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Language under the microscope

Date Released: Tue, 2 September 2014 16:24 +0200

Language under the microscope

Two Rhodes linguists recently published their research in a special edition of the journal Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, entitled “Microlinguistics in Southern Africa”.  As the title implies, this edition was dedicated to analyses of the smallest units of language: its sounds (phonetics and phonology), word-building processes (morphology) and sentence structure (syntax). 

Mark de Vos wrote an article entitled “Atomic Homogeneity: A semantic strategy for the determination of plurality in the complex noun phrases of South African EnglishBoth learners of English and English natives struggle with strange agreement patterns with group nouns.  Nouns like committee and team can trigger either singular or plural agreement.  Some partitive constructions take either plural agreement – group of students is/are coming to the party – while others seem to only take plural agreement – a couple of students are coming to the party.   For many people learning English, these constructions seem to act randomly, are frustrating and are almost never explained very well by language teachers (Generally the `rules’ provided by teachers don’t really capture the way people use the language and tend to have lots of exceptions anyway).

Mark’s article grapples with this problem and provides a solution that will be of interest to linguists and language teachers alike.   We discovered that very, very few speakers use the official, prescriptive rules for this construction.  However, many speakers seem to use a particular kind of semantics to calculate agreement patterns.  The semantic strategy they use is what we call “homogeneous distributivity”.   To simplify it slightly, if you can subdivide an object into smaller bits of the same type, then it takes plural agreement.  If, when you subdivide an object, the smaller bits are of a different type, then it takes plural agreement. 

An example of this is the following.  A forest is a group of trees.  But just one tree cannot be a forest, so this noun triggers plural agreement.  On the other hand, a group of students can be divided into smaller groups that are still groups of students – even if they are small groups.  Consequently this type of noun takes plural agreement.

Ron Simango contributed an article entitled “Vowel hiatus resolution in ciNsenga: An Optimality Theory analysis”, together with Maxwell Kadenge from Wits University.  The article presents data from ciNsenga (Bantu N41 in terms of Guthrie’s classification) which shows that although languages generally avoid vowel hiatus (i.e. a sequence of two consecutive vowels), this phenomenon is permitted to occur in a very limited context in the language. The article first presents the contexts in which vowel hiatus is banned and the strategies that are utilised to resolve it when it occurs; then goes on to show the context in which resolution strategies are suspended and vowel hiatus allowed to occur. Specifically it is shown that given a V1V2 sequence vowel hiatus is permitted only when V2 is a stem-initial vowel of a verb. These ciNsenga facts are accounted for using insights from Optimality Theory.

Source:Ian Siebörger