Which properties of human language are universal, and which may vary across languages? Answering these questions will help us understand the unique human capacity for language, through which we hope to gain insight into the overall architecture of the human mind. This dissertation project aims to further this goal through a careful investigation of several interrelated linguistic phenomena found in Zulu, an understudied Bantu language spoken in South Africa. MIT doctoral student Claire Halpert, under the supervision of David Pesetsky and Norvin Richards, will conduct linguistic fieldwork on the sentence-structure of Zulu, working with speakers in South Africa and the US. Her study focuses on the factors that govern the complex process of verbal agreement in the language. Though verbs in Zulu nearly always agree with their subjects, certain constructions (including some with special verb-subject word order and others in which a noun lacks an otherwise characteristic "augment") disrupt this agreement relation in unique ways. By examining these constructions, this investigation will advance our understanding of the connectons between verbs and nouns and the ways in which nouns are "licensed" to appear in particular grammatical positions.

Although Zulu is spoken by roughly 10 million people and encompasses multiple dialects, numerous dialect differences within the language remain undocumented. Halpert's fieldwork will begin to remedy this situation, documenting dialectal variation in several key aspects of Zulu grammatical structure, and will thus allow for more a fine-grained understanding of linguistic variation more generally. The project will document multiple varieties of Zulu at a time when the language is undergoing rapid change, capturing the language at a stage that may not persist for long. This Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Project Report

The goal of this project was to document, investigate, and analyze a collection of related grammatical phenomena in Zulu, a Bantu language of South Africa. The major research activities of this grant have included two field trips to South Africa to conduct interviews with dozens of native speakers of Zulu. In addition to this sustained work in the field, Co-PI Claire Halpert conducted ongoing followup interviews throughout the period of the award. Through the broad-based interview strategy we employed, one major accomplishment has been to document the extent of syntactic variation within and between multiple dialects of Zulu, an issue that has not received significant attention thus far. In documenting this variation, we were able to pinpoint systematic ways in which certain grammatical phenomena co-vary with other phenomena that allowed us to advance our syntactic analysis. In addition, documenting this variation gives us insight into the variation in data already reported across the literature on Zulu. In addition to these new findings about syntactic variation, this project has also made some new empirical findings on Zulu syntax more generally. Through interviews conducted in South Africa, we discovered a number of previously unreported phenomena in Zulu that not only added to our overall picture of the grammar of Zulu, but directly contributed to our analysis of the main topics of our investigation and our understanding of syntactic universals more generally. The research from this project, in addition to forming the basis of Halpert's doctoral dissertation, has been presented by Halpert at five peer-reviewed conferences and in three additional invited presentations and will appear in two proceedings volumes and two additional manuscripts under preparation. Halpert has also used data collected through this project in both her Field Methods and Syntax curricula. Work from this project has also been discussed in invited presentations by Co-PIs Norvin Richards and David Pesetsky and appears in a book manuscript in preparation by Co-PI Richards.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
United States
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