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Review of  The Syntax of Chichewa

Reviewer: Sabine Zerbian
Book Title: The Syntax of Chichewa
Book Author: Sam A. Mchombo
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Nyanja
Issue Number: 16.1717

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Date: Sun, 29 May 2005 11:02:24 +0200
From: Sabine Zerbian
Subject: The Syntax of Chichewa

AUTHOR: Mchombo, Sam
TITLE: The Syntax of Chichewa
SERIES: Cambridge Syntax Guides
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press

Sabine Zerbian, ZAS/ Humboldt-University Berlin, Germany


The book is published in the Cambridge Syntax Guides series and treats the
syntax of Chichewa, a Bantu language spoken in Malawi, Zambia, and
Mozambique. The objective of the series is to provide a detailed
description of the main (morpho-) syntactic structures of a specific
language to both theoreticians and descriptivists. The series is not bound
to any particular framework. The book is intended for students interested
in linguistic theory and its application to a specific language.

Among the grammatical structures that are covered by the book are subject
and object agreement, preverbal TMA (tense/mood/aspect)-affixes, argument
changing postverbal affixes, as well as discontinuous noun phrases,
sentence complementation, relative clauses, and question formation. The
description is supplemented by discussions pertaining to the relevance of
the respective phenomena for grammatical theory, in particular for the
relationship between syntax and the lexicon.

The book is rather short with only 149 pages. It is divided into seven
chapters, and includes a table of contents, list of abbreviations,
references, and an index.


The first chapter provides an introduction to the general grammatical
features of Chichewa, the emphasis being on the noun class system. As is
the case with Bantu languages in general, every noun belongs to one of
several (in Chichewa 18) noun classes. Noun class membership is (in most
of the cases) indicated by a class affix, which is prefixed to the noun
stem. The noun class of a noun determines the agreement within the nominal
and verbal domain. There has been some debate in the literature concerning
the status of the nominal prefixes as either belonging to syntax (Carstens
1991, Myers 1991) or to morphology (Bresnan and Mchombo 1995). Chapter 1
sketches out the argument.

Chapter 2 starts with phonetic and phonological aspects of Chichewa
orthography. It provides a phoneme-grapheme-relation chart (p. 10), which
is useful for the pronunciation of the examples. The chapter further
addresses vowel harmony, syllable structure, phonotactic restrictions,
stress, and tone. Some of these aspects re-occur in later chapters, where
they serve to provide arguments for syntactic structure (tone) or the
lexical integrity of the verb stem (vowel harmony, syllable structure).

Chapter 3 provides on overview of clause structure in Chichewa. It covers
word order, agreement markers, sentential verbal complements, and modal
verbal morphemes as well as the imperative and the subjunctive.

Changes in the basic word order that are possible in Chichewa initiate the
discussion about the status of subject and object marker that has been a
topic of discussion also in other Bantu languages since Bresnan and
Mchombo (1987). In line with the pioneering article, Mchombo argues that
the object marker has a pronominal function when it cooccurs with the
object NP. Evidence is cited from non-locality and from tonal processes
indicating that the co-occurring object NP is outside the verb phrase.
References for the discussion of object markers in other Bantu languages
are cited which suggest a similar analysis. With respect to the subject
marker, Mchombo follows Bresnan & Mchombo (1987) and argues for an
ambiguous function of the subject marker in Chichewa. The subject marker
can express grammatical as well as anaphoric agreement. Evidence for this
claim comes from its obligatoriness in the verbal structure and the
required proximity of subject NP and subject marker in languages like
Kinande (Baker 2003). Issues such as agreement in modified noun phrases,
subject-object reversal, locative inversion, and agreement with conjoined
NPs are raised in order to provide further areas of evidence for the
grammatical status of the subject marker.

Sentential verbal complements share with preverbal modality morphemes and
the imperative that they require the verb in the subjunctive mood under
certain circumstances. Examples are provided in this chapter.

Chapter 4 provides an overview over the formation of relative clauses,
clefts, and questions and also discusses discontinuous constituents.
Mchombo treats all these structures under one heading because they have
all been accounted for by movement in GB-style theories. Apart from
presenting the data the goal of this chapter is to argue against a
movement analysis for all of the cases.

There are three ways of relative clause formation in Chichewa: either by
the relative marker -mene, by tonal marking, or by the relative marker -o
(neglected in the literature so far). Each is treated in a short
subsection. A fourth subsection is devoted to the treatment of relative
clauses in theory. Mchombo argues against a movement analysis as
Chichewa "routinely exploits the resumptive pronoun strategy through the
presence of the object marker" (p. 44, though the example given on p. 41
lacks the object marker). Therefore, the NP in anaphoric agreement with
the object marker is a non-argument phrase, whose structural position is
licensed by discourse.

