The Noun Class System of the Bantu Languages: Part II

As this was my final semester of my undergraduate studies, I completed the capstone for the Linguistics major. For my capstone paper, I chose to undertake a data-based analysis of noun class semantics in Bantu languages. This post and the previous one summarize my research on this topic.

After completing my literature review of relevant research on Bantu noun classes, my next step was to design a methodology for my own data analysis. There are 556 documented Bantu languages divided into 7 subgroups of varying sizes. However, most analysis of Bantu noun class semantics thus far has been conducted on a very narrow sample of these languages, primarily focusing on widely-spoken languages like Swahili. In pursuit of a more representative analysis, I chose 1-2 languages from each subgroup for a total of 12 languages.. In the map below, the Bantu language region is shown in light brown; the dots on the map, which are separate from the legend, indicate the locations in which each of the languages in my sample are spoken. Same-color dots represent languages in the same subgroup.

Edited. Map source: Wikipedia, 
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b5/
Map_of_African_language_families.svg/1280px-Map_of_African_language_families.svg.png

After noting and comparing the semantic themes that appeared in the noun classes and singular/plural noun class pairings in each of the sample languages, here are the ones that were most common:

Class pairing/ monoclass Semantic themes
1/2 Humans, animates
1a/2 Animates, miscellaneous
3/4 Plants, trees, body parts, small animals, nature terms
5/6 Natural sets, body parts, nature terms, nouns derived from verbs, descriptors, miscellaneous
7/8 Small things, body parts, miscellaneous
9/6 Miscellaneous
9/10 Animates, plants, miscellaneous
11/6  
11/10 Long/thin things, miscellaneous
12/13 Diminutive
2 Animates
6 Liquids, uncountables, bulk items/collections
9 Diseases, abstract nouns
14 Abstract nouns
15 Nouns derived from verbs
16 Locatives
17 Locatives
18 Locatives

After determining this possible semantic scheme for the noun class system of Proto-Bantu, I used my research from the literature review and my background linguistic knowledge to speculate as to the probable reasons for the development of this system in modern Bantu languages. The four reasons I defined were:

  1. Influence from other languages: Many Bantu languages are influenced by each other, by other African languages, and/or by colonial European languages, such as French.
  2. Collapsed semantic categories: When speakers lose a strong semantic distinction between two things, one of those things can move into the other’s noun class. A noun class shift for grammatical reasons could also incite semantic change. For example, in the language Pagibete, animals have moved into the human noun class, indicating that the distinction between animate and inanimate is more important than that between animal and human.
  3. Connotative manipulation: In some Bantu languages, nouns can be moved between categories to adjust their meaning. Nearly every language in my sample had a noun class to inflect a pejorative meaning, for example.
  4. Arbitrary nature of language: Sometimes, language changes without semantic, grammatical, or cultural reason. This could well be the case for Bantu noun classes.

I had never done linguistic data analysis on this scale before, and it was fascinating to learn the ins and outs of so many languages and look for patterns. Furthermore, I enjoyed the tidbits of cultural information I learned in studying these languages’ vocabularies, language samples, and semantics. While I am convinced that a Bantu language would be incredibly difficult for a native English speaker to learn, I now am more motivated to try!

The Noun Class System of the Bantu Languages: Part I

As this was my final semester of my undergraduate studies, I completed the capstone for the Linguistics major. For my capstone paper, I chose to undertake a data-based analysis of noun class semantics in Bantu languages. This post and the following one will summarize my research on this topic.

The Bantu languages, spoken across the southern half of Africa, comprise a subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family. The area in which Bantu languages are spoken is shown in beige on the map below.

Image source: Wikipedia, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/Niger-Congo_map.png

Bantu languages are hypothesized to have descended from one mother language, Proto-Bantu. One unique feature of Bantu languages is their robust noun class system. You are probably familiar with the feminine/masculine gender system in Romance languages. The concept of noun classes is similar, except while Romance languages have 2-3 genders, Bantu languages can have up to 23 noun classes! Further, these noun classes are not only expressed on nouns and adjectives, but also on verbs, prepositions, and more. 

