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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter (A) March 2, 2017


Anne Storch and Jules Jacques Coly

Everybody run-run-run, everybody scatta-scatta.

This line from Fela Kuti’s Sorrow tears and blood (1977) contains two pluractional verb forms: scatta-scatta ʻdisperse (of many people)’ and run-run-run ʻrun all the time, into different directions, of different people’. Being based on reduplication or repetition, both forms appear to be simple and iconic. Yet, their semantics are complex, combining notions of intensity (people disperse completely), imperfectivity (everybody is still running), iterativity (running to and fro); they seem to agree in number with the subject (everybody, all people), but they also appear to express a multiplicity of actions that already exists in the simplex form (neither ʻscatter’ nor ʻrun’ expresses an action performed by a single person, or a singular action).

Naija, or Nigerian Pidgin, as used by Fela Kuti in most of his songs, bears some West African typological traits here. Reduplication is a salient means (among many others) of constructing verbal number in a variety of West African languages, and this strategy is now found in a variety of so-called Black Englishes. In West African languages and beyond, pluractional marking on the verb typically expresses a multiplicity or plurality of actions or events. Whether the subject or the object is affected by pluractional marking largely depends on transitivity. Transitive pluractional verbs usually express an action that concerns multiple objects, while intransitive pluractional verbs tend to express actions or events that concern several subjects. However, verbal semantics play an important role as well, including, among a variety of other parameters, animacy and agency, for example. In his overview of pluractional verb forms in the West African language Hausa, Parsons (1981: 206) describes pluractionality as expressing

one actor, or a number of actors doing the same thing to a number of objects, either simultaneously or in succession; or a number of actors doing the same thing to the same object severally and /or in succession; or else one actor doing the same to the same object several times over […]. With intransitive verbs it adds a notion of multitude and/or succession […] or sometimes of distribution in space.

Such, sometimes semantically complex, means of expressing multiple, intense and repeated actions are widespread cross-linguistically (Dixon 2012). This volume focuses on examples from Africa, where a concentration of languages with elaborated repertoires of pluractional verbs is found in the so-called African Fragmentation Belt (Dalby 1971): This zone, extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, where linguistic diversity is particularly salient, both in terms of the number of languages and in terms of genetic diversity, is characterized by the spread of a set of defining typological features, such as labiovelar stops, labial flap consonants, atr vowel harmony, logophoricity, s-(aux)-o-v-x and v-o-neg word order. This concentration of otherwise less common linguistic traits has been considered as evidence for an old linguistic area by Güldemann (2008), who, following Westermann (1927), established the term Macro-Sudan for the area. Dimmendaal has suggested more recently (2014: 58 f.) that the occurrence of pluractionals in many of the languages that make up this area points to the possibility that pluractionality is yet another feature of the Macro-Sudan area.

The assumed historical salience of pluractional verbs in the languages of this area is reflected in the attention given to the phenomenon by linguists specializing in Chadic and Benue-Congo languages. The literature on pluractionals is rather rich, especially on Chadic (see Newman 1990 for an overview, Schuh 2002; Blench 2010, 2011b), where specific pluractional formatives have even been considered to be reconstructible for the proto language. The most influential contribution here is Newman’s (1990) work on Nominal and verbal plurality in Chadic, where a number of definitions were suggested and correlations made that continue to be of relevance for research on pluractionals in Chadic and beyond. Newman proposed a principled distinction between pluractional verbs, which express plurality of action, and plural verbs, which agree in number with the subject. Pluractionality is thereby defined as a derivational category rather than an inflectional one, and pluractional verbs are seen as morphologically distinct forms derived from some simplex form of the verb.

However, in the overview provided by Brooks (1991), a more complex picture emerges. Pluractionals and plural verbs are not very easy to distinguish, and not always differentiated by linguists, in many languages of West Africa. In the Benue-Congo branches Kainji (McGill 2009), Platoid (Bouquiaux 1970; Wolff and Meyer-Bahlburg 1979; McKinney 1979; Gerhard 1984; Blench 2006a, 2006b, 2011a, 2012), Cross River (Aron 1996/97), and possibly Jukunoid (Richter genannt Kemmermann 2014; Storch 1999), even though pluractionality appears to be a derivative category, pluractionals are at times compulsory. Dimmendaal (2014: 58) has argued, with a focus on Nilo-Saharan pluractionals,

that a constructional approach helps […] to understand how and why number marking may be spread over different syntactic categories, and interacts with each, thereby also leading towards a reinterpretation of the grammatical status of this type of number marking.

Not only in Nilo-Saharan languages, but also in Chadic, Benue-Congo, ʻAtlantic’ (Becher 2000), Gur (Blench 2003), Ubangi (Pasch, this volume), and elsewhere, “[p]luractional marking on verbs is attested in languages with both rich and restricted systems of number marking on nouns, and also in languages without number marking at all on the latter category” (Dimmendaal 2014: 59).

Dimmendaal’s study of pluractionality in a Construction Grammar framework aims at demonstrating that it is precisely the compartmentalization of different grammatical categories that may be unhelpful, and that a more integrative approach is needed:

The semantic interaction between number marking on syntactic arguments such as subjects and verbs or objects and verb requires a concept of grammar that allows, first, for the kind of semantic interpretations [provided in Dimmendaal’s paper], such as transnumeral or pluractionality marking, and second, for occasional reinterpretations of pluractionality marking as agreement marking, i.e. of a derivational process as an inflectional process. These various processes require a constructionist of approach, i.e. a conceptualization of grammar in which all structural aspects are integrated parts, rather than being distributed over different modules, as they are in a componential model. (Dimmendaal 2014: 73)

The previously assumed (Frajzyngier 1989; Frajzyngier and Shay 2002) complementary distribution of number marking on nouns and verbs does not hold, according to Dimmendaal’s analysis: the reduction of the nominal plural in a language does not result in the development and diversification of the verbal pluractional. Furthermore, he convincingly establishes, on the basis of a detailed analysis of Maba, a Nilo-Saharan language, that pluractional marking on verbs is not opposed to ‘canonical’ number marking on nouns at all. The analysis of pluractionality in the Chadic language Maaka (Coly and Storch, this volume) strongly supports this position.

Moreover, studies on Chadic Bole-Tangale languages (Zoch, this volume) and Goemai (Hellwig, this volume) bring new insights into the semantic categorization of those verbs that construct pluractional forms: unlike the common belief previously held about the restriction of pluractionality to certain classes of verbs, these studies demonstrate that pluractionality affects all lexical fields. This finding contrasts clearly with the tendency to correlate plural verbs to domains such as posture and motion. It is likely that insufficient methods of data collection constitute a source of results that are probably biased. Investigating a complex and elaborated phenomenon such as number marking on verbs (Wood 2007) requires extensive fieldwork combining not only samples and elicited forms but also rich narratives based on the cultural heritage and daily experiences of the speakers.

How those experiences are conceptualized depends on the speakers’ views, leaving traces of cultural praxis in all domains of linguistic practice (as if these two could be separated!). Number marking on verbs, therefore, may simply occur independently from nominal inflection, as a means of providing clarity about how events are structured. The need for precision in communication and for accuracy of information reflected here may be of primary importance for speakers who live in diverse environments and control complex communicative repertoires.

This volume combines studies on a variety of African languages, representing different language families and different regions within the Fragmentation Belt. All contributions are based on extensive fieldwork and first-hand data, but also benefit from the considerably improved standards of description and documentation of the languages in question. They address the diverse ways in which pluractional verbs are constructed, including reduplication, affixation of verbal extensions, vowel quality change of stem vowels, etc., but focus not so much on the analysis of structures but rather on pragmatic and semantic issues, exploring the various meanings and functions of pluractional verbs in the different languages.

The case studies in the present volume demonstrate that pluractional verbs serve a wide variety of purposes:

  1. Expression of plurality of an action or event (Schneider-Blum: Tima)

  2. event-internal: repetition within the boundary of an event, e. g. repetitive, iterative; also durative with state verbs; may have connotations of imperfective aspect

  3. event-external: distribution of an action in time – e. g. frequentative and habitual – and across participants – e. g. distributive (Zoch: Bole-Tangale)

  4. Expression of plurality of SA participants: several (individuated) participants perform an action (Vanderelst: Dagik)

  5. Expression of plurality of O participants: the action concerns several patients, or a large number of objects

  6. nominal aspect: the object/patient may be conceptualized as collective (e. g. livestock, bus passengers, etc.) or as a number of individuals (e. g. all cows need to be inspected by the vet, very many journalists got imprisoned, etc.) (Coly and Storch: Maaka)

  7. affectedness and individuation of O participants: valency decrease of the verb (Jakobi: Nubian)

  8. Disambiguation of plural S and O participants (Pasch: Zande)

  9. Pragmatically motivated precision of habituality or intensity of action and number of participants involved; evidential overtones (Nassenstein: Bunia Swahili)

There is evidence for the occurrence of different number values, whereby pluractional verbs may express values similar to those of nouns (Ziegelmeyer: Bade-Ngizim; Cyffer: Kanuri). Moreover, in languages where not all nouns can be pluralized, or where the nominal plural is not much used, both verbal and nominal number can be marked on the verb (Hellwig: Goemai).

The studies presented in this volume also raise a variety of as yet unanswered questions concerning the reconstruction of formatives, the semantics and pragmatics of verbal number and the ways in which lexical aspect and number may interact, to name but a few. The editors hope that these studies will shed some new light on the semantics of number, and that the new research questions that they raise will be of help and inspiration for future work on this topic.


This volume has emerged out of research conducted during a project on the Maaka language, generously funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), to whom we remain very grateful. We also want to thank all those who have shared with us their insights and ideas about number marking on verbs – at the workshop, and in the field. Special thanks are due to Thomas Stolz and Cornelia Stroh for their generous assistance in editing the volume as a special issue of STUF, to Monika Feinen for preparing the graphics and maps, and to Mary Chambers for proofreading and copyediting the manuscript.


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Published Online: 2017-3-2
Published in Print: 2017-4-1

©2017 by De Gruyter Mouton