Using patterns of semantic convergence as evidence for sociolinguistic reconstruction

Presented at HiSON 2022 (University of Murcia, 2022) by Pierpaolo Di Carlo and Jeff Good.


Societies characterized by high degrees of individual-level multilingualism pose difficult questions for historical reconstruction. On the one hand, such contexts will inevitably be associated with linguistic convergence, potentially across multiple areas of grammar. On the other hand, if multilingualism is to be maintained, processes of convergence must be limited so that languages remain distinct in the local space. Adequate models of language change need to take these competing factors into account and consider their consequences for the reconstruction of a community’s linguistic and sociolinguistic features.

In this talk, we consider these issues from the perspective of the Cameroon Grassfields, an area that has likely been characterized by high degrees of multilingualism for millennia (Warnier 1980). By looking at two areas of grammar, namely tense-aspect-mood-polarity encoding and noun class systems, we consider how a shared set of underlying semantic patterns is found throughout the region while the formal means of expressing these patterns varies considerably. This allows distinctions among “languages” to be maintained despite widespread semantic convergence. We argue that, in such a context, deep reconstruction of the source of shared semantic patterns may be effectively impossible. However, this does not prevent them from being used as evidence for the historical reconstruction of long-term patterns of multilingualism within a society.


Warnier, Jean-Pierre. 1980. Des précurseurs de l’école Berlitz: Le multilingualisme dans les Grassfields du Cameroun au 19ème siècle. In Luc Bouquiaux (ed.), L’expansion bantoue: Actes du colloque international du CNRS, Viviers (France) 4–16 avril 1977. Volume III, 827–844. Paris: SELAF.

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