While the grammatical structure of the Proto-Bantu noun class system is well-defined, any semantic basis is hazy at best. There are two main theories regarding the development of noun class systems: one, proposed by Malcolm Guthrie in 1967, argues for semantically arbitrary noun classes determined only by grammatical and morphological criteria. The other, proposed by Denny and Creider in 1976, presents a possible semantic hierarchy for Bantu noun classes.

Why is this important? For one thing, understanding the noun class system of Proto-Bantu can give us clues to how Bantu languages, and their associated ethnic groups, have migrated, merged, and diverged over time. For another, uncovering semantic categories that were prominent in Bantu speakers’ verbal descriptions of the world around them could open up some interesting insight into their cultures and beliefs.

While I don’t address this social analysis in my research, it would be a fascinating follow-up to my work for an anthropologist to undertake. In my next post, I will explain how I looked at modern Bantu languages to develop hypotheses about Proto-Bantu noun class semantics.

Amharic

In my morphology class this semester, I did a project on Amharic, a language I’ve wanted to learn more about for a long time.

Amharic is a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia; it is a primary language in the off-white area of Ethiopia on the map to the left. This language is notoriously complex in terms of its morphology and grammar, as each word has a root that can appear to change significantly in different grammatical situations.

Image source: The Language Gulper

In my project, I investigated the relationship between case-marking (which indicates whether a noun is a subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.) and valence-modifying operations (things like causative – ‘I make you eat potatoes’, passive – ‘potatoes were eaten by you’, etc.). Amharic has a nominative-accusative case-marking system, like English – meaning it distinguishes between subject and object. However, it has a marker that goes directly on the noun to indicate nominative or accusative case, which English does not have.

It took me eleven pages of data and discussion to complete my analysis, but the essence of my conclusion is this: only nouns functioning as an accusative argument are marked in causative and passive operations, and only one of these may be marked in a sentence. When a decision has to be made about which accusative argument to mark, Amharic prefers to mark nouns indicating the goal or source of a verb to those indicating the theme of the verb.

It was very interesting to investigate these operations in a morphological and grammatical system that much more complex than English’s is. However, my favorite thing I learned was a related crumb of information I stumbled upon. In Amharic, the causative can be layered onto the passive (which is not possible in English, but would take the translated form, rather inelegantly, of something like: ‘I made the potatoes be eaten by you’). The following examples show how these layered operations in Amharic result in logical and beautiful shifts in meaning:

(a) awwək-ə
      disturb-3SM.PF
      ‘disturb’ (Leslau 1995:503)
(b) t-awwək-ə
      PASS-disturb-3SM.PF
      ‘be disturbed’ (Leslau 1995:503)
(c) as-t-awwək-ə
      CAUS-PASS-disturb-3SM.PF
      ‘cause to be disturbed’ (Leslau 1995:503)

Amharic language source:
Leslau, W., & Thomas Leiper Kane Collection (Library of Congress. Hebraic           Section). (1995). Reference grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden, Germany:           Harrassowitz.

Remembering China

This June will mark two years since I returned from my study abroad semester in China. Although it feels like another lifetime now, there are still memories that arise suddenly and strongly, making me miss the place I called home for five months. The photo on the right is the view from my dorm window in Beijing.

The smell of cucumbers reminds me of when I hiked Mount Hua on a scorching Shaanxi day and I ate the most refreshing cucumber I’ve ever had.

Atop Mount Hua

Seeing bike- and scooter-sharing programs around OU’s campus reminds me of biking all around Beijing to see all of its cool historical and cultural landmarks.

Avery and me at Beihai Park

When eggplant is on sale, I buy some and attempt to recreate one of my favorite dishes from China, savory qiezi.

Another of my favorite meals – roasted chicken, rice, fried egg, and sauteed Chinese cabbage with an Asian pear on the side.

I am grateful for these moments that bring up memories of an amazing time in my life. I plan to relive them for real someday – the sooner I can get back to China, the better!

Wang Dan: China’s Student Outlaw

In Chinese Politics this semester, I also learned about the Tiananmen Square Movement and some key individuals who took part in the protest. This was a 1989 student movement to speak out in favor of political reform; the protest turned violent when, after several days of occupying Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, the students were forcibly removed by the military. 

One significant figure in the movement was Wang Dan, a Peking University student who had a passion for political involvement and started the movement. When the movement was broken up, he managed to escape to Taiwan. Now he lives in the United States. As I was learning about him, I was fascinated that he has still managed to stay so vocal about and involved in Chinese political reform, despite being an exile from his country.

Wang is remembered as the brave student who spearheaded the democracy movement in the spring of 1989. Although the leadership groups he was a part of were weak and unstable, his willingness to step forward and lead when others wouldn’t gained him respect among students then and now. Since 1989, Wang has published 3 books about his experience and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the democracy movement.[

Wang Dan remains vocal to this day about Chinese political reform. He says that he has more fleshed-out ideas now than he did in 1989, and that he’s a “born idealist” – he can’t stop pushing for reform in China. He’s been very active in discussions about America’s role in Chinese reform specifically. Speaking on political and economic reform in China, Wang said, “I believe they will not do it if there is no pressure from the Chinese people and from the international community.”In 2017, he traveled throughout the United States hosting “China salons” at universities, hoping to encourage discussion between Chinese and American students on topics that are taboo in China. However, he discovered that political conversations in even these settings are affected by the scope of the Chinese government’s authoritarianism: “The Chinese Communist Party is extending its surveillance of critics abroad, reaching into Western academic communities and silencing visiting Chinese students.” Thus, his influence in China has been limited because of intimidation from the Chinese government.

In the last year, Wang has two new ideas for pushing reform. He plans to found a think tank in Washington, D.C. to oppose the Chinese government, a project he is calling “the second major battle of my life.” Next, he is trying to launch a forum with the Confucius Institute, “1989 Pro-Democracy Movement and Its Suppression”, both to encourage discussion and to “play up what critics say are contradictions and controversies surrounding the Confucius Institute.” However, he doesn’t expect the Confucius Institute to respond to his request,as he sees the organization as a mouthpiece of the CCP.[

As previously mentioned, the influence of Wang Dan and his current ideas are limited in China due to the monitoring and censorship by the Chinese government. However, while teaching in Taiwan, he found that visiting Chinese students still know who he is. What’s more, many choose to take his classes and aren’t afraid to have his name on their transcripts. This gives Wang Dan hope for the future of democracy and frees peech in China. Wang Dan leaves the Communist Party with this warning regarding their future:“There will be only two choices: democracy, or die.”


Sources:

Foarde, Connor. “Tiananmen Square Hero Challenges China-Backed Institutes with Provocative 30-Year Memorial.” The Washington Times, July 4, 2018, World.

He,Rowena Xiaoqing. Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Tsao, Nadia. “Chinese Dissident Wang Dan to Start New US Think Tank.” Taipei Times, January 20, 2018, Taiwan News.

Tsui, Anjali, and Esther Pang. “China’s Tiananmen Activists: Where Are They Now?” CNN, June 4, 2014, On China.

Wang Dan. “Beijing Hinders Free Speech in America.” The New York Times, November 26, 2017, Opinion. 

Wang Dan. Speech, June 2, 2003. In Voice of the Small Handful: 1989 Student Movement Leaders Assess Human Rights in Today’s China, by Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 7-42. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003.

Wang Dan and Cao Yaoxue. “Twenty-Eight Years After – An Interview with Wang Dan.” Dialogue China. Last modified October 25, 2017.

Wright, Teresa Ann. “Protest and Peril: Students, Democracy, and the State of China and Taiwan.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley.

Religious Politics in China

In my Chinese Politics class, we’ve also spent some time talking about the politics of religion. While China has official freedom of religion, stringent rules surrounding the expression of different religions means that, in practice, religion is very controlled. China’s authoritarian government is very concerned about people having allegiance to any religious figure or moral code above the government itself.

