Actionality and aspect in Southern Ndebele and Xhosa, two Nguni languages of South Africa




actionality in Bantu, verbal lexical semantics, grammar-lexicon interface, Nguni languages, Southern Ndebele, Xhosa


This paper presents some key findings of studies of actionality and the verbal grammar–lexicon interface in two Nguni Bantu languages of South Africa, Xhosa and Southern Ndebele. We describe interactions between grammatical tense marking (and other sentential bounding elements) and lexical verb types, arguing for the salience of inchoative verbs, which lexically encode a resultant state, and, in particular, a sub-class of inchoative verbs, biphasal verbs, which encode both a resultant state and the “coming-to-be” phase leading up to that state. We further discuss other important features of actional classes in Xhosa and Southern Ndebele, including topics such as the role of participant structure and the relative importance of cross-linguistically prominent distinctions such as that between Vendlerian activities and accomplishments. Although differences between Xhosa and Southern Ndebele are evident both in the behaviour of individual tense-aspect forms and in the interpretive possibilities of specific verbs, the general patterns are quite similar. This similarity suggests that the patterns are likely to extend to other Nguni languages, as well, and that cross-linguistic comparison of particular lexical items across these languages are both feasible and likely to bear fruit.

Note: Changes were made to the title of this article after publication, on 9/23/2021.


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Author Biographies

Thera Marie Crane, University of Helsinki

I am a linguist specialising in verbal semantics and pragmatics, with particular interests in the expression of tense, aspect, and mood/modality in Bantu languages, from both language-internal and typological perspectives.  I am currently working as an Academy of Finland researcher in my project (2019–2024) project “Accommodating Linguistic Diversity in Conversation: Modal Expressions and Multilingualism in South Africa“. My home base is the University of Helsinki, and my research base is South Africa. I received my PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

Bastian Persohn, University of Hamburg

I am a general linguist with a PhD from the University of Cologne and currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Abteilung für Afrikanistik und Äthiopistik of the University of Hamburg. In my research I take an empirical and typologically oriented approach to the linguistic science. My main research interests lie verbal semantics, morphology, the grammar-lexicon interface, and typology.