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Review of  What Bantu Child Speech Data Tells Us About the Controversial Semantics of Bantu Noun Class System

Reviewer: Mantoa Rose Smouse
Book Title: What Bantu Child Speech Data Tells Us About the Controversial Semantics of Bantu Noun Class System
Book Author: Daniel Franck Idiata
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Language Acquisition
Language Family(ies): Central Bantu
Issue Number: 17.1713

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AUTHOR: Idiata, Daniel Franck
TITLE: What Bantu Child Speech Data Tells Us About the Controversial
Semantics of Bantu Noun Class Systems
SERIES: LINCOM Studies in African Linguistics 67
YEAR: 2005

Mantoa Rose Smouse, Linguistics Program, University of Florida, Gainesville


The purpose of this book is to provide a fresh look at the semantics of
noun classes in Bantu languages. The author draws from an analysis of data
on acquisitional strategies employed by children and tries to link this
with the historically acclaimed diachronic and synchronic perspectives.
Drawing from a variety of Bantu languages, the author concludes that there
is a correlation between the acquisition and evolution of the noun class
system in that children do not pay attention to any semantic information in
their organization of nouns. This book is concise, readable and useful as
both an introduction to the study of noun classes in Bantu and a resource
for potential research questions.


The book comprises of a preface, an introduction and five chapters. The
preface by Gérard Philippson provides an overview of the state of research
concerning noun classes in Bantu. In particular, Philippson highlights the
issue of how semantic categorization continues to dominate discussions
despite empirical evidence from recent studies on loanwords (Batibo, 1992)
and child language (Demuth 2000) which suggest that there is a need to
explore other avenues.

Chapter 1 provides a brief definition of noun class in Bantu. The remainder
of the chapter is dedicated to a historical analysis of noun classes. This
chapter also addresses the question of the relation between ''noun class''
and ''noun classifier'' and provides tables showing differences between the

Chapter 2 describes the current understandings of the semantics of Bantu
noun class systems within diachronic and synchronic approaches. Although
the author discusses both approaches, the diachronic works receive more
attention and elaborate discussion including diagrams of semantic
classifications. The synchronic discussion is limited to a paragraph.
However, the author provides some interesting insights and elaborates on
this issue in chapter 3.

In chapter 3, the author provides empirical evidence in support of the
synchronic proposal. Based on a analysis of 5 North Western Bantu languages
(although in the introduction the author says eight), the author concludes
that the semantic nature of noun classes is eroding and that the
phonological and morphological criteria is employed with some remnants of
semantic criteria. Some demographic details and data based on each of the
languages, namely Mmala, Ikota, Pove, Isangu and Inzebi are provided.

Chapter 4 deals with studies on child language acquisition in Bantu
languages. It opens with a brief discussion of the role of cognitive and
linguistic determinants in child language acquisition. The author analyses five acquisitional studies on Bantu noun classes (Siswati, Sesotho, Tswana,
Zulu and Isangu).

Chapter 5, provides an ''experimental psychological examination on the
conceptual categories of young Masangu children'' (104). The Isangu data is
based on fieldwork carried out by the author. The chapter provides an
outline of Isangu noun class and agreement system and shows how the
acquisition of nouns by Masangu children reveals a ''principle of
organization''. Further, the author demonstrates theoretical links between
noun classes and ontological categories. In addition, the author addresses
three questions often raised about Bantu noun classes: ''(1) the existence
of prototypical class representations, (2) the innate influence of basic
ontological categories on acquisition and (3) the relationship between the
acquisition of these systems'' (134).

The conclusion pulls together recent formulations of the semantics of noun
classes and argues that the data presented supports the view that children
do not pay attention to any semantic information in the organization of
noun classes. However, the author points out that , with regards to
agreement markers, the only semantic feature in children’s data is the
distinction between [+animate] and [-animate] which is evident in the
acquisition of agreement markers. The book concludes with further questions
concerning Contini-Morava’s (1997) proposal that the belonging of a noun to
a category is founded on several criteria. I comment on this issue below.


The author should be commented on breaking away from the traditional
approaches to the study of grammar in Bantu. Indeed, as Gérard Philippson
(preface) puts it, the author presents food for thought to those interested
in the study of Bantu Noun classes. There are some issues however, that the
author may have overlooked.