Questions in Chichewa can be formed with the question word either in situ
or by means of a cleft construction, both for objects and for subjects.
For subjects, the difference lies in the tone pattern of the verb whose
shape indicates either a declarative sentence when in situ or a relative
clause when the subject is in a cleft construction. The discussion of
theoretical aspects of question formation provided in the book follows the
discussion given in Bresnan & Mchombo (1987). The in situ construction
with subject questions lends crucial evidence to the claim made in the
latter and retained throughout the present book that the subject marker
functions both as grammatical as well as anaphoric agreement in Chichewa.

Chichewa allows for discontinuous constituents, i.e. for complex NP
constituents whose parts display free word order. The examples show that
the possibility of discontinuous constituents is tied to the occurrence of
object markers. Only constituents that appear with an incorporated object
marker can be discontinuous (no examples of subject discontinuous
constituents are provided though the introductory discussion leads one to
assume that discontinuous constituents are also possible with subjects).
This excludes oblique arguments and the theme in applicative constructions
from discontinuity. Following Jelinek's (1984) proposal of referential
linking, Mchombo argues against a movement analysis (e.g. Reinholtz 1999)
for discontinuous constituents.

Chapter 5 treats argument structure and verb-stem morphology. Following
other work on the internal organization of the verb in Bantu languages,
the verb in Chichewa is differentiated into verb root, postverbal
extensions and preverbal TMA-morphemes.

The claim is made that the reduced forms of demonstratives pronouns, focus-
related verb-final morphemes and preverbal TMA-affixes are clitics that
attach to a preceding/ following host. Clitic is understood as "the
elements prosodically associated with, but not contained within, the verb
stem [= verb root plus extensions, SZ], [...]. They could equally be
designated inflectional morphemes without affecting the analysis in any
way" (p. 74).

The reminder of the chapter is devoted to the causative and the
applicative. Both are argument increasing verbal extensions which appear
following the verb root. A short theoretical discussion of the lexical or
syntactic nature of the causative extension is given following Simango's
(1999) typology of causatives. In connection with the applicatives the
issue of properties of double object constructions in Chichewa arises.
Work by Bresnan & Moshi (1990) is followed concerning the grammatical
areas to test object (a)symmetries: Word order, passivizability,
cliticization, and reciprocalization show that in Chichewa applicative
constructions only the beneficiary has object properties. (If the
applicative introduces an instrumental instead of a beneficiary it is the
instrumental that bears object properties.) With respect to extraction,
however, only the patient can be extracted to the cleft structure. When
the beneficiary is extracted the object marker needs to be present on the
verb in the relative clause. References are given throughout the chapter
for other Bantu languages that show asymmetric object properties.

Chapter 6 discusses further issues pertaining to the argument structure of
the verb. It discusses extensions that reduce the number of arguments in
the sentence. Passive is discussed first and examples are given of the
combination of the passive with applicative and causative. As in other
languages, in the passive the subject is demoted and the number of
arguments is reduced by one. The stative works similarly: the subject NP
is eliminated and the object NP is converted into the subject. The
similarities and differences between passive and stative constructions are
dealt with in separate sections. It is being argued that the stative is
more restricted than the passive as it applies only to transitive verbs
which have the thematic role of agent and patient/theme. As all transitive
verbs can get passivized, the stative forms a proper subset of the passive.

The chapter also exemplifies formation of reciprocals and reflexives in
Chichewa. A lengthy discussion argues against an analysis of the reflexive
on a par with the reciprocal as a detransitivizing morpheme (as proposed
for Bantu languages e.g. by Matsinhe (1994) for Tsonga). The chapter
closes with an overview of unproductive affixes.

Chapter 7 illustrates the processes that motivate the verb stem as a
domain of linguistic processes. Reduplication and nominal derivation show
that it is the verb stem (i.e. the verb root plus all extensions) that
serve as the basis for these processes. Also compounding of verb-object
sequences is mentioned (though explanatory notes are missing how this
relates to the verb stem as relevant domain for linguistic processes).

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to the question if there is an
internal organization towards the ordering of the morphemes in the verb
stem. Baker's (1985) syntactic approach to morpheme order (Mirror
Principle) as well as Hyman's (1991) proposal of a morphological template
are critically reviewed for Chichewa.


