu: Typology, contact and change – does what it says on the tin; and talking of scale, they investigate features in around 450 languages! Today they presented data on diminutive constructions, which as noun class bods know are very interesting as they can often occupy a hinterland between inflection and derivation. The presentation showed that a broad distinction can be drawn between diminutives formed with noun classes, and those formed with an innovated suffix, originating in a form for ‘child’ (similar to the way that baby– can be used as a prefix in English I suppose), and with a bit of reduplication thrown in for good measure. Integrating the historical and social factors of the languages in their sample they presented a very cautious, but intriguing hypothesis that the languages that retained the innovation may have done so as a result of speakers aligning their identity to, and thus appeasing  new occupiers or powerful populations in their area. Conversely, languages that ultimately rejected the innovation may have been reasserting an oppressed identity.

After the break were talks from Crossroaders Alex Cobbinah and myself. Alex provided a follow-on from Francesca’s talk, breaking down her metric in even greater detail. He showed that while many of the Casamancais languages we study would score similarly (high) for complexity according to this metric, if we score the dimensions on a finer level of granularity we can observe quite significantly different scores. This overtly underscored a topic that also had come up in informal discussion with Francesca, and which seems to be a preoccupation of many of the attendees; namely that we need cooperation and communication between researchers working at all levels – typologists to give us the big picture, and field linguists to delve into details that may often be lost in grammars.

My talk also discussed complexity on a more minute level. I showed that even for Baïnounk Gubëeher and Joola Kujireray, both of which have extremely complex noun class systems which exist in very close contact, there is pretty extreme maintenance of difference between the systems in terms of the form, meaning and structure of the noun classes and the paradigms they form (the differing agreement patterns, which Alex touched on in his talk, and which formed a large part of discussion I’m sure add even greater levels of difference but it makes my head spin a bit so I will leave it for another day). That said, there are some pretty striking, if seemingly kind of random, crossovers between the systems – there seem to be contact effects between collectives, for example, as well a noun class for verbal nouns in the domain of  agriculture and/or fishing. An interesting, if unresolved topic of discussion involved , if we accept the hypothesis that complex noun class systems in contact help to reinforce each other’s complexity, why do they retain such idiosyncrasies without aligning. Again, a working hypothesis to that would probably involve  notions of identity construction and maintenance, although it is clear we have a lot of work to do in this respect.

That was the end and we all went for a nice drink in the sunshine. A big thank you again to everyone who participated, I think it initiated some really nice exchange which we hope will continue.

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