At the beginning of chapter three, the author indicates that the synchronic
semantic system is eroding. He illustrates this by providing data from five
North Western Bantu languages. A comparison of the characterization of
these noun class systems indicates that none of the semantic criterion
holds. Having compared the noun class prefix system, the structure of the
prefixes, the noun class genders and the semantics of these languages, the
author concludes: ''noun prefixes do not have (anymore?) any correspondence
at the semantic level...noun classes cannot (more?) be useful as the bases
of categorizing nouns at the semantic level'' (48). Further, the author
raises the question of whether there are common patterns of semantic
evolution of the classes inside different languages. Although he does not
attend to this question directly, the author notes that the system is very
far from the Proto-Bantu system, and that the criterion taken into account
are phonological and morphological with certain semantic survival.

In addition to the diachronic and synchronic proposals, Mc Laughlin (1997)
provides a third proposal which adds to Contini-Morava. Based on a study of
noun classification in Wolof, a member of the North Atlantic sub-group, Mc
Laughlin proposes that a noun class system that appear incoherent from a
semantic point of view suggests that noun classification should not be
viewed as a result of a synchronic or diachronic process or a combination
of both. Rather, noun classification, ''because it is not only an artifact
of the human mind, but also an artifact of human language'' (1),
''incorporates a variety of different and intersecting parameters, namely
semantic, morphological, and even phonological and sociolinguistic
parameters'' (24). Given this third proposal, one can begin to attend to the
question raised by the author of the patterns of semantic evolutions. From
his data, all of the factors Mc Laughlin points out (with the exception of
sociolinguistic factors) are evident. However, because the author
subscribes to the synchronic means of classification, the third proposal is
not explored.

Concerning the data on child language acquisition in chapter 4, and the
evidence of the influence of linguistic factors, I find the treatment of
the various languages (Zulu, Tswana, Pedi, Siswati and Isangu) very uneven.
Some languages are treated in more detail. In particular, given that the
author bases his conclusions about the influence of linguistic factors on
acquisition on Zulu data, it would have helped to see some of that data.
Furthermore, I do not think the author clearly indicates the link between
the child acquisition data and the semantics of Bantu noun classes in the
same way he does with the Isangu data. Nevertheless, he gives an innovative
way to look into the process of noun classification.

The book is well organized and there is a nice flow from one chapter to the
other, however there are some issues that I think can be attended to
when/if the book is revised:
(1) The font is very large and therefore makes the spacing appear smaller
than usual
(2) The Foreword ( pages 7-10) is the same as the Introduction (15-18)
with the exception of a few words like 'but' and 'however'
(3) Typographical errors
(i) Page 86 & 87 section number 4.1 appears twice
(ii) Page 88, Siswati data, imi-khwa is glossed as 'knives' in (a) and (b),
but as 'white men' in (c)
(iii) Page 88, paragraph, In the process...are realized by children by in...
(iv) Page 89, section 4.1.3. Tswna
(v) Page 90, section 4.1.5, ... As for as we know
(vi) Page 129, ''the awaited answer is bolded''
(vii) Page 131, Table 5, Percentages of the right answers according to the
age rackets
(viii) Page 159, NP Nouminal Prefix
(ix) Back cover ''The present book, which comes back on that (exiting?)


Contini-Morava, E. 1997. ‘Noun classification in Swahili: a
cognitive-semantic analysis using a computer database in African
Linguistics at the Crossroads, edited by R.K. Herbert.

Guthrie, M. 1948. The Classification of Bantu Languages. London.

Mc Laughlin, Fiona. 1997. ‘Noun classification in Wolof: When affixes are
not renewed’ Studies in African Linguistics Volume 26, Number 1.

Mantoa Rose Smouse is currently writing her PhD Dissertation at the
University of Florida. Her primary area of interest is syntax, in
particular control and the theory of movement in Sesotho, a Bantu
language spoken in South Africa and Lesotho. Smouse also has
interest in Morphology and Second Language Acquisition. In the past
few years, she worked on areas that highlight the interface between
Morphology and Syntax. Her ultimate goal is to bring these three
areas of research together by studying the significance of the findings
from the syntax-morphology interface on second language learning.