Religious groups must be registered with the state, and are then restricted in terms of public observations of faith, recognition of religious authorities, content of religious messages, and more. Some religions, like Buddhism-based Falun Gong, are outright banned. For others, like Christianity, the restrictions have led to the proliferation of underground religious groups like house churches.

When I studied abroad in Beijing, I was interested in attending a house church, but was told that it is dangerous for house churches to allow non-citizens because foreigners are so much more closely monitored by the government. I attended one service at a Three Self Patriotic Church (the only official Protestant association in the country). For most of my time in Beijing, I attended an international church, which was required by law to post a sign barring Chinese nationals from entering.

While the Chinese government is fairly hostile to Christianity, its treatment of Islam is egregious. As a part of the recent “Strike Hard” campaign, the government has been cracking down on Islam in Xinjiang, a majority-Muslim province in northwest China. Under the claim of protecting China from terrorism, the campaign involves the criminalization of Islamic religious activities and the detention of practicing Muslims in concentration camps. As of this year, it is estimated that 1 million Muslims are being held in these camps.

Although China has been receiving pushback from the international community for their human rights violations, there seems to be no softening of religious policy in sight. Meanwhile, the increase in underground religious organizations provides the means for organization against the government.

China’s Environmental Crisis

This semester, I’ve been taking a Chinese Politics course. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this class is reflecting on my time in China and connecting what I’m learning about China’s current events and policies to my own experiences there a year and a half ago.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about environmental policy and environmentalism in China. China’s rapid industrialization over the past few decades and a general lack of pollution control measures have led to serious concerns over air quality. These first became prominent in Chinese politics discussions prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when international concern for the health of the athletes pressured Beijing to implement some pollution-decreasing regulations. However, those were temporary, and the air quality in China’s industrial centers has continued to worsen.

I experienced these conditions firsthand during my time in Beijing. The worst day was one in May, when a combination of pollution and a dust storm blowing in from the north raised the AQI (Air Quality Index) to 896, as my AQI app showed. For reference, below 50 is “good”, and below 100 is “adequate”.

The view from my dorm window on the AQI-896 day

The hazardous nature of the air pollution makes it necessary to wear a mask most days in Beijing, so my navy blue one became a staple accessory.

Discussion about the need for environmental policy reform has increased over the past few years, but because the Chinese government is authoritarian, criticisms of current policy must be cautiously expressed. One common way to call for reform is to frame it in terms of concern for the next generation. This is the tactic used in the 2015 online documentary “Under the Dome”, which acquired 200 million views. Other movements like Not In My Backyard protests are also gaining momentum. With China’s recent key role in the Paris Climate Agreement, we can be hopeful that cities like Beijing will soon have cleaner air and bluer skies.

Memory and Perspective

This semester I’m taking my Honors Colloquium, “History, Memory, Conflict: The Second World War since 1945”. Prior to this course, my perspective on WWII was almost entirely American, from classes scattered throughout my middle and high school education and books I’d read. Within this semester, however, I’ve experienced literature and film from not just the American viewpoint, but also Japanese, Polish, and German.

The key issue in Japanese memory of WWII is the fact that they were not victors. Their picture of the war is framed with the knowledge that they lost, and they accordingly have to decide how positively or negatively to present various events of the war. This challenge has a cultural aspect as well: because of the Japanese cultural value of “face”, which has to do with pride and one’s social standing, it is difficult for them to directly admit to some parts of their culpability in WWII. 

The Polish perspective on the war is unique because Poland was essentially “ground zero” in WWII: they were first to be conquered by Germany, and they were eventually occupied simultaneously by both the German and Soviet armies. The Polish government never officially surrendered to the Germans, which means that Poland can claim its victimhood without an equally large sense of guilt for the war. However, this also means that the losses Poland suffered in the war were staggering, and their memory of the war has to deal with that trauma.