Unfortunately, the book is not as clearly organized and accessible as is
promised on the back cover. The book assumes a firm knowledge of both LFG
(Lexical-Functional Grammar) and GB-style theories (i.e. Government &
Binding, Principles and Parameters, Minimalist Program) in order to follow
the theoretical discussions. A number of issues in Bantu (morpho-)syntax
are both tied to and make most sense within the LFG framework. No outline
of the relevant or differentiating characteristics of the frameworks is
given, the book starts discussing the phenomena right away. For
example, "Although the theory together with its machinery will not be
discussed here, it will be implicit in the analyses." (p.57); "Again,
without going into the technical details of the theory, the architecture
and technical apparatus, the theory of LFG is germane to meeting the
stated requirements." (p. 74). Therefore the book fails to meet the
characteristics of the series that promises an "accessible introduction to
the methods and results of the theoretical literature"

The need for explanation is even more justified if one considers that the
theoretical observations are meant to show the interested student how the
study of African languages, specifically Bantu languages, has contributed
to progress in grammatical theory.

Furthermore, the book displays an imbalance with respect to the depth and
style in which the grammatical phenomena are described and discussed. This
might be partly due to the fact that the book is largely based on previous
work of the author. It provides detailed discussions about e.g. the
agreement markers, discontinuous constituents, the stative, and the
relation between reciprocal and reflexive. Very short treatments are given
for phonological phenomena that are referred to throughout the book (vowel
harmony and tone), and the causative (despite the scholarly attention it
has received according to the author, p.75). Some aspects are treated so
briefly that they become doubtful without further discussion. One example
is the author's statement that fixed stress is common in Bantu languages.
He gives examples from Swahili, a Bantu language that, unlike Chichewa,
does not have tone but stress (p. 14f). Another example is the claim that
Chichewa has the basic properties of non-configurational languages as it
shows free word order and syntactically discontinuous expressions (p. 50).
However, as the examples in the book show, these properties only arise
when the object marker is present on the verb.

The organization could be improved too. The overview of the grammatical
structures, which is promised in the series description, is disrupted
because crucial aspects of the language's grammar re-appear at different
places in the book. Agreement e.g. is treated at various places throughout
the book (sections 3.2, 4.8, 4.10, without cross-references) as are
aspects of double object constructions: Chapter 4 shows that the objects
in ditransitive constructions in Chichewa do not behave alike. Double
object constructions are officially introduced only in chapter 5 when
discussing the applicative (p.80). Furthermore, one finds headers that do
not refer to what follows (5.3), inconsistent morpheme boundary marking
(p. 14ff), repetition, and generally few or unspecific cross-references.

In sum, the book provides interesting insights and examples from Chichewa
for (morpho-)syntactic structures that are discussed in the literature on
Bantu languages as well as on other languages. However, the book could
have benefitted from more and better editing.


Baker, Mark C. 1985. The Mirror Principle and Morphosyntactic Explanation.
Linguistic Inquiry 16:373-415.

Baker, Mark C. 2003. Agreement, dislocation, and partial
configurationality. In Formal approaches to function in grammar: In honor
of Eloise Jelinek, eds. Andrew Carnie, Heidi Harley and MaryAnn Willie,
107-132. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bresnan, Joan, and Mchombo, Sam A. 1987. Topic, pronoun, and agreement in
Chichewa. Language 63:741-782.

Bresnan, Joan, and Mchombo, Sam A. 1995. The Lexical Integrity Principle:
Evidence from Bantu. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 13:181-254.

Bresnan, Joan , and Moshi, Lioba. 1990. Object Asymmetries in Comparative
Bantu Syntax. Linguistic Inquiry 21:147-185.

Carstens, Vicki. 1991. The Morphology and Syntax of Determiner Phrases in
Kwiswahili, University of California at Los Angeles.

Hyman, Larry M. 1991. Conceptual Issues in the Comparative Study of the
Bantu Verb Stem. In Topics in African Linguistics, eds. Salikoko S.
Mufwene and Lioba Moshi, 3-34. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jelinek, Eloise. 1984. Empty Categories, Case, and Configurationality.
Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 2:39-76.

Matsinhe, Sozinho. 1994. The Status of Verbal Affixes in Bantu Languages
with Special Reference to Tsonga: Problems and Possibilities. South
African Journal of African Languages 14:163-176.

Myers, Scott. 1991. Tone and the Structure of Words in Shona. New York:

Reinholtz, Charlotte. 1999. On the Characterization of Discontinuous
Constituents: Evidence from Swampy Cree. International Journal of American
Linguistics 65:201-227.

Simango, Ron. 1999. Lexical and Syntactic Causatives in Bantu. Linguistic
Analysis 19:69-86.


Sabine Zerbian is a Ph.D. student at the Linguistics Department at
Humboldt-University and a research assistant at the Center for General
Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin, Germany, working on the prosodic and
syntactic expression of focus in Southern African Bantu languages. Areas
of interest are the syntax and phonology/tonology of wh-questions, as well
as subject and object agreement and its relation to information structure.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521573785
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 176
Prices: U.S. $ 45.00
U.K. £ 75.00