Modal auxiliary verb constructions in East African Bantu languages

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Rasmus Bernander
Maud Devos
Hannah Gibson


In this article we offer an overview of the use of modal auxiliary verb constructions in East African Bantu (encompassing languages spoken from eastern Congo in the north-west to northern Mozambique in the south-east; viz. Guthrie zones JD, JE, E, F, G, M, N and P). Modality, here conceptualized as a semantic space comprising different subcategories (or flavors) of possibility and necessity, has traditionally been a neglected category within Bantu linguistics, which has tended to focus instead on the more grammatical(ized) categories of tense, aspect and to a lesser extent mood. Nonetheless, our survey shows that there exists a rich number of different verbs with specialized modal functions in East African Bantu. Moreover, when comparing the variety of modal verbs in East African Bantu and the wider constructions in which they operate, many similar patterns arise. In some cases, different languages make use of cognate verbs for expressing similar modal concepts, in other cases divergent verbs, but with essentially the same source meaning(s), are employed. In addition, both Bantu-internal and Bantu-external contact have played a key role in the formation of several of the languages’ inventories of modal verbs. A typologically significant feature recurrently discovered among the languages surveyed is the tendency of structural manipulations of the same verb base to indicate semantic shift from participant-internal to participant-imposed modal flavors.

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Author Biographies

Rasmus Bernander, University of Helsinki

Rasmus Bernander earned his PhD in African Languages from the University of Gothenburg in 2017. He is currently a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. His research has focused on various aspects of language variation and change, particularly in Tanzanian Bantu languages, but also more broadly across the Bantu speaking area.

Maud Devos, Royal Museum for Central Africa / Ghent University

Maud Devos is a researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa and a guest lecturer at Ghent University where she teaches Kiswahili. Her research interests lie primarily in the description, typology, morphosyntax and comparison of Bantu languages. She has carried out fieldwork on three north Mozambican Bantu languages: Makwe, Shangaji and Mwani.

Hannah Gibson, University of Essex

Linguistics at the University of Essex. Hannah’s research is concerned with linguistic variation, particularly why and how languages change. Much of her work examines variation in the morphosyntax of the Bantu languages of Eastern and Southern Africa. She is also interested in language and identity, language use in urban contexts and the relationship between linguistics and social justice.