My understanding of the German experience of the war mainly comes from the book A Woman in Berlin, a diary written by a German woman living in Berlin when it fell in 1945, signaling the end of the war. Her memory of the war has to deal with some similar issues as Japanese memory: finding a balance between the identities of perpetrator and victim. It’s clear from her description of 1945 Berlin that it was a time of destruction and pain for its citizens, but she also asks the question, to what extent is it deserved?

These are just a few specific examples of perspectives from countries around the world on WWII. Before this class, I didn’t think much about the nature of history and memory; I suppose I thought there was a “right” way to remember history, and assumed that any deviations from that were derived from biases and were therefore incorrect. However, after reading accounts of how the war played out in these different areas, I’ve realized that the war really did take on different characteristics in different places and cultures. The war affected each country and person involved differently; although there were varying degrees of culpability and victimization, everyone suffered in one way or another. The way a person remembers history is not necessarily wrong just because it comes from a different viewpoint from my own, or even a general American/Western one; it just means that through personal or national experience, their memory of the war has taken on a different meaning. This lesson can be applied to current events and cultures as well, not just history.

Digo

This semester, I’m taking a class in the Linguistics department called Typology. Typology involves looking at trends in morphology and syntax across languages and using them to make predictions about the behavior of language in general. 

The final paper in this class is a typological study of one language in particular, and for my language I chose Digo, a Bantu language spoken in areas of Kenya and Tanzania by only 300,000 people. I’ve never studied an African language before; I have experience with Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, but from the beginning of my research it became clear that this Bantu language was unlike anything I’d seen before. 

For one thing, Digo has 18 nominal classes – like the two genders in Romance languages. Each noun belongs in a nominal class, and any adjective or verb that refers to that noun carries a unique nominal concord that indicates the noun’s class. For native speakers of Digo, this is internalized and natural; for me, a native speaker of a language that has no classes at all, it sounds impossible to keep all these classes and concords straight.

Digo is also synthetic, which means that a lot of meaningful parts go into each individual word. For example, there are 9 parts to a verb in Digo, including things like noun concords, passive markers, tense markers, and more. This is another contrast with English, which is an analytic language, which means that most meaningful parts of the language are separate from each other.

Although learning about the typological properties of the Digo language itself hasn’t given me much insight to Digo culture, it has been interesting to see just how different a language can be from the ones I know. Additionally, in researching data in Digo, I’ve had the opportunity to read several short stories and essays translated into English. The moral lessons and storytelling techniques in these has been interesting to observe. 

I’ll be doing my capstone for Linguistics next semester, and I’m hoping that in my final paper I get the chance to look at another new and unique language – who knows what I’ll learn then!

How I Travel Now

Right now, I’m sitting in the airport in OKC, waiting for my flight home for winter break. After winter break, I’ll be coming back here for the spring semester at OU. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this time last year, when I was leaving Oklahoma knowing I wouldn’t be back until after I’d done a semester in China. Things are a lot different this time around. As I reflect, here are some things I’ve learned to do differently:

  1. Pack better. My freshman year winter break, I checked a 50-pound bag and had a carry-on duffel and a backpack for just a month-long break. This year, I have just a carry-on duffel and backpack – and they’re not even full! Packing light for China and my subsequent travels has definitely helped me to learn how little I actually need when traveling.
  2. Toughen up. I’m sick now; I was sick last year when I was leaving Oklahoma too. But this time, even though I feel horrible, I’m better able to push through it and do what I need to do. Traveling around Asia, including getting food poisoning in the middle of the journey, really helps with that.
  3. Say goodbye. I’m closer to my friends now than I was when I left for China last winter, but after eight months of not seeing them, 3 weeks away is nothing to worry about.
  4. Be flexible. Halfway through writing this post, my flight got cancelled. Now I’ve got a flight early tomorrow morning and plans to go wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be-married roommate tonight. The destruction of well-laid plans is just another opportunity for adventure – which was definitely true when I was abroad.
  5. The correct travel outfit: maxi skirt (warm weather) or jeans (cold weather), comfy short-sleeved shirt that doesn’t show stains, warm socks, pull-on boots, cozy wrap sweater, simple jewelry. Works every time.