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The gem is in the details: Typological generalisations and the genius of West African languages

Jeudi 12 novembre / Thursday November 12th 2020

20h00 (Paris Time)

Pr. Felix Ameka

A talk on the genius of West African Languages.

West African languages have contributed to our understanding of several linguistic features. They have served as foundations for phonological typology based on features such as tone, vowel harmony, double articulated stops, sound symbolic words or ideophones. On the morphological side, they have contributed to our understanding of the nature of isolating languages as well as various agglutinative features. In the area of the grammar of repetition, they have shown a distinction between reduplication, triplication and other repetitive structures. In syntactic typology, these languages have shaped our understanding of transitivity, serial verb constructions, split predicate

constructions and logophoricity. We are just beginning to acknowledge their tremendous importance for lexico-semantic typology: they seem to be manner salient in the coding of action events (Heath and MacPherson 2009); they distinguish between macro-colours and focal colours (Ameka 2012); and they go against generalisations about the semantics of separation verbs (e.g. Ameka and Essegbey 2007; Agyepong 2017; Bobuafor 2018). While these features do represent aspects of the genius of West African languages, some of their descriptions and generalisations made about them in the literature fail to appreciate the details that are the real characterization of their genius. In this talk, I want to draw attention to some details of these languages which have been overlooked in their description and the quest for typological generalisations. I focus on three domains where the details of West African languages matter: First, I explore the linguistics of environmental phenomena. Some of these languages lack ‘weather’ verbs (Koopman 1986, Lefebvre and Brousseaux 2002), yet in their descri the typology of linguistics of weather (Eriksen et al. 2010, 2012), some of them are treated as if they have such verbs. I argue that the strategies deployed to talk about environmental phenomena provide a window on the worldview of the peoples. Second, I examine the linguistics of time reckoning (especially of days) and the temporal frames of reference employed. I demonstrate that the languages use a combination of cyclic time and the origo-oriented perspective in which ‘today’ is the center and there is a movement away from this deictic centre in both directions. One consequence of this is that some languages code the equidistant day from today in both directions in the same form (i.e. the words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are the same). This raises a number of questions: are such terms vague or ambiguous? How does one achieve precision in interaction in this vagueness? How does one account for their semantics? Addressing these questions would reveal how the genius of these languages is articulated in the details of these constructions. Third, I discuss two functions in the domain of quantification in Ewe: unitization and its interaction with plural marking, and the singulative. The details of the constructions and strategies involved are distinctive and not accounted for yet in typological discussions of these topics.


Ameka, Felix K. 2012 [1991] Ewe: its grammatical constructions and illocutionary devices. Munich: Lincom Europa

Ameka, Felix K. and James Essegbey. 2007. Cut and break verbs in Ewe and the causative alternation construction. Cognitive Linguistics 18(2). 241-250.

Agyepong, Dorothy P. 2017. 'Cutting' and 'breaking' events in Akan. PhD Diss. University of Cape Town.

Bobuafor, Mercy. 2018. Separation events in Tafi language and culture. Studies in African Linguistics 47.1/2 (2018): 1-23.

Eriksen, Pål Kristian, Seppo Kittilä, and Leena Kolehmainen. 2010. The linguistics of weather: Cross-linguistic patterns of meteorological expressions. Studies in Language. 34.(3). 565-601.

Eriksen, Pål Kristian, Seppo Kittilä, and Leena Kolehmainen. 2012.. Weather and language. Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (6). 383-402.

Heath, Jeffrey, and Laura McPherson. 2009. Cognitive set and lexicalization strategy in Dogon action verbs. Anthropological linguistics 51(1). 38-63.

Koopman, Hilda. 1986. The genesis of Haitian: Implications of a comparison of some features of the syntax of Haitian, French, and West African languages. In Muysken, Pieter, and Norval Smith, (eds.). Substrata versus universals in creole genesis: papers from the Amsterdam Creole Workshop, April 1985, 231-258. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lefebvre, Claire and Anne-Marie Brousseau. 2002.A grammar of Fongbe. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Version française : 

La perle rare est dans les détails: généralisations typologiques et génie des langues d'Afrique de l'Ouest

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