Chapter 5. Reconstructing the Niger-Congo Verb Extension Paradigm

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<i>You cannot reconstruct a language phylum unless you have good arguments about which language families it includes. The most striking case is Altaic, where one group of scholars produces thousands of reconstructed forms, and another denies that the major branches are even related. The most extreme case for Niger-Congo is Gerrit Dimmendaal&#8217;s 2011 book, which rejects numerous established branches and treats them as &#8220;independent&#8221;.</i> (Blench 2012: 1)It is generally assumed that Proto-Niger-Congo (PNC) had a well-developed paradigm of verb-to-verb derivational suffixes known as verb extensions (Voeltz 1977; Hyman 2007). Specific language studies identify three types of extensions: valence increasing (e.g. causative, applicative, associative, instrumental), valence decreasing (e.g. reciprocal, reflexive, decausative, passive, stative) and valence neutral (e.g. intensive, attenuative, pluractional). Sometimes also implicated in the suffix system are inflectional suffixes marking aspect (e.g. (im)perfectivity)). Despite the assumption of such verb extensions at the PNC level, languages within the vast Niger-Congo family of ca. 1200 languages differ considerably: Some have very full paradigms of verb extensions, e.g. many Atlantic languages (Becher 2000) in the West and nearly all Bantu in the East (Meeussen 1967). Others have a limited subset of the above, only a few traces, or perhaps no verb extensions at all (e.g. much of Mande). This paper is concerned with strategies for determining whether the various reflexes of the causative, applicative etc are cognate, i.e. inherited from PNC, are copied directly or indirectly through external contact, or result from renewal via morphological cycles (Heath 1998). One problem is that head-marking and such verb extensions are found in all four of Greenberg&#8217;s (1963) original African macro-groups (Dimmendaal 2000: 187&#8211;188). Starting with Bantu and then moving out to other parts of Niger-Congo and bordering non-Niger-Congo, I address both the substantive and methodological issues involved in comparing phonetically and semantically similar verb suffixes and their linear ordering properties.


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