Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
In This Section
New journal!

Linguistics Vanguard

A Multimodal Journal for the Language Sciences

Editor-in-Chief: Bergs, Alexander / Cohn, Abigail C. / Good, Jeff

1 Issue per year

See all formats and pricing
In This Section

Phonotactic c(l)ues to Bantu noun class disambiguation

Aaron Braver
  • Department of English, Department of Philosophy, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA
/ Wm. G. Bennett
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of English Language and Linguistics, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa
  • Email:
Published Online: 2016-12-13 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2016-0062


While a number of phonologists assume that phonotactics can provide clues to abstract morphological information, this possibility has largely gone unconsidered in work on Bantu noun classes. We present experimental evidence from isiXhosa (a Bantu language of the Nguni family, from South Africa), showing that speakers make use of root phonotactics when assigning noun classes to nonce words. Nouns in Xhosa bear class-indicating prefixes, but some of these prefixes are homophonous – and therefore ambiguous. Our findings show that when speakers are presented with words that have prefixes ambiguous between two classes, phonotactic factors can condition them to treat the nouns as one class or the other. This suggests that noun class (and other abstract morphological information) is not only stored in the lexicon, but is also redundantly indicated by phonotactic clues.

Keywords: phonotactics; noun class; NC; Xhosa; isiXhosa; Bantu


  • Aronoff, Mark. 1992. Noun classes in Arapesh. In Geert Booij & Jaap van Marle (eds.), Yearbook of morphology 1991, 21–32. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

  • Aronoff, Mark. 1994. Morphology by itself: Stems and inflectional classes, Linguistic Inquiry Monograph 22. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Baumbach, E. J. M. 1987. Analytical Tsonga grammar. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

  • Bennett, Wm. G. 2014. Some differences between clicks and Labio-Velars. South African Journal of African Languages 34(2). 115–126.

  • Berko, J. 1958. The child’s learning of English morphology. Word 14. 150–177.

  • Cole, D. T. 1955. Introduction to Tswana grammar. Cape Town: Longman.

  • Corbett, Greville G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Doke, C. M. 1927. Textbook of Zulu grammar. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman. (reprinted 1984, 6th edition).

  • Doke, C. M. 1954. The Southern Bantu Languages. London: Oxford University Press.

  • Ernestus, Mirjam & Harald Baayen. 2003. Predicting the unpredictable: Interpreting neutralized segments in Dutch. Language 79(1). 5–38.

  • Fortune, G. 1984. Shona grammatical constructions, vol. 1, 3rd edn. Harare: Mercury Press.

  • Gelbart, Ben. 2005. Perception of foreignness. University of Massachusetts PhD thesis, Amherst.

  • Halpert, Claire. 2012. Overlap-driven consequences of nasal place assimilation. In Philip Hoole, Lasse Bombien, Marianne Pouplier, Christine Mooshammer & Barbara Küuhnert (eds.), Consonant clusters and structural complexity, 345–368. Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Hayes, Bruce, Kie Zuraw, Péter Siptár & Zsuzsa Londe. 2009. Natural and unnatural constraints in Hungarian vowel harmony. Language 85(4). 822–863.

  • Idiata, D. F. 2005. What Bantu child speech data tells us about the controversial semantics of Bantu Noun class system. Lincom.

  • Iosad, Pavel. 2010. Right at the left edge: Initial consonant mutations in the languages of the world. In J. Wohlgemuth & M. Cysouw (eds.), Rethinking universals: How rarities affect linguistic theory, 105–138. Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Jessen, Michael & Justus C. Roux. 2002. Voice quality differences associated with stops and clicks in Xhosa. Journal of Phonetics 30. 1–52.

  • Jordan, A. C. 1966. A practical course in Xhosa. Cape Town: Longmans.

  • Katamba, F. 2003. Bantu nominal morphology. In Derek Nurse & Geraldine Philippson (eds.), The Bantu languages, 103–120. Routledge.

  • Kgolo, Naledi. 2014. The mental representation of Setswana Deverbative nouns: A psycholinguistic analysis of Class 1 and 9 nominalisations. University of Essex, PhD thesis.

  • Kgolo, Naledi & Sonja Eisenbeiss. 2015. The role of morphological structure in the processing of complex forms: Evidence from Setswana deverbative nouns. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience 30(9). 1116–1133.

  • Kunju, Hleze. Forthcoming. IsiXhosa as a minority language in Zimbabwe. Rhodes University PhD thesis.

  • Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons & Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2016. Ethnologue: Languages of the world, 19th edn. Dallas, TX: SIL International. Online version, entry for Xhosa: http://www.ethnologue.com/language/xho (accessed 19 May 2016).

  • Mclaren, J. 1942. A Xhosa grammar, 2nd edn. Cape Town: Longmans, Green, and Co.

  • Moore-Cantwell, Claire. 2016. The phonological grammar is probabilistic: New evidence pitting abstract representation against analogy. Proceedings of the 2015 Annual Meeting in Phonology.

  • Moreton, E. & S. Amano. 1999. Phonotactics in the perception of Japanese vowel length: Evidence for long-distance dependencies. Proceedings of the 6th European Conference on Speech Communication and Technology.

  • Pahl, H. W. 1978. IsiXhosa. Halfway House, South Africa: Educum.

  • Sande, Hannah. 2016. An interface model of phonologically determined agreement. In Kyeong-min Kim et al. (ed.), Proceedings of the 33rd West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, 339–350. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

  • Taraldsen, Knut Tarald. 2010. The nanosyntax of Nguni noun class prefixes and concords. Lingua 120(6). 1522–1548.

  • Tshabe, S. L. et al. (eds.). 2006. The Greater Dictionary of IsiXhosa, vols 1–3, previously published in 1989, 2003. IsiXhosa National Lexicography Unit. Alice, South Africa: University of Fort Hare.

  • Tucker, G. R., W. E. Lambert & A. A. Rigault. 1977. The French speaker’s skill with grammatical gender: An example of rule-governed behaviour. The Hague: Mouton.

About the article

Published Online: 2016-12-13

Published in Print: 2016-12-01

Funding: This work was supported by a grant from the Rhodes University Research Council.

Citation Information: Linguistics Vanguard, ISSN (Online) 2199-174X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2016-0062. Export Citation

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in