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2. Morpho-Phonology


The surface forms of NC markers are largely parallel in different morphophonological environments:



The few differences in surface form seem to be derivable by rule:

·        The verbal noun class markers seem to be closest to the /CV-/ base form, since their shape reoccurs in all forms with slight modifications.

·        The class markers on nouns are combinations of the class marking proper and an 'initial vowel' (Canonici 1995, Doke 1954 refers to it as a 'pre-prefix'), which does not seem to be more than a mere reduplication of the class marker vowel[2], which is presumably prosodically motivated. In her analysis of Swahili, Carstens 1993 subsumes the first 10 noun classes under 5 genders with singular/plural pairs:



                        sing      pl

      Gender A:  NC1      NC2

      Gender B:  NC3      NC4

      Gender C:  NC5      NC6

      Gender D:  NC7      NC8

      Gender E:  NC9      NC10


She further assumes that noun roots are lexically marked for gender. The noun class prefixes are analysed as heads of DP which provide gender specific number marking: [DP NC [NP N ] ].

·        Noun class markers on adjectives are similar combinations of a noun class marker and an initial vowel and seem to be derivative of the nominal markers. The derivation seems to follow a straightforward phonological rule that lowers initial [+ high] vowels in the nominal prefix. Adjectival class markers only occur in their bound form, never stand alone.

·        Demonstrative marking seems to be derivative from the adjectival marking by addition of /l-/. The demonstrative forms given in (6) typically occur as prefixed elements, but they can also stand alone, i.e. they can have full pronominal functionality. Of course, they have a similar emphatic interpretation as absolute pronouns, but this is already expected from the demonstrative semantics.   

·        The absolute pronouns mostly substitute the vowel of the base form with /o/. They can surface with their basic CV form or optionally take the suffix /-na/. Since there appear to be good reasons to analyse the base form as D in the typical nominal context, one may be tempted to conjecture that /-na/ represents the actual pronominal element which may be replaced by pro when the base form surfaces alone. However, Zulu overall seems to comply to a (violable?) constraint against prosodic words of less than two syllables (except for the frequently occuring cha ‘no’ and na ‘question marker’, the occurrence of CV words seems to be rather restricted). Since absolute pronouns are in their semantics emphatic, they are presumably required to have prosodic word status, which is achieved by adding a default suffix /-na/.[3] Prosodically deficient /-C-/ verbal roots in the imperative are rescued with a similar strategy: since the imperative is formed without noun class or tense inflection, the root would merely be expanded by the final vowel, yielding /Ca/. Since verbs have to gain prosodic word status, /-na/ is affixed here as well, resulting in /Cana/. The analysis of /-na/ as a prosodic filler is supported by the fact that deficient imperative verbs can alternatively be fixed with a default prefix /yi-/:


 [ lw ]imperative > yi -lw-a or lw-a-na
def  root   FV root-FV-def

Notice that both /yi-/ and /-na/ are phonologically inconspicuous insofar as their consonants require only minimal underlying specification. Both [coronal] and [voice] are features that are supplied by default mechanisms in many languages. If this analysis is extended to Zulu, /y/ would only require [liquid] and /n/ only [nasal] underlyingly. Both /yi-/ and /-na/ are thus prototypical default syllables in their phonology, and the fact that they are freely interchangeable suggests that they do not carry distinctive meaning either. It is thus unlikely that /-na/ supplies the pronominal element in absolute pronouns, which seems to force an analysis along the line of

[ [ [ NC ]D  pro ]DP (-na)].  

            There are a few more environments in which NC morphology occurs (e.g. on numerals, possessive). These manifestations are related to the base form in a similarly systematic fashion as in the instances described above. I thus propose that we are really not dealing with a whole collection of different NC markers which all accidentally look alike (as the literature implicitly seems to suggest), but rather with a single paradigm with different surface forms. These surface forms are predictable from the morphophonological and/or syntactic environment. The most contentious part of this claim is that subject and object class markers belong to one and the same category, so I will devote a large part of this paper to the discussion of verbal morphology.[4] 

            The systematicity of the NC morphology is not particular to Zulu, but quite likely represents a general characteristic of the Bantu language family as a whole. In spot-checks, I have verified that similar paradigms exist in  geographically close (Southern African) languages (Tsonga, Southern Sotho, Northern Sotho, Venda, Tswana, Ndebele, Siswati), and also the geographically distant Oshindonga (from Cameroon).[5]


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[1]                 'Absolute pronouns' are free morphemes and thus contrast with otherwise bound NC morphology.

[2]               Thwala (1996: 25) assumes that the 'initial vowel' is an epenthetic underspecified V-slot, to which the features of the noun class marker vowel spread.

[3]               cf. a parallel analysis for Siswati by Thwala (1996: 45)

[4]               Radford (1988: 141) provides a similar line of argument for conflating lexical categories: 'Adjectives and Adverbs are in systematic complementary distribution, and should therefore be regarded as positional variants of each other, and assigned to the same overall category'.

[5]               In fact, many languages with similarly rich morphology exhibit the same systematic relationship between subject and object agreement with independent pronouns, cf. Amele (Gum, Papua-New Guinea), Hausa (Chadic, Africa), Navajo (Athapaskan, USA).