Language contact or semiotic pools? A speaker-centered view of language differentiation in the Cameroonian Grassfields

Presented at the 4th Symposium on West African Languages, University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, September 21-23 2022. Authors: P. Di Carlo and J. Good.


With more than seventy named languages, and many more locally-meaningful varieties, the Cameroonian Grassfields are known for their impressive linguistic diversity. All of them are classified as non-Bantu Bantoid and, while there is a significant amount of shared lexicon among them, regular correspondences are difficult to find. The languages of the Grassfields also show a considerable degree of structural homogeneity. The most evident structural features that are shared across the area are (i) relatively rich noun class systems, with usually no less than five major genders (i.e. singular / plural pairings) surfacing in both class affixes on the noun root and agreement markers on dependent adnominals and verbs, and (ii) relatively well-developed tense systems, including multiple degrees of remoteness in the past and future marked, typically, by preverbal auxiliaries.

This scenario of widespread structural and lexical similarities is suggestive of prolonged processes of convergence among these languages, and this would be expected based on what is known of the history of the area. Geographically distinct from surrounding regions, for millennia the Grassfields has been an area of intense contact and exchange among local populations. In the absence of any known lingua franca until the diffusion of Cameroon Pidgin English in the 20th century, the whole area is likely to have been inhabited by populations that regularly practiced small-scale multilingualism—where speakers are proficient in a number of neighboring languages—a situation that is fading but still observed in a number of today’s communities.

However, the languages of the area also display a number of unexpected patterns that pose fundamental problems of reconstruction. In this paper, we focus on two such difficult cases that involve the languages spoken in Lower Fungom and surrounding regions of the northern Grassfields. The first concerns the distribution of the unexpected prefix a– in some languages but not others as the marker of singular forms having plurals in class 8 bi-; the second has to do with puzzling different markers in locally well-developed TMA systems. Our focus will be on how these systems seem to be built on broadly comparable grammatical schemata across languages while also showing significant variety-specific differentiation that cannot easily be accounted for using standard models of language change, such as simple internal change or “borrowing”.

By bringing observed sociolinguistic patterns more directly into work on reconstruction, we adopt a speaker- rather than language-centered perspective in the analysis of these difficult cases, which eventually leads us to hypothesize that these are best considered cases of “neighbour-opposition”. In the paper, we introduce the term “semiotic pool” to refer to the alternative view of language contact and processes of language differentiation that this speaker-centered perspective brings about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *