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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Investigating isiXhosa sound changes in the lab

Date Released: Mon, 19 October 2015 16:28 +0200

Rhodes linguist Will Bennett investigated the origins of an interesting sound pattern in isiXhosa along with Kelly Goldstuck, an English Language and Linguistics 3 student from 2014, and Aaron Braver, a colleague from Texas Tech University.  He presented the group’s findings at the World Congress of African Linguistics in Kyoto, Japan, in August, and also shared them at a Departmental Research Seminar on Tuesday 6 October.

As with most African languages, IsiXhosa’s nouns are divided into several classes, each of which has a different prefix.  The sound pattern in IsiXhosa that Will was talking about happens in some of these noun class prefixes, which change based on the length of the noun itself.  For example, indlela ‘road’ and indlu ‘house’ are both nouns from class 9, and so their plurals fall in class 10.  However, they make their plural forms in different ways: iindlela is the plural of indlela, while izindlu is the plural of indlu. The shorter of these nouns, indlu, takes a longer form of the class 10 prefix, izin-, while the longer noun, indlela, takes the shorter form of the prefix, ii-. This pattern extends to other noun classes as well: most nouns of class 5 take the prefix i- (e.g. icephe ‘spoon’), but short nouns take the prefix ili- (ilitye ‘stone’).

Previous researchers have noted these patterns but to the group’s knowledge no previous work has tried to find out whether these patterns are a result of historical changes, or are also part of the active phonological rules of modern isiXhosa. They used an experimental approach to try to find out which of these explanations is the best one. Their findings show that mother-tongue speakers of isiXhosa are aware that the noun class prefixes change according to the length of the noun, and suggest that this is part of their knowledge of the sound system of the language.

Source:Will